Remember when Superman fought Batman? When Kirk fought Spock? When He-Man fought G.I. Joe (if only in your den in plastic toy form)? Let me assure you, this is very, very similar. Forget Aliens vs. Predator, Eastwood vs. Lee, Will Smith vs. his daughter, Clinton vs. Obama. This could be the showdown of the century.
Let’s meet the contenders.
First up, Space Chimps:
I’m getting a distinct Gattaca-as-performed-by-the-Three-Stooges-and-animated-by-the-guys-who-flunked-out-of-Pixar vibe here. And, you know, with monkeys. (Obviously.) This movie is not above deploying slipping-on-a-banana jokes. In the trailer. Most of the jokes seem to involve various characters hitting themselves/slipping/falling/yelling in terror-slash-hilarity. The jokes seem lazy in an almost congratulatory way. The subtext here seems to be: Everything is funnier when there are monkeys!
There is an OnStar reference, which seems to indicate the filmmakers’ faith that today’s 4 to 8 year old cohort will be aware of what that button above mommy’s seat in the minivan does. (I have no reason to suspect they’re wrong.) Apparently, Jeff Daniels — or his voice, anyway — is in the film, playing someone named Zartog, which indicates a fealty to the classic villain naming scheme in which any combination of Zs, Gs, Rs, and Ks can be combined with a couple of vowels and a few additional consonants to produce a menacing sounding name. (Don’t believe me? Try it: Zuurgaz, Kazog, Koorgaz, Kargzoz — the all-time winner, obviously, is Gargamel.)
Indeed, there is a haphazardly classic feel to the trailer, which splits its time between winking referentiality (OnStar) and broad physical gags (the banana peel). There’s a sense of bifurcated purpose and intention. It projects a spastic longing, of sorts, a neurotic wishfulness, for the days when kids were not aware of OnStar and a simple monkey-smashing-its-face-into-glass gag would do for a laugh. Sadly, those days are gone. I suspect this film will not be the elegy for first-grader slapstick that it seems to want to be.
In the other corner, we have Beverly Hills Chihuahua:
One needn’t look for subtext here; there’s a lot right on the surface. The message is, in fact, very clear: The more chihuahuas, the better. Chihuahuas are to this film was daily blog posts are to Andrew Sullivan: No matter what they’re doing, there can’t possibly ever be too many of them. If they can dance, rap, wear clothes, adopt inappropriate accents, and — this is the most important part — say “chihuahua” repeatedly, this is all for the best. Personally, I disagree, but art isn’t about agreement.
I am bothered by the lead Chihuahua’s shifting accent — the Aztec kitsch lilt he begins with doesn’t carry over. This suggests either sloppiness on the part of the filmmakers or a subtle statement about the mysterious and variegated nature of chihuahua identity. I suspect the latter.
A trailer like this obviously begs the question: Are chihuahuas a force multiplier for hilarity? Normally, I would say no. But having now seen the trailer several times, I’m starting to rethink my position. The first time I saw this, while watching Wall·E, I cringed. Someone in the row behind me sneered, rather loudly, “Well, that was 30 seconds of my life I’ll never get back.” Actually, it was 90, but who’s counting? Me, I’ve lost close to ten full minutes of my life watching and rewatching this pooch-packed stunner, and I’m finally starting to get it.
First of all, there’s the sheer Chihuahua overload. It’s desensitizing initially, and then causes you to titter, to squeal, to cackle and crack up. Imagine 90 minutes of this. Additionally, there’s a thug’s street-rap braggadocio on display — witness the song lyrics, which, when not repetitively name-dropping the species moniker, are concerned solely with the ways in the ways the Chihuahua is, literally, top dog (think of Marlo Stanfield: “My name is my name!”); even the introduction, which emphasizes the animal’s historical mysticism, has the epic quality rappers often ascribe to themselves. But this is undercut by a loopy, Dadaist self-referentiality. This, then, is the tension at the heart of the trailer: on the one hand, an earnest, exuberant celebration of the Chihuahua and its excellence, on the other, a frantic, madcap deconstruction — approaching obliteration — of the very notion of Chihuahuaness. The meaning of self, the permanence of identity, the ability to fit inside a $2,000 handbag — well, I’d say the winner of this battle royale is clear, and the chimps didn’t stand a chance.