SANTA BARBARA, Calif. - On a hilltop overlooking the Pacific Ocean stands a Spanish-style mansion. This is the house that Alvin built.
Alvin is the cute cartoon chipmunk who, with his brothers, Simon and Theodore, has a penchant for mischief and a gift for song.
Alvin and the Chipmunks have been entertaining generations of fans with their music and antics for nearly 50 years. It all started with a novelty song written by Ross Bagdasarian called "Duel with the Witch Doctor," which had a catchy refrain, "OO EE OO AH AH," in a speeded-up singing voice. It was an instant hit, which prompted Bagdasarian to scribble another catchy tune using the same technique.
The story goes that Bagdasarian narrowly missed hitting a tiny chipmunk while driving through Yosemite National Park. The chipmunk's bravery - he merely stopped and seemed to stare down the driver before moving on - inspired Bagdasarian. The sound became the voice of the Chipmunks, who had a hit with "The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don't Be Late)," in summer 1958.
The creatures were named after executives at Liberty Records, Bagdasarian's label, and "The Chipmunk Song" sold millions of copies, won three Grammys, and spawned albums and a TV show. The Chipmunks also got their own backstory: A kindly songwriter named Dave Seville (Bagdasarian) discovers the Chipmunks' musical talent, yet is exasperated by their nonstop childish antics.
Bagdasarian died in 1972, which might have spelled the end of the Chipmunks, but his son Ross Jr., and Ross Jr.'s wife, Janice Karman, revived the franchise in the early 1980s. Together they put the pop-culture icons into overdrive, with TV shows, specials, albums and a 1987 animated movie. Now, the " 'munks," as they are affectionately known, are starring in their first live-action/CGI comedy.
"Alvin and the Chipmunks" opens with the talking chipmunks discovering the human world after their pine tree is cut down and hauled to the lobby of a Los Angeles record company at Christmastime. Fearful of this unfamiliar environment, the trio stows away in a basket carried by a passerby, who happens to be down-on-his luck songwriter Dave Seville. As played by Jason Lee ("My Name is Earl"), Dave unknowingly takes the Chipmunks home, where the creatures wreak havoc in his kitchen. Then Dave discovers that they can talk and sing, and the group's adventures begin.
To promote the movie, on which they served as co-producers, the Bagdasarians have invited journalists to their scenic hideaway. On the eve of the film's release, the married business partners are as excited as expectant parents.
"Every once in a while we look at each other and go, 'ahhh,' " said Karman.
"When you make these movies, there's always an opportunity for it to jump in the toilet," added Bagdasarian, her husband of 27 years. "The fact that we're over that is a great relief."
Bagdasarian said the comedy is aimed at multiple generations of fans. He doesn't mind that a little potty humor seeped into the script. "If poop or a fart sound is going to bring [audiences] in, so be it," he said.
For Lee, it was tricky to act opposite computer-generated characters added in after the live-action sequences were shot. "At first it was really tedious and frustrating," said the bearded actor. "I didn't have anything to work with. I had stuffed animals if the Chipmunks were off-camera, or tape marks if they were on-camera. Most of the time, I had nothing, and I'd have to place my eye line always in three different places."
Otherwise, no complaints.
Lee took his cue from Bagdasarian, who has voiced Dave, Alvin and Simon in other incarnations.
"We knew he was funny because we'd seen ''My Name is Earl,' and we have a friend that works with him," said Karman. "We wanted to have someone that could be put into a situation with three young boys, be terribly exasperated all the time, yet still be likable."
"Jason was concerned about it, because he didn't want to come across too mean," recalled Bagdasarian. "We said, 'That's OK - a little stronger on that yell, because it will be funnier if you're exasperated.' "
For the voices of the Chipmunks, the filmmakers tapped a trio of up-and-coming young actors. Justin Long, "the Mac guy" from the Apple commercials, voices Alvin; Matthew Gray Gubler, of CBS' "Criminal Minds," is the brainy Simon, and pop star Jesse McCartney is chubby little Theodore.
Long said the Chipmunks were a staple of his childhood.
"It was right up there with the Smurfs and Bugs Bunny," he said. "It's surreal to now be part of that franchise."
The 29-year-old actor said that he hadn't understood the Chipmunks' childlike innocence until he signed on to voice Alvin for the movie.
"When I was a kid watching them, it never registered that they were kids too," the boyish-looking actor said. "I just liked the pranks they pulled and the songs they sang."
Gubler and McCartney say their job was easy. They went into the recording studio for several sessions and just read their parts in a slow, clear manner. Their voices were sped up to a specific pitch for their characters.
The family film features several of the Chipmunks' classics, as well as some new songs. The film's extensive soundtrack also includes a cover of the top-40 hit "Bad Day." In conjunction with the release, the Chipmunks are featured in their first video game, available on various platforms.
As his father did with him and his siblings, Bagdasarian tested the Chipmunks movie on his kids, and it passed with flying colors. As for real chipmunks, they are held in special regard in the Bagdasarian home.
"We talk to them and bring them into the house," joked Karman. "We ask them to sing but very few do." *