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‘Chipmunks’ creative team keeps adults in mind

In the new “Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked,” a mishap with a runaway kite drags the vacationing Chipmunks from a luxury cruise liner to a jungle island, where they gaze in wonder at a double rainbow.

“It is a pot joke, yes,” conceded director Mike Mitchell, admitting the moment is a reference to a widely circulated YouTube video of a man’s reaction to twin rainbows. “You would be amazed by how many parents get that joke and laugh at it. And it’s performed so funny by Theodore — he kind of looks stoned when he says [double rainbow] — that it gets a laugh from the kids.”

The double rainbow line is an example of the kind of multi-generational humor that can help make a family movie a success, a knee-slapper for both an 8-year-old and a 38-year-old, albeit for different reasons.

The G-rated “Chipwrecked,” which opened Friday and has animated and live-action elements, is the first action-adventure movie in the durable, 53-year-old Chipmunk oeuvre. From a script by “Kung Fu Panda” and “Monsters vs. Aliens” writers Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger, “Chipwrecked” sends its fluffy, squeak-singing stars zip-lining, salsa dancing, volcano dodging and tangling with a manic castaway (former “Saturday Night’s Live” cast member Jenny Slate). Jason Lee reprises his role as the Chipmunks’ long-suffering human dad, songwriter Dave Seville; David Cross is malevolent music manager Ian; and the Chipmunks and their girl-group counterpart, the Chipettes, are voiced by name actors including Justin Long as Alvin and Christina Applegate as his alpha gal counterpart, Brittany.

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In the competitive family movie marketplace, the Chipmunks have been reliable hitmakers — 2007’s “Alvin and the Chipmunks,” the first Chipmunks feature film in 20 years, grossed $361 million worldwide; in 2009, “Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel” raked in $443 million. Both movies opened at No. 2 at the box office during the Christmas season. Whether “Chipwrecked” will do as well is unclear — it opened to a soft $23.5 million this past weekend in North America behind “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows.”

“I lovingly refer to them as baby-sitter movies,” said Elizabeth Gabler, president of Fox 2000, a division of Twentieth Century Fox. “Parents don’t mind going as something to do during the holidays when school is out, and kids often go back and see them several times.”

Much the repeat viewing is driven by the Chipmunks’ signature sped-up song-and-dance numbers, which in “Chipwrecked” include what the filmmakers call “Munkified” versions of Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance,” Rhianna’s “S.O.S” and the Go-Gos’ “Vacation.” The soundtracks for the Chipmunks movies are hits as well — the prior two reached the Top 10 in the Billboard 200. There are also Chipmunks video games, greeting cards and Beanie Babies.

Audience nostalgia is a key part of the success of the franchise. Singer-songwriter Ross Bagdasarian created the Chipmunks in 1958 for a novelty record, “The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late),” and it became the fastest-selling No. 1 hit single in history until the Beatles knocked it out in 1964. More records, TV appearances (as puppets) and a licensing campaign followed. In the late 1970s, after Bagdasarian’s death, his son, Ross Jr., and Ross Jr.'s wife, Janice Karman, plotted the Chipmunks’ rebirth, with new albums, a hit animated TV show, direct-to-video movies and one animated feature, 1987’s “The Chipmunk Adventure,” which they financed themselves.

After seeing the 1999 film “Stuart Little,” which integrated a CG animated mouse into the life of a live-action family, Bagdasarian and Karman initiated the recent series of “Chipmunks” movies.

“The idea of putting the characters in a live-action world, we loved that it would enable them to feel a little more real,” Bagdasarian said. “And it was always our hope that folks who enjoyed the shows Janice and I did in the ‘80s and have kids now would enjoy them.”

Bagdasarian and Karman are fiercely protective of their property, and in 2010 they sued Fox, alleging that the script for “Squeakquel” was based on a draft Karman had written, thus entitling them to more of the profits, and that Fox had breached an agreement about promotional tie-ins. At the time Fox issued a statement saying “the Bagdasarians’ claims are completely without merit.... We look forward to resolving our differences.” The lawsuit is pending. Bagdasarian said he and Karman did not want the suit to interfere with “Chipwrecked,” and they were intimately involved with the production.

“Ross and Janice believe the Chipmunks are real creatures, that they live and breathe,” said Mitchell, the director. “They’re the caretakers of the Chipmunks. They’re on the set most of the time making sure their characters are performing as they should be. It’s, ‘Oh, Simon would never, ever, ever do that.’”

A particular concern on “Chipwrecked” was calibrating the precise degree of Alvin’s brattiness — the mischievous Chipmunk is nasty to a honey badger in the film, and Bagdasarian and Karman wanted to make sure the honey badger deserved it.

“It’s a tough nut, ‘cause Alvin misbehaves a lot,” Mitchell said. “Kids relate to Alvin because he doesn’t always do what he’s told, but you can’t hate him for it.”

Mitchell, a former storyboard artist for Spike Jonze, has directed movies for a broad range of audiences, from the ribald R-rated comedy “Deuce Bigelow: Male Gigolo” to the animated family film “Shrek Forever After.”

The Chipmunks movies are made quickly and with thrift relative to fully CG animated movies — the budget on the latest installment, which is more than 70% animated, was $80 million. To help the actors simulate the experience of interacting with the Chipmunks on set, Mitchell used stuffed chipmunks called “stuffies,” placed on the end of golf club-like mallets. The animation, done by Marina del Rey-based Rhythm & Hues, reflects technological advancements — the Chipmunks’ facial expressions have 200 more controls than they did in the first film. The one part of the Chipmunks process that remains remarkably old school is the voices, which the actors record, speaking at a super-slow speed, on a reel-to-reel machine.

The storytelling goal with “Chipwrecked,” Mitchell said, was to bridge the viewing experience for parents and kids — a major plot point involves Dave’s need to let go and let the Chipmunks grow up, and the Chipmunks’ ability to assume more responsibility.

“They rely on this kid logic that a man is the dad of these talking chipmunks, but I really think these films should be palatable to adults,” said Mitchell, a father of two, ages 4 and 6. “It shouldn’t be tortuous for me to take my kids to the movies.”

rebecca.keegan@latimes.com


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