Before we get into the movie Alvin And The Chipmunks, let's take a second to think about its origins. In 1958, a musician named Ross Bagdasarian had a hit with "Witch Doctor," a novelty song with a speeded-up vocal section. That same year, he decided to run with the speedy vocals idea and released "The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don't Be Late)." It was a runaway hit. From that brainstorm came decades of cartoons, albums, lunchboxes, kidswear, you name it. It's the way of the franchise to build and build on even the smallest plot of intellectual property.
Inevitably in this ongoing if-it-can-be-a-movie-it-must-be-a-movie moment—call it the age of the Thunderbirds—the Chipmunks have been reinvented for the big screen. First seen singing Daniel Powter's "Bad Day" as they gather nuts for the winter, the little guys have been remade as CG imps that keep much of the original Chipmunks' personality if little of their modest, lo-fi, two-dimensional charm. Ripped from their surroundings when their forest home get uprooted for use as a Christmas tree, they take up residence in the lobby of an L.A. office building that's home to a sleazy record company run by David Cross (who may not have chosen this film purely out of his lifelong love of the Chipmunks, but who knows?). Soon they find a new home with struggling songwriter Dave (Jason Lee), who draws inspiration from their irrepressible spirits and their anticipation of Christmas to write a holiday hit.
Yeah, the movie's that thin. Pitched at extremely young viewers, it's also relatively inoffensive. The Chipmunks' involvement in the music industry would seem to lend itself to all kinds of in-jokes, but the film's refreshingly free from the post-Shrek default irony that most kiddie pictures rely on these days. Too bad there's nothing much else taking its place. Inexplicably voiced by Justin Long, Jesse McCartney, and Matthew Gray Gubler—Why hire name actors for voice roles then distort their voices?—the manic Chipmunks wear out their welcome pretty quickly and a sleepy-looking Lee doesn't have much more to offer than a familiar face. There's just not enough here for a movie. It's almost as if some ideas were meant to live for three and a half minutes each Christmas season, not to get stretched to the breaking point for 50 years.