Alvin and the Chipmunks

Considering we’re talking about a live-action version of “Alvin and the Chipmunks,” and that there’s a scene (already immortalized in the trailer) where Simon eats a piece of Theodore’s poop, I guess we should count it a Christmas miracle that the film is merely bad, rather than apocalyptically bad.

Such are the low standards with which we brace ourselves when it comes to cheap, uninspired movie versions of familiar children’s characters. Did the movie cause us to pray for the sweet release of death? No? Then it is a success! Huzzah!

Alvin, Simon, and Theodore are three average chipmunks who, for reasons not explained, can talk. They speak in the helium voices you remember, courtesy of Justin Long, Matthew Gray Gubler, and Jesse McCartney. (Why they needed three different actors, I don’t know, since the chipmunking process makes them sound unrecognizable and identical to one another anyway.) By happenstance, they find themselves in the home of Dave Seville (Jason Lee), an unsuccessful songwriter whose cheerful-sounding demo tape definitely included the phrase “abyss of death.” After getting over the initial shock of sentient woodland creatures living in his house, he writes a Christmas song for them in the hopes of hitting the big-time.

His contact in the music industry is a sleazy record exec named Ian (David Cross). The chipmunks go over to Ian’s house late one night, sing him the song, and literally 12 hours later it is playing on the radio at the supermarket. Ian works fast! And soon enough the chipmunks are superstars.

The conflict in the story has to do with Ian’s desire to exploit the li’l guys and turn them into overworked, overpaid, pampered rock stars. Dave, meanwhile, understands that the chipmunks need structure and safety — though he strongly resists their attempts to call their relationship with him a “family.”

The film was conceived by “Simpsons” writer Jon Vitti and written by him and a couple kiddie-TV guys. There are moments where you can see Vitti trying to break free of the restraints placed upon him by a film whose studio backers no doubt insisted the product remain bland and mediocre. When Dave falls unconscious on the floor, the chipmunks fear they have killed him, leading Alvin to quickly say, “Wipe everything down. I’ll need three garbage bags, a shovel, latex gloves….” This is even funnier coming from that damn cute chipmunk voice.

Yet for the most part, mediocrity is the rule. The story barely makes sense, of course, and most of the jokes are easy and careless. Dave’s job is to yell “Allll-viiinnnn!” as often as possible, that being the one thing the Dave figure is famous for in the chipmunk mythology. He’s given a romantic interest in Claire (Cameron Richardson), a photographer who lives in his apartment complex, yet she’s possibly the single least interesting romantic interest in the history of film.

The chipmunks, by the way, are computer-animated creatures the size of real chipmunks. This goes against the Saturday-morning cartoon version of the ’80s, but I guess it never really made sense that the chipmunks would be the size of human children anyway. I’m glad that wrong has finally been righted by director Tim Hill, who, having previously directed the second “Garfield” movie, is now the go-to guy for bad children’s movies about humans interacting with computer-generated animals. If my nightmare comes true and they do make a “Calvin & Hobbes” movie, I hope he directs it.

C- (1 hr., 30 min.; PG, some coprophagia and other antisocial behavior.)