The late Looney Tunes maestro Chuck Jones had an existential rule about cartoon animals.
They could walk upright, talk a blue streak and even have a Flatbush accent, so long as they were fundamentally most concerned with the things a duck, a caged tweety bird or a wascally wabbit would fret over: not being somebody else's dinner.
The people who revived "Alvin and the Chipmunks" for the big screen took that advice to heart. What are chipmunks all about? Nuts. Gathering nuts. Eating nuts.
Occasionally singing. And maybe sneaking off to watch "SpongeBob."
This is the movie that does what their 1960s and '80s TV shows and later big screen incarnations did not. It shows us how three singing rodents came to live with that exasperated songwriter, David Seville. That's a novel touch that makes this kiddie comic franchise worth reviving.
The 3-D computer-animated trio is warbling away when we meet them - Daniel Powter's "Had a Bad Day." And gathering nuts.
Sure enough, the song is prophetic. Their tree is chopped down. It's a Christmas tree. After a worrying trip to the city, the smart but nearsighted Simon, the food-fetishist Theodore and the troublemaking lead singer, Alvin (voiced by Justin Long, not that you'd know it) wind up with ad-man and frustrated composer David Seville (Jason Lee, no funnier in this than he was as the voice of Underdog).
Some very funny business comes between Dave and the trio as he tries to get his L.A. songwriter's head around his new houseguests.
"Get out of my house!" Dave shrieks.
"But we talk!" Theodore answers back, cutting to the chase. But Dave doesn't relent until he hears them croon "Only You."
Dave hears them snore, has an epiphany, and that quaint, Grammy-winning hit, "The Christmas Song" is the result. "Please Christmas don't be late."
Tim Hill of "Garfield: A Tale of Two Kitties" directed this three-writer script ("Simpsons" and "King of the Hill" vet Jon Vitti's hand is obviously here). The movie dashes off into a Chip N'Sync celebrity plot, a family-comes-first riff on showbiz kids, bubble-gum hip-hop, and the producers who suck the life out of teen talent and turn them into Lindsay/Britney, et al.
But the stuff that works best is the offhand interplay between sassy "tween" chipmunks and their human guardian. One time, he takes a conk to the head. Alvin instantly switches to "OK, I'm gonna need trash bags, a shovel," all the implements necessary to dispose of a body.
And then, there are these pellets that turn up on Dave's sofa.
"Relax, Dave. It's just a raisin."
Theodore's apparent dim wits have an explanation.
"He fell out of the tree at birth."
The effects, blending live-action trickery with digital animation (digital chipmunk in a vacuum cleaner?), are top-drawer.
No, it isn't a holiday classic. There isn't that much ambition there. But "Alvin and the Chipmunks" nicely blends up-to-date one-liners with the nostalgically sentimental. For instance, Dave Seville's house number, "1958," is the year songwriter Ross Bagdasarian sped up his tape recorder and rode "The Chipmunk Song" to the top of the pop charts. The Chipmunks cover Bagdasarian's 1950s hit, "The Witchdoctor," "Funky Town" style.
Thanks to "Alvin and the Chipmunks," the Fab Fur make a comeback any pre-K kid would love. *
Produced by Ross Bagdasarian Jr., Janice Karman, Steve Waterman, directed by Tim Hill, written by John Vitti, Will McRobb, music by Christopher Lennertz, distributed by 20th Century Fox Animation.