Alvin and the Chipmunks is a reboot story, as we movie geeks say: It starts from the beginning, pretending a story that we're all intimately familiar with is brand-new.
You remember Alvin, Simon and Theodore, the child chipmunks orphaned by their hippie chipmunk parents. When we meet them, they've not yet encountered Dave Seville, the man who bizarrely decides to raise the squirrel trio as his own adopted young 'uns and put them to work by singing for their supper, almost literally.
But it's cute. Actually, it's pretty indescribably adorable, as the boys CGI in a live-action world croon that "You Had a Bad Day" song in falsetto as they stash away nuts in their tree home for the incipient winter. For a flick with enormous potential for driving you screaming from the theater, Alvin starts off on a robustly not-awful note. Tiny, furry, nut-gathering mammals trying to cheer you up via song turns out to be surprisingly merry.
Tim Hill's movie maintains that note, for the most part, which is even more surprising. The lads' tree is chopped down to become the lobby Christmas decoration for a Los Angeles office building, and via shenanigans too complicated to go into, the arboreal rats end up shacked up with aspiring songwriter Dave Seville (Jason Lee), who writes chipper tunes with gloomy lyrics that no one wants to buy.
Lee makes the endeavor work because he believes in his primary costars who never showed up on the set and only became anything approaching "real" via computer wizardry in postproduction. He accepts the boys as real, and so do we.
The little denial they face as sentient, intelligent creatures who just happen to be chipmunks is, in fact, part of what makes Alvin work so well. Dave harnesses their childlike exuberance and musical talents to write a song for them ... that "Christmas, Don't Be Late" tune we all know so well.
And then they're off as a pop-culture phenomenon, lucky enough to have Dave on their side in the urban jungle of Los Angeles. He looks out for them in the dog-eat-rodent world of corporate music. David Cross is a sublime riot as the unctuous record-label exec who becomes the villain of the piece. (Cross, too, believes in the little critters, if in a rather more malevolent way.)
Satire on packaged pop culture does take a back seat to family melo-comedy, as Lee learns to love the little monsters as his own flesh and fur. That's weird, but the sight of Theodore, seeking comfort and sleep in Dave's neck after having a nightmare, is cute in the extreme.
The boys, unfortunately, turn out to be less helpful to Dave as he is to them: Their attempts to get him back together with his ex-girlfriend (Cameron Richardson) are pretty disastrous, both within the story and without. We could have done without the romantic subplot, which feels precisely like the padding-out it is.
Still, by limiting itself to precisely one fart joke and one poop joke, Alvin and the Chipmunks is pretty highbrow in today's kiddie-flick environment. Even the romantic stuff doesn't get anywhere near the icky-squishy stuff some so-called children's movies do these days.
It all could have been much, much worse.