Inexplicably, through some remarkable feat of blank-check exploitation, two-thirds of the Lonely Island have taken two semi-obscure, somewhat fondly remembered anthropomorphic chipmunk brothers and crafted the most ingenious send-up of 21st-century studio filmmaking’s current obsession with self-referential, self-serving tributes to their own intellectual property. Is it all an elaborate ploy for Disney to retain the rights to a pair of nearly 80-year-old characters by any means necessary, à la Roger Corman’s notoriously ill-fated Fantastic Four (1994)? Yes, almost definitely. Is it also a genuinely inspired and truly jubilant work, an instant cult comedy that leaves one questioning who signed off on this thing in the first place? Also yes. Disney+ Original Chip ‘n’ Dale: Rescue Rangers is sure to leave viewers expecting a straightforward reboot of the eponymous ’80s cartoon scratching their heads (should they actually manage to find the film buried under heaps of other streaming offerings).
Rescue Rangers begins by establishing that the characters audiences may remember from the Disney Channel programming block “Disney Afternoon” were nothing more than that: characters. Chip (John Mulaney) and Dale (Andy Samberg) rose to fame in the late ’80s after developing a vaudevillian rapport in high school and moving to Los Angeles to pursue a career in show business, eventually landing their own show at the House of Mouse. (The film, which blends live action and animation, humorously reframes the cartoon as a real production on a chipmunk-sized Hollywood set.) After only a handful of seasons on the air, though, Dale starts to tire of Chip getting all the attention and sets out on a solo venture of his own: a spy series called Double-O-Dale, based on a gag from an episode of their show. Dale’s unexpected departure from the show and the rift that forms between the pair causes both the current series and its planned spinoff to be canceled.
Flash-forward from 1990 to the modern day. Dale is doing the fan convention circuit, after getting “the CGI surgery” to make himself look more like contemporary 3D animation and less like the traditional hand-drawn aesthetic of his past. Meanwhile, Chip — who is still animated in 2D style — is selling insurance. Neither feels as satisfied as when they were working together on their show, but they haven’t spoken to one another in more than 30 years. It takes the disappearance of their cheese-obsessed former co-star, Monty (Eric Bana), to finally reunite them in a joint rescue effort. It turns out that several other cartoon characters have gone missing recently at the hands of Sweet Pete (Will Arnett) and his gang of Bootleggers. This sinister group kidnaps animated characters who welch on their debts, surgically tweaking them and selling them to mockbuster studios that rip off Disney movies with scripts and characters just different enough to evade IP-infringement lawsuits.
With this, Chip and Dale are back together again, albeit a little reluctantly at first. They are on a classic crime-fighting mission, too — just like old times! It’s something Dale is happy to embrace, given how hard he’s been pushing for a reboot of their TV show. What follows is an adventure impressively chock-full of hilarious gags, strange cameos, and meta winking that feels fresher and sharper than anything one will find in other films in a similar vein (such as Ralph Breaks the Internet , Free Guy  or Space Jam: A New Legacy ). As opposed to just showing viewers characters they recognize and trying to pass that off as a punchline — references aren’t jokes, period — Rescue Rangers is much closer in tone to Wreck-it Ralph (2012) or The LEGO Movie (2014). (Not to mention Who Framed Roger Rabbit? , a touchstone the movie itself identifies.) To the film’s benefit, screenwriters Dan Gregor and Doug Mand and director Akiva Schaffer seem less concerned with appealing to a new generation of Chip and Dale fans and more interested in deconstructing the corporatization of studio filmmaking through the seamless integration of every animation style and filmmaking technique in the book. It works extraordinarily well.
Just as Wreck-it Ralph’s titular hero (John C. Reilly) and The LEGO Movie’s Emmet (Chris Pratt) are merely tools to pick apart video-game and toy movie adaptations, respectively, Chip and Dale serve the same function for nostalgia-driven animated reboots. Rescue Rangers is not particularly indebted to its original series or its basic mechanics. (Unlike, say, Lightyear , which looks very much in the spirit of its cartoon predecessor.) It simply relies on the premise that Chip ’n’ Dale Rescue Rangers (1989-90) was a show that once existed but doesn’t anymore. Its short-lived nature is the joke, meaning that anything from the “Disney Afternoon” block could have fit in its place, whether DuckTales (1987-1990), TaleSpin (1990-1991), or Darkwing Duck (1991-1992). Studios are desperately combing through their IP back catalogs, scrambling to find something that audiences might connect with to the tune of a nine- or 10-figure box-office gross. A Rescue Rangers movie was inevitable, but the fact that this irreverent act of IP vandalization is the version moviegoers get is a silver lining to this inescapable process of regurgitation.
Considering the target audience primarily consists of children, it’s not surprising that Rescue Rangers has nothing necessarily novel to say about reboots, remakes, revivals, or reimaginings beyond simply acknowledging they exist and that there are a lot of them. Disney allows the gaggle of funny people behind this film to make all kinds of playful jabs at some of the most beloved titles in the studio’s catalog, but it never veers into the kind of searing material that would humble the planet’s dominant mass-media company. Instead, Rescue Rangers saves this for the other guys — all the heavy hits are reserved for Paramount, Warner Bros., Nickelodeon, and the like. Whether these are examples of punching down, brazen hypocrisy, or just plain cheap shots depends on the context of the quip, but it makes one wonder how many self-deprecating jokes got left on the cutting-room floor or ended up repurposed to lash out rather than in. There’s no doubt Rescue Rangers is the best Disney+ Original to date — a low bar that is now set incredibly high — but it’s undoubtedly (and unfortunately) hindered from becoming the zaniest, most unhinged version of itself by Disney CEO Bob Chapek and crew.
Chip 'n Dale: Rescue Rangers will be available to stream from Disney+ on May 20.