by Marc T. Newman [critic]
“If hardcore Star Trek fans are called Trekkers, I guess our fans would be called Munkers.” Producer Ross Bagdasarian, Jr. was talking about the three generations of people who are devoted followers of furry little band members with high-pitched voices. Since their debut as a singing group in the 1950s, Alvin and the Chipmunks have starred in two television series – The Alvin Show in 1963, and Alvin and the Chipmunks in 1983. The Squeakquel is actually their third theatrical release, and if the blockbuster status of the 2007 film is any indication, Alvin’s third outing will likely be a monster hit.
I grew up with the Chipmunks. Their signature hit “The Chipmunk Song” was released the year I was born, and is still a holiday classic (“Me, I want a hula hoop” – c’mon, you know the words!). In every incarnation, the Chipmunks have found their audience, and a lot of the credit can go to the unstinting commitment of producers Ross Bagdasarian, Jr., the son of the creator of the Chipmunks, and his wife Janice Karman to protect their characters and tell a meaningful story.
Commitment to Character
Over the past few years, viewers have been forced to endure the destruction of their childhood memories at the hands of unscrupulous filmmakers. The most recent travesty, Land of the Lost, turned Sid and Marty Kroft’s children’s drama into a vulgar, disgusting parody. The Brady Bunch, George of the Jungle, and Lost in Space all bowed to demands to include inappropriate material when adapted for the “big screen” in a lame effort to “capture” more of the “adult” (read “adolescent”) audience.
So when I asked Bagdasarian whether he had ever come under any pressure from anyone to get cheap laughs by adding tasteless humor, he replied, “Absolutely.” Fortunately, he explained, he and Karman have the absolute rights to the characters, and they both described their fierce commitment to maintaining Chipmunk integrity. If a gag or a situation compromised the characters – even if it was hilariously funny – out it went. Their resolve has been rewarded by fans: theaters are filled with grandparents taking their own children and grandchildren to these movies to laugh and sing along with Alvin.
This isn’t to say that all the Chipmunks are squeaky (sorry) clean role models. With teenagers – human or chipmunk – problems are bound to erupt.
For the uninitiated – both of you – there are three chipmunks: Alvin (lead singer and mischief maker), Simon (smart and responsible), and Theodore (cuddly, loveable, and a little shy). Their band, Alvin and the Chipmunks, is wildly popular – but no amount of fame can satisfy Alvin. He wants more. At a concert packed with screaming fans, Alvin cannot resist taking performance risks to whip the crowd into a frenzy. Ignoring the pleas of Dave – his friend, parent figure, and band manager – Alvin goes too far, and Dave goes to the hospital. And then all three Chipmunks find themselves in the care of Dave’s slacker brother Toby, who decides that a stint in school would do them well.
But Alvin’s main problem has nothing to do with his immediate surroundings. He does not need a change of circumstances; he needs a change of character. Alvin is full of himself, yet his ego is in constant need of reinforcement. He seeks and gains popularity at school, joining the football clique, even though the head jock bullies Simon and Theodore. Alvin blows off rehearsals with his brothers in pursuit of personal accolades. Simon tries to reason with him, but the one who is really hurt is sensitive Theodore. Just how high a price is Alvin prepared to pay to be popular?
Forgiven or Excused?
Alvin is not in the film to be a cautionary tale, a good chipmunk gone bad. He really does love his brothers; he has just wandered too far down a bad path. At first, after every infraction, he tells his brothers that he is sorry. While he certainly seems to feel bad – in a sheepish sort of way – there is no real repentance. There is a little (sometimes a lot) of Alvin in all of us. We do not want to be forgiven, just excused. C.S. Lewis explained that being excused and being forgiven are nearly opposites. If someone’s excuses are valid, then there is little or nothing to forgive. Seeking forgiveness requires recognition that something inexcusable has taken place. It really is your fault. You did something wrong. You need forgiveness. This is why excuses are rarely accompanied by repentance, whereas seeking forgiveness and true repentance go hand in hand. The problem is that most of us offer excuses for actions that require forgiveness.
We can tell that repentance has taken place when behavior changes. Will Alvin have the courage to admit that what he did was truly wrong? Will he demonstrate his true commitment to his brothers, even at great risk to himself? Will Simon and Theodore extend real forgiveness? Will Alvin ever after be a little chipmunk straight from heaven? Well, you can ask for only so much. Let’s just say that Jesus’ instruction to Peter, that he may have to extend forgiveness not merely seven times, but seventy times seven, is in full force. It is inescapable that in order to learn to forgive you will have to be on the receiving end of bad behavior. In this morality play, everyone has his role.
If Alvin is the redeemable character, Ian Hawke – the evil record executive from the 2007 film
– represents his apparently irredeemable alternative. Like Alvin, Hawke craves the limelight and is willing to do whatever it takes to land back on top. Unlike Alvin, Hawke doesn’t care about anyone else enough to recognize when he has done them wrong. In a sense, his character exists to show the ultimate outcome of those who are consummately self-absorbed. Ian does not recognize right or wrong – he can see only success or failure; and his willingness to, quite literally, enslave others in order to achieve his goals is appropriately creepy.
Parables have the great power to show us a moral dilemma, and then allow the hearer to preview potential outcomes based upon the kinds of decisions that are made. Some people build their houses on sand, others on the rock. Some wedding attendants keep their lamps well supplied with oil in anticipation of the groom, while others foolishly run out and miss the wedding. One servant is faithful, the other is unfaithful. One set of circumstances, but different behaviors, result in different outcomes. When we see the better outcome, it helps us to commit to the right behavior, particularly when we discover ourselves in similar circumstances. Parables are simple stories designed to reveal moral truths and to challenge us to live rightly.
Alvin and the Chipmunks: the Squeakquel is a morality tale. Okay, it isn’t deep theology, but it is, after all, a kids’ movie. With the general coarsening of culture, we should applaud whenever films tell simple truths well. And there are plenty of other topics to discuss: the importance of family, how to handle the initial stirrings of romance (brought on by the introduction of the Chipettes), coming into your own, and even a nod to the need, often under-recognized, for school music programs.
It is also a lot of fun.
But at its heart Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel is a film about the way a family forgives. Christmas is a time when many celebrate God sending His Son into the world to forgive what is truly inexcusable, making us a part of His family, and commanding us to forgive others as He forgives us. So, especially now, a film that winsomely reinforces everyone’s need to seek and extend forgiveness is welcome.
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copyright 2009 Marc T. Newman
Marc T. Newman, Ph.D. is founder of MovieMinistry.com and is an associate professor in the School of Communication and the Arts at Regent University. Requests for media interviews, or reprints of this article, can be made to firstname.lastname@example.org