Sequels will always be compared to their predecessors, both in quality and box-office pull. But the folks at 20th Century Fox can breathe a sigh of relief about Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip. The fourth installment in the studio's successful franchise about a man (Jason Lee) who is raising three chipmunks as his sons is exactly like the films that came before it, for better and for worse.
In this latest film, Dave (Lee) is switching careers from songwriter to producer. When he starts courting the lovely Samantha (Kimberly Williams-Paisley) and decides to take her as his plus-one on a trip to Miami for a record-release party, his notorious rodent charges Alvin, Simon, and Theodore (voiced by Justin Long, Matthew Gray Gubler, and Jesse McCartney) grow nervous that Dave is embarking on a new adventure without them.
After discovering what appears to be an engagement ring, they decide to sabotage the trip so that Dave can't propose. One big wrench in their plans: Samantha's son, Miles (Josh Green), a bullying teenager who has been tasked with looking after them.
After sneaking onto a plane, causing chaos, and infuriating Air Marshal James Suggs (a painfully overacting Tony Hale), Miles and the boys attempt to head to Florida any way they can as Suggs trails them.
This leads to misadventures in Texas and New Orleans, where the Chipmunks and Miles, who has no desire to add a new dad to his family, discover they're not so different after all.
The Road Chip is as torturously topical as the movie's marketing taglines, which include "Fast and Furry-ous." Passing references to Twitter are made about as organically as your grandma's attempts to make conversation about social media at Thanksgiving.
The music proves equally on-trend: Theodore busts out "Baby Got Back" lyrics, the boys perform a country-western dance to Thomas Rhett's "Shake Your South Side," and the inescapable "Uptown Funk" (with cleaned-up lyrics such as "fill my cup / put some water in it") causes a huge scene at a Louisiana jazz parade.
The writers appear to have taken pains to think of the adults who inevitably will be stuck watching 90 minutes of sassy, animated furballs with their families.
While there's no shortage of scatological jokes and slapstick humor involving people being hit in their nether regions, there also are several celebrity cameos that only an older audience could appreciate, including appearances by Retta, Jennifer Coolidge, Uzo Aduba, Redfoo, and John Waters. (Why include the cult director? When Waters criticizes his first-class seatmate Alvin for eating sloppily on the airplane, Alvin cracks, "Don't judge me. I saw Pink Flamingos.")
The Road Chip is basically an overlong metaphor for the beauty of blended families. (Does it matter that the Chipmunks are not real children? Only in a court of law.) The movie does nothing special or surprising, but it doesn't particularly offend, either.
Grown-ups may impatiently tap their feet and roll their eyes at the rote storytelling, but it's not the worst way to spend an afternoon with the kids.
Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip ** (Out of four stars)
Directed by Walt Becker. With Jason Lee, Kimberly Williams-Paisley, Josh Green, and voices of Justin Long, Matthew Gray Gubler, Jesse McCartney. Distributed by 20th Century Fox.
Running time: 1 hour, 30 mins.
Parent's guide: PG (mild scatological humor, some rude language).
Playing at: Area theaters.