The animated kids’ movie out this week, Space Chimps, is being released simultaneously with a tied-in video game.
Not unusual, but it’s also the latest such film that takes the blocky, polygonal graphic design style of PlayStation/Xbox video games as inspiration for its visual style. Last year’s painfully amateurish animated version of The Ten Commandments did the same, as will Star Wars: The Clone Wars, scheduled to come out next month. The results have so far been unrewarding – no one has figured out how to translate what looks good on an HDTV set to something that looks credible when blown up and projected on the big screen. Space Chimps indeed looks underwhelming, but that’s only one of many problems here.
The story begins with an unmanned NASA space probe being sucked into a wormhole in space and landing on an unknown planet. A dastardly alien named Zartog (voiced by Jeff Daniels) takes possession of the probe and uses it to establish tyrannical rule over the planet. Back on Earth, NASA sends another craft to explore the wormhole, but with a risk-averse United States senator (voiced by Stanley Tucci) threatening to cut off funding, the agency staffs this second ship with specially trained chimps. Looking for publicity, the senator drafts an untrained chimp into the mission: Ham III (voiced by Andy Samberg), the grandson of one of NASA’s original simian astronauts. Ham III, who has been working as a circus performer, tries to blow off the assignment as much as possible but becomes a leader when his team reaches the planet and is targeted by Zartog’s minions.
You wouldn’t know from his work here that the musically talented Samberg has supplied many of Saturday Night Live’s funniest bits in the past three seasons. Though Ham III is uninterestingly conceived, the character still presents some opportunities for Samberg to stretch as an actor – the monkey turns everything into a joke as a way of running from his famous grandfather’s legacy. At this point, Samberg isn’t enough of an actor to portray this kind of depth. There’s a fair amount of vocal talent around him, with Cheryl Hines and Patrick Warburton as the other chimps on the team and Kristin Chenoweth as a tiny glowing alien who helps them overthrow Zartog.
They’re left stranded, though, by the third-rate material. Director/co-writer Kirk De Micco is a member of that pernicious school of kids’ moviemakers who constantly reference other movies, ostensibly to appeal to grown-ups but really to cover up a lack of comic ideas. The movie winds up citing Star Wars, Airplane!, and Beverly Hills Cop, for whatever reason. There’s one genuine spark of invention, when Zartog builds his imperial palace to look like a Las Vegas casino, based on a picture of one that the Earthlings have included in the probe. Nice, but not nearly enough to sustain 80 minutes’ worth of chimps battling space aliens. By the way, those aliens aren’t nearly as intriguing as the creatures populating Hellboy II. They’ll probably look better in the video game version of Space Chimps.