Mary Pols, Special to MSN Movies
You've spent hours on eBay stalking those sold-out hamsters. You're still waiting for that package sent via Priority Mail eight days ago. You've gift-wrapped 53 unwieldy items. You're preparing to cook a delicious roast beef dinner for toddlers who would prefer hot dogs. And now, when all you want to do is drown your sorrows in eggnog, you have to take those same children see "Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel"? There is no rest for the weary, parents of America.
My own child, who is five, flatly refused to accompany me to a press screening of the "Squeakquel." He said it didn't look good. I made him come anyway, because I needed the opinion of someone very small to counter my own crankiness at having to endure a "Squeakquel." After all, Jason Lee, the human star of the first "Alvin and the Chipmunks," is barely in the second film, which implies his own limited tolerance for the cutesy trio, despite having presumably made some good money from the 2007 Christmas release, a solid box office hit.
His character, songwriter Dave, once reluctant roommate to the Alvin and his brothers Simon and Theodore, is now the loving guardian of the successful rock star trio. But Lee is laid up in a Parisian hospital bed in the first few minutes of the film, and then all but disappears. The chipmunks end up in the hands of his cousin Toby (Zachary Levi from TV's "Chuck"), a video game addict and doofus. Levi is limp and dull, but Toby is the first point in the movie's favor as far as a parent is concerned; his obvious uselessness may persuade children that their parents are telling the truth about the perils of playing video games.
The second point in the movie's favor is the chipmunks, which, at least when refracted through the pleasure of a child you love, are less odious than expected. They're cute and furry and use entertaining means to open a bag of cheese puffs and serve themselves dinner (Toby is unfamiliar with nutrition).
They also go to high school, which is just weird given their seeming mental age of about eight. But since they are in a boy band, perhaps it would be equally weird if they were in second grade (and let's face it, what isn't weird about this franchise?). High school opens up some new possibilities for them, including being bullied by jocks, cooed at by girls and going out for the football team.
There's also a dramatic -- word used lightly -- opportunity to perform at a regional battle of the bands, with the winning high school taking home $25,000 to "save" their music program. My one genuine guffaw occurred during this competition, when the host announced that the heat would go off at 9:30 pm, a nod to the plight of school budgets everywhere. But if Alvin and his brothers are to succeed, they'll have to defeat a cute singing trio of girl chipmunks, the Chipettes, the new clients of their arch nemesis, Ian Hawke. The oily Hawke is again played by David Cross, who despite being an "Alvin" veteran, has not yet learned to focus his eyes on the right place when acting opposite an invisible creature to be digitally added later. He has our sympathies -- it can't be easy -- but his blank, wandering eyes only enhance the sensation that we're all participating in an insane game involving talking chipmunks.
Speaking of which, each chipmunk has its own voice actor: Justin Long is Alvin, Matthew Gray Gubler does Simon and Jesse McCartney is Theodore. The Chipettes are Brittany (Christina Applegate), Eleanor (Amy Poehler) and Jeanette (Anna Faris). Voice acting is noble work, and God knows actors need work in this economy too, but when it's all going into the squeak machine and coming out the other side sounding absolutely, uniformly under the influence of laughing gas, what is the point?
On the bright side, Fox ponied up whatever it took to secure the rights to Beyoncé's "All the Single Ladies," and Katy Perry's "Hot n Cold," which the Chipettes perform in squeaky, catchy harmony. There are worse forms of torture. And the best news about my "Squeakquel" experience is that my reluctant companion was a cheerful convert. Apparently, this wasn't child abuse at all, just another test of a parent's love, and no more painful than chasing down those Zhu Zhu hamsters.
Mary Pols is a Bay Area-based journalist. She reviews movies for Time.com and was for many years a film critic for the San Jose Mercury News, Oakland Tribune and Contra Costa Times. She is also the author of a memoir, "Accidentally on Purpose," published in 2008 by Ecco/HarperCollins. When she's inspired, usually by something weird, she blogs about it at www.maryfpols.com.