Space Chimps

Director: Kirk DeMicco

Every monkey dance now! I’m not sure when the trend started, but by now it’s nearly become a prerequisite for all animated children’s movies to contain at least one '70s or '80s-inspired dance party sequence. In addition, the mandates seem to be doubly serious when the animated characters are animals — whether they’re penguins partying in the snow with their Happy Feet or getting jiggy with Shark Tale. Let’s just say that in the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion can’t sleep tonight because he’s breaking in his dancing shoes, much to the delight of audiences everywhere even if it only occupies a precious few moments of screen time.

And while “the few, the proud, the monkeys” in Space Chimps are a bit footloose and fancy free, they’re more preoccupied with being chosen by a slightly shady Senator (voiced to delicious effect by Stanley Tucci) to “straighten up and fly right.” In this throwback to the days when NASA utilized primates in their earliest space missions, they are being sent on a risky quest to retrieve an unmanned lost ship that has journeyed through a black hole. While the no-nonsense, NASA-trained Titan (Seinfeld’s Patrick Warburton) and Luna (Curb Your Enthusiasm’s Cheryl Hines) take their assignment seriously, they find their rank challenged when the cynical, circus-performing grandson of the first ape in space, Ham III (Andy Samberg), is recruited to join the flight by the publicity hungry senator hoping to up the mission’s coolness factor.

With his career in mind, realizing that by now NASA and scientists in general are so nerdy that if this assignment is unsuccessful, the Senator has devised a fall-back plan to turn the center into a “Paint Your Own Plate” arts and crafts emporium. His motives seem to be unapparent to everyone except Samberg’s rebellious Ham, who says he doesn’t “want to be the warm-up act for human astronauts.” Tricking Ham into believing he’s taking part in a simulated mission, the three monkeys blast off for the great beyond, sliding through the black hole to arrive alongside the missing pod only to discover an inhabited planet where an egomaniacal and tyrannical leader is threatening to sacrifice the occupants in a hubris-driven ode for supreme reign.

Although on strictly entertainment value, it’s infinitely preferable to another animals in space children’s film due out this summer (the review of which will be forthcoming), Space Chimps pales in comparison to the more polished Pixar offering WALL-E (incidentally also involving the solar system) as well as my two favorite children’s films this year so far, Dr. Seuss' Horton Hears a Who and Kung Fu Panda. Despite this, younger kids will find Space Chimps’ skies far friendlier than the darkness of WALL-E, even if adults may find themselves looking at their watch several times throughout.

Refreshingly, keeping in mind the adults who must tow along the children in their lives, Chimps does make a genuine effort to insert clever intellect and mature humor such as a terrific sequence wherein Ham finds himself in a Freudian conflict between his Superego and Id, while chatting with Luna upon the cloud of Id as she continually asks, “How does that make you feel?” In addition references are made to David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust album, modern technology in the form of “banana-berries” as well as sky-travel classics such as Airplane, as one character notes that he’s picked the wrong day to quit eating bananas as a salute to the iconic Lloyd Bridges character.

Harmless and light — although it’s certain to vanish in the wake of The Dark Knight in its opening weekend — the lackluster but mildly entertaining interstellar Chimps will be sure to garner a bigger family friendly audience when it arrives in the DVD galaxy and can be savored in living rooms where toddlers can dance along whenever the chimps feel the obligatory need to turn the beat around.