Director: Akiva Schaffer Screenwriter: Dan Gregor, Doug Mand Cast: John Mulaney, Andy Samberg, Will Arnett, Eric Bana, Keegan-Michael Key, Seth Rogen, J.K. Simmons, KiKi Layne Distributor: Disney+ Running Time: 97 min. MPAA: PG

How do you make a Rescue Rangers movie? Do you play it safe by sticking to the adventure aspect of the show or go for a commercially-safe fish-out-of-water angle? Thankfully, this film does none of that and decides to go full Roger Rabbit. It goes meta with the show while going ham on a plethora of cartoon characters that occupy a world of washed-up stars. And while this type of staging seems par for the course in our Ready Player One film landscape of vomiting every IP onto the screen, this is perhaps the best use of smearing of franchises in quite some time.

The key to the film is that there’s a real dynamic between the titular characters. The mature Chip (John Mulaney) and goofball Dale (Andy Samberg) are set up as best friends who develop a career in acting, leading to their Rescue Rangers show. The show is canceled due to Dale’s desire for being more than the dummy of the show’s ensemble. The two split and pursue different career paths. Dale becomes a washed-up star trying to sell autographs at cartoon conventions while Chip goes into selling insurance.

The two are brought together over a compelling mystery. Their co-star Monterey Jack (Eric Bana) has gone missing, just as with a number of washed-up cartoon characters. After some reluctance, Dale convinces Chip that they should solve the mystery to save their friend, despite being more actors than detectives. What they discover is a conspiracy involving CGI surgery (which is a thing in this universe), bootleg knock-offs, and an insidious cartel of cartoon characters reaping the waste of yesteryear for the new waste of the present.

I must admit the back-and-forth between Chip and Dale really works here for the clashing world perspectives. They both feel like they’ve become weary of the world in different ways. It brings a surprising amount of depth to characters with history, far from the bare-bones origin story that is glazed over as a short-and-sweet introduction. It also helps that there wasn’t a whole lot of lore to build off of for Rescue Rangers, leaving the door wide open for a new interpretation of what went on behind the scenes.

I doubt I need to divulge that the film is wall-to-wall cameos, especially the many scenes at a cartoon convention with various unexpected appearances. There are some surprises for just who pops into these Where’s-Waldo shots. I was caught off guard by the appearance of a Robert Crumb character more than the elongated role for the rejected model of Sonic the Hedgehog. What helps the film stand-out from the ho-hum cameo fests of Space Jam: A New Legacy is that most of the inserted characters have insertions that make sense with matching dialogue. It makes sense to see McGruff from those crime PSAs working in a police department and a mellow Baloo trying to make a music career take off.

The film is surprisingly engaging thanks to the strong casting choices. Rarely does a voice actor feel like celebrity casting, with the exception of Seth Rogen playing an uncanny valley Viking plucked from a mo-cap movie that becomes easy satire. Mulaney and Samberg make a great duo who don’t try too hard to put on the high-pitched voices and actually give some personality to their characters. J. K. Simmons voices a claymation police officer that is played straight with most of his gags being visuals involving his clay body. Will Arnett voices a down-and-out Peter Pan that is fully committed to a life of crime and despises the Hollywood scene.

Director Akiva Schaffer (Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping) brings much of that meta wit to such a film that elevates its commercial tapping. The dialogue is knowing enough that only the most astute of cartoon nerds could conceive of such a script. It gives a bit of bite to a family film that might otherwise have been toned down to be commercially friendly, proceeding with an aptness that will be pleasing for the grown-ups to delight in the meta-commentary and focused enough that kids will appreciate a film that doesn’t talk down to them.

The visual effects are rather impressive but they’d have to be for this kinda narrative. In addition to 95% of the cast being animated characters, the variety of styles bodes well for this type of narrative. It’d have to. How can you have a film that wants to mock the Ugly Sonic design or poke fun at the uncanny valley if you can’t differentiate between good and bad animation? Although must admit there’s a troubling nature of animation erasure when the 2D characters are staged as cel-shaded 3D models which look could but don’t really assert the classic 2D nature.

Considering what could’ve been, Chip ‘n Dale leans less towards live-action Alvin and the Chipmunks movies and more towards Who Framed Roger Rabbit. It trims down a bit of its satire to never criticize too much but it’s still a real treat to see such a parody go as far as it can. Perhaps it’s even too meta for the older adults who never grew up with the Disney Afternoons line-up to dig Rescue Rangers to appreciate a remix of the theme. Maybe that’s what led to a Disney+ debut over the theatrical experience. It’s a pity, really, as I’d love to be in a theater to share such laughs.

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