Perhaps not since "The Godfather: Part II" have we seen a sequel come along that more than matches the mastery of the film that came before it -- all the pathos, the brio, the epic sweep. . . . the cheese balls.
I'm referring, as you no doubt have guessed, to "Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel," which builds on the wit, the whimsy and the shredding bass that was 2007's "Alvin and the Chipmunks," the blockbuster hit that would turn the musical 'Munks into 21st century pop sensations.
But if the pop world has taught us anything in recent years, it's just how tough it is to keep young egos in check when celebrity arrives too early in life. As the film opens, Alvin (Justin Long) is out of control, while Simon (Matthew Gray Gubler) and Theodore (Jesse McCartney) are turning into typical teenagers. Factor in their rock star life -- the screaming fans, the limos, the paparazzi -- and you've got a lot of very hairy problems.
That's pretty much the tight-wire of tension that veteran comedy director Betty Thomas has to play with as the 8-inch wonders head to high school back in the States while their songwriting guardian Dave (Jason Lee) recuperates in a Paris hospital after an unfortunate mash-up of the more literal sort during one of their concerts.
Much of the fun of the film -- no matter your age -- is the way in which everyone acts as if having animated talking/singing rodents scurrying around in the real world is not unusual, with Thomas doing a good job of keeping that conceit going. Thankfully, talking animals are nothing new for the "Dr. Dolittle" director, and where some might take this franchise too seriously, Thomas brings a light campy touch as she did in 1995's "The Brady Bunch Movie."
Screenwriter Jon Vitti, who was involved in the 2007 Chipmunks' vehicle, and writing team Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger, have added romance to "The Squeakquel," in the form of three lovelies -- Brittany (Christina Applegate), Jeanette (Anna Faris) and Eleanor (Amy Poehler). They make up the girl group the Chipettes, which sets the stage for a flirtatious competition that anchors the story as fates and fortunes rise and fall.
David Cross is back as sinister agent-manager Ian, now hoping to resurrect his career on the back of the Chipettes, who are just breaking into the biz. Once again Ian's main role is to suffer public humiliation at the hands of Alvin's wrecking crew, which Cross does very well -- or maybe he actually does look better in a gold lamé mini than anyone else.
Meanwhile, with Dave in traction in Paris, the main man in Alvin, Simon and Theodore's life is video-gaming nephew Toby, played by Zachary Levi, probably best known as nerd-riffic spymaster Chuck in the NBC series of the same name. He's a good addition to the cast and his chemistry with the Chipsters is touching in a bizarrely heartwarming way.
With high school, romance and pop music, lots of it, the filmmakers have a formula that has worked increasingly well, particularly with young teens, creating any number of entertainment phenoms including "High School Musical" and the Jonas Brothers, and they milk it, perhaps a little too much on occasion.
What helps "The Squeakquel" when things get artistically rough around the edges is that the tunes are sung by voices that seem to be working off a huge tank of helium, always a crowd pleaser, as any keg party aficionado can attest.
The filmmakers have picked the musical mix well, with songs including Katy Perry's "Hot N Cold" and the Bee Gees' "Stayin' Alive," no doubt an effort to play to the generational spread they hope will fill those theater seats. And the script includes enough clever moments to help put "The Squeakquel" in solid family entertainment territory.
The Chipmunks' obsession with Animal Planets' "Meerkat Manor" proves to be one of the best running gags, particularly since the Whiskers' internecine squabbles so mirror the 'Munks high school issues. But it's the Chipettes' cover of Beyoncé's "Single Ladies," you know, "If you liked it then you shoulda put a ring on it. . . ." that is not to be missed. Seriously.