When the first three films in a family movie franchise earn more than $1 billion worldwide, greenlighting a fourth installment is a no-brainer. Say hello, then, to the inevitable "Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip," which continues the mix of live action and CGI-animated silliness that began with 2007's "Alvin and the Chipmunks." It's harmless, zippy, candy-colored fun.
Based on characters originally created as an animated music group in 1958 by Ross Bagdasarian Sr., there have since been myriad movie, TV and direct-to video incarnations featuring the anthropomorphic cutups and their beleaguered human manager, Dave Seville.
In "The Road Chip," the musical career of the 'Munks — mischievous Alvin (voiced by Justin Long), studious Simon (Matthew Gray Gubler) and chubby Theodore (Jesse McCartney) — has been put on hold by father figure Dave (Jason Lee), who wants them to live a more "normal" kids' life.
Meanwhile, Dave's attention has become split between his new client, a rising young pop sensation named Ashley (Bella Thorne), and his new love interest, Samantha (Kimberly Williams-Paisley), an adorable emergency room doctor. But when Alvin, Simon and Theodore think Dave wants to tie the knot with Samantha, thus making her devious teenage son, Miles (an engaging Josh Green), their new stepbrother, the 'Munks go into motion to stop Dave and Samantha's pending engagement. Needless to say, the rodents' plan doesn't go smoothly — or quietly.
With Miles in tow (he's equally disdainful of the Dave-Samantha coupling), the chipmunks attempt to fly from Los Angeles to Miami, where they think the visiting Dave will pop the question to Samantha. But a series of chipmunk-inspired air travel mishaps ground Miles and the 'Munks, resulting in the titular road chip, er, trip. A nutty-frantic federal air marshal (a tiresome Tony Hale), out for chipmunk blood, also factors in. (A wacky story point involving the no-fly list feels extremely tone-deaf given current headlines.)
Director Walt Becker ("Wild Hogs") keeps the action moving apace and fills his frames with plenty of fizz and shine. The film's visual effects are nimble and amusing.
However, the script by Randi Mayem Singer ("Mrs. Doubtfire") and Adam Sztykiel ("Due Date"), its inherent illogic aside — after all, this is a world where no one bats an eye at a trio of talking and singing chipmunks — never works up much real sense of tension or stakes. Sure, complications and mayhem abound, but it's all fairly toothless stuff. Joke-wise, there are several solid laughs (gotta love the "Pink Flamingos" line), but much of the humor underwhelms. A few sensible life lessons are tossed in for good measure.
Lee, who, of course, lets loose several of his character's trademark "Alvin!" shrieks, makes an appealing Dave and pairs off nicely with Williams-Paisley. As for the chipmunks, which also include the Chipettes (voiced by Kaley Cuoco, Anna Faris and Christina Applegate), they all sound pretty much alike: high-pitched and childlike but certainly lively.
Parents and their kids could do far worse than spend an afternoon together on this bubbly journey. Just don't analyze anything too deeply — if at all — and you'll be nominally entertained.
'Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip'
MPAA rating: PG, for some mild rude humor and language
Running time: 1 hour, 26 minutes
Playing: In general release