Halloween 2015 has come and gone. I’ll miss writing about horror flicks but hey, that’s what next year is for! Now on to something new…
This week I’m breaking my “no more cartoons” rule once again for a program that I revisited recently. Yes, in the past 10 years, the trio of singing rodents known as The Chipmunks have resurfaced. Their return into the limelight has been ridiculously successful and are arguably more popular now than they were in their heyday. Like a lot of things, The Chipmunks were another entity that I grew up watching even though they first appeared on television years and years before I was even born. From watching the The Alvin Show on weekday mornings to gazing at Alvin & The Chipmunks every afternoon, the popular animated franchise was once near and dear to my heart.
The Chipmunks’ journey began in 1958 when its creator, Ross Bagdasarian, started releasing novelty songs featuring the high-pitched voices of…well, chipmunks. A year later, the characters of brothers, Alvin, Simon, and Theodore, were born when the debuted fully rendered in a comic book. The kids are joined by their parental guardian and manager, Dave Seville, whose name originates from the moniker that Bagdasarian used when first recording the songs of the Chipmunks.
Over time, they adopted a more human-like appearance and finally, in 1961, the very first cartoon featuring the Chipmunks bearing the namesake of Alvin, their de facto leader, premiered. Produced by the newly founded, Bagdasarian Productions and complete with Ross himself voicing most of the characters, The Alvin Show was a 30 minute presentation featuring shorts of the exploits of the group as well as other personalities. The animation wasn’t great but it was instrumental in further developing the characters of the brothers: Alvin is the ambitious troublemaker decked out in red with a baseball cap, Simon is the booksmart, intelligent brother donning blue, and Theodore is the caring, overweight one with an insatiable hunger who wears green. It ran for one year on CBS and later, in syndication on Nickelodeon in the mid-90s which is where I was able to catch it. I actually wouldn’t view this version though until after I discovered their more popular series that came years later. After its run, the Chipmunks started cranking out albums of original material and high-pitched covers of old classics. Ross Bagdasarian sadly passed away in 1972 but his creation wasn’t over by a long shot.
After a two decade absence from the airwaves, The Chipmunks returned with a brand new cartoon featuring better animation and better storylines. NBC debuted Alvin & The Chipmunks in 1983 where it ran for eight seasons. This time around, we take a look at the trials and tribulations of the Chipmunks, usually brought on to them by a scheme that Alvin convinced them to go along with. With their musical career at the forefront, the Chipmunks learn to balance their singing careers, school, and yes…even girlfriends. We’ll get to that. Most episodes ended with Dave’s trademark line, screaming “AAAAALVIN!” when the head of the critter clan screws up. Following in his father’s footsteps, the Chipmunks are now voiced by Bagdasarian’s son, Ross Bagdasarian Jr. and his wife, Janice Karman, who took over the franchise after his father’s death. So are you curious about who these lucky ladies who romanced our little friends were?
The animated presentation introduced audiences to the Chipmunks’ female counterparts, the Chipettes. Illustrated to their likeness and possessing the personalities of their boyfriends, we had Brittany, Alvin’s other half and bossy leader, smart but clumsy Jeanette who dates Simon, and Eleanor, a loveable girl who shares Theodore’s love for food. Both groups discover each other in the series’ second episode where Dave sees a marquee advertising his boys at a venue and thinks he mistakenly booked them for the show only to find out there’s a group of girls who also shared the stage name. The two sexes stage a bet with the rights to the name on the line but after seeking their lawyer, Dave informs them that they own the rights to the Chipmunks name. With the girls out of luck, Alvin quickly dubs them the Chipettes. Originally orphaned, the girls would eventually be taken in by the Chipmunks’ elderly neighbor, Ms. Miller. In their escapades, the girls were often at odds with the boys but on some occasions, the six misfits would even band together to for a scheme or to exact revenge on a wrongdoer.
Alvin & The Chipmunks consisted of two completely separate segments starring our protagonists giving the audience a double dose of Chipmunkania every week. Starting with season six, the animation became much sharper and sole stories occupied the half hour time slot. In addition, it wouldn’t be Alvin & The Chipmunks without the musical performances. Other than their original tunes, they performed covers of the contemporary hits of the day complete with dance numbers. Two notable examples of this were the Chipmunks belting out the Ghostbusters theme during a segment where they’re left home alone and suspect their house is haunted and when the boys are about to throw down with a roller skate gang and sing Michael Jackson’s Beat It to get them hyped. Alvin even rocked MJ’s trademark red and gold Sgt. Pepper jacket and busted out the moonwalk for the occasion. As for the Chipettes, they tried their hand at Madonna’s Material Girl and Cyndi Lauper’s Girls Just Wanna Have Fun among others. The show ended in 1990 but ran in syndication for years after. I myself didn’t get to see a single second of this one until years after its original airing. I remember it airing on Fox and later, Nick.
Due to the show’s popularity, the very first musical feature film starring the Chipmunks and Chipettes, The Chipmunk Adventure, landed in theaters in 1987. In the movie, both groups set out on a hot-air balloon race across the world vying for a cash prize only to discover they’re pawns in a high stakes diamond smuggle. It was directed Janice Karman with all new original music. I had the VHS of this when I was a kid and I watched it constantly. It was one of my favorite films as a child. The musical numbers were ridiculously catchy and some of the quips from Simon were excellent. It even features the voice talent of a pre-Simpsons Nancy Cartwright!
Not much was heard from the Chipmunks after the 1980s cartoon’s syndication run ended in the late 90s. A few direct-to-video films were released which included loose remakes of action favorites like Batman and Robocop but nothing that really caused a resurgence in popularity. That all changed in the late 2000s.
In 2007, Alvin & The Chipmunks returned in a big way when a live-action interpretation of the once acclaimed entity. The Chipmunks were now CG and sported a more rodent like appearance as opposed to their more anthropomorphic animation that most people my age and older remember them as. Dave Seville was played by Jason Lee and comedian David Cross portrayed the movie’s antagonist, Ian Hawke, a new character to the series. Cross’ association with this film was a controversial decision as his material is very raunchy, often talking about how much he dislikes popular and over-commercialized media. He justified it by stating that he did it primarily for the money although filming became unbearable for him as the sequels were churned out.
Despite gathering negative reviews, the film was wickedly successful and led to two sequels, The Squeakquel, in 2009 and Chipwrecked, in 2011. The latest installment, The Road Chip drops at the end of the year. While not really my forte as an adult, it’s still pretty cool that the Chips are exposed to a new generation more than 50 years later. Currently, Nickelodeon is airing a brand new series featuring them on their network entitled ALVINN!!! & The Chipmunks which, like a lot of cartoons these days, ditches traditional animation in favor of CGI.