If we were to write a best-to-worst list of animated films of 2008, it’s a no-brainer that Pixar’s ‘Wall•E,’ DreamWorks’ ‘Kung Fu Panda,’ and Disney’s ‘Bolt’ would be sitting pretty as the top three choices (and probably in that order). It’s also a safe bet that bringing up the rear in the dead last spot is Fox’s ‘Space Chimps,’ the CGI animated comedy “from one of the primates who brought you Shrek.” I like animation and I’m a fan of science-fiction, so even though I had only heard negative things about the film I still sat on the launch pad with an open mind. Unfortunately, it turns out that this dud isn’t just the worst of 2008, but one of the most catastrophic train wrecks I’ve seen in years.
After a NASA probe has been swallowed by a wormhole in outer space and crashes on an unknown alien planet, the agency jumps at the opportunity to recover the equipment and boldly go where no man has gone before. Since the scientists are unsure how traveling through the anomalous gateway will affect living subjects, the decision is made to test the waters with their experimental chimp program before risking the lives of human astronauts. Heading the mission is the by-the-book Commander Titan (Patrick Warburton), his first officer Lt. Luna (Cheryl Hines), and to fill the third and final slot, NASA deviates from protocol and hatches a scheme to bring in a simian celebrity to capitalize on the publicity. They track down Ham III (Andy Samberg), a circus chimp-cannonball who spends his evenings shooting for the moon--and also happens to be the grandson of the first astronaut chimp launched into orbit back in 1961.
Initially, Ham III isn’t interested one bit, but once he sees the toys he’ll be able to play with and meets the lovely Luna, he thinks it might not be such a bad way to reach for the stars after all. So the team begins a vigorous training cycle and when they receive the stamp of approval, the crew blasts off in search of adventure. What they don’t realize is that a race of peaceful creatures on the planet are in desperate need of help--as a megalomaniac dictator known as Zartog (Jeff Daniels) has commandeered Earth’s technology and is using it to dominate the planet. Will Ham III and his gang be able to find a way to save the day and return home safely, or are these ‘Space Chimps’ made of the wrong stuff?
It only took me a few minutes into ‘Space Chimps’ to see why the film had gotten such a bad rap. I’m not even going to go into the animation aspect since, to be fair, the budget for the film was less than a quarter that of ‘Kung Fu Panda.’ However, there’s no excuse for the writing being this vanilla, the characters lacking any personality, and a film being billed as a comedy having less laughs than a funeral. The jokes range from things kindergartners roll their eyes at to punch lines that would make a grown-up groan. The only part I found remotely clever was the “Axel F” reference, and the rest of the time I could’ve been mistaken for a zombie with my deadpan face.
Part of the problem is Samberg, likely brought on board for his daredevil antics in ‘Hot Rod.’ His style of humor, especially on ‘Saturday Night Live,’ misses a lot more often than it hits. His delivery in ‘Space Chimps’ didn’t fare any better, and according to the bonus featurette, he incorporated many of his own ideas. This from a guy who thinks it’s witty to say “what I like most about ‘Space Chimps’ is the space part and the chimps part.” Please quit your night job and find a day one, Andy.
Worse still is how some of the creativeness beams with “what the hell was that?” moments. For instance, the alien race living in fear under Zartog’s tyranny is so simplistic in the way they look, move, and speak, that it actually crossed my mind they could be distant relatives of the ‘Teletubbies.’ Likewise, the egg-shaped critter Kilowatt (Kristin Chenoweth) was obviously meant to add a splash of cuteness, but her dialogue was so childish and cringe-worthy it honestly drove me bananas.
In the end, ‘Space Chimps’ fails because the film is just too juvenile—scratch that, infantile—to appeal to a broad audience. While many of us have an inner child lurking within that enables us to enjoy or at least tolerate animated feature films geared towards children, after seeing this the only conclusion I can come to is that director/co-writer Kirk DeMicco must be a toddler at heart.
Fox blasts ‘Space Chimps’ onto the Blu-ray format in a 2.35:1 widescreen, 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer that, despite the inferior quality of the animation, is still pleasant to look at for the most part.
Like most digital-to-digital transfers, this one has impressive three-dimensionality and I didn't notice any bursts of noise, artifacting, or other blemishes, although I did pick up on a slight color banding in a few places, plus the picture does seem slightly on the soft side. Don’t expect much detail due to the style of the animation, but little things like the chimps’ hair and stains on their spacesuits are a nice touch. Black levels are also solid, and this monkey shines with a vibrant and glossy palette. The bold and bright colors of the alien home world are easily the highlight of this picture. ‘Space Chimps’ still isn’t top-tier material visually, but it sure looks a lot better than the film deserves.
‘Space Chimps’ also comes with a surprisingly effective lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix. There’s a fair amount of rear channel activity, such as when Ham III is zipping around with a jet pack or crashes after shooting himself out of a cannon, and we have good bass rumblings when the chimps blast off. Every flimsy joke and lame wisecrack also comes through with clarity. It’s just too bad that in space, nobody can hear you heckle.
The disc also includes French and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks, as well as optional subtitles in English and Spanish.
Just like the standard-def DVD, the ’Space Chimps’ Blu-ray pretty well scrapes the bottom of the barrel of monkeys when it comes to bonus features.
This is Major Tom to Ground Control: 'Space Chimps' didn’t make the grade. I will say it does have enough movement and color to withhold the attention spans of little tikes with full sets of baby teeth, but if you're looking for something the whole family can enjoy you're better off leaving this one on the store shelves and blind buying practically anything else. The video and audio of this Blu-ray just can't save this mess, so while Ebert may have thought 'Space Chimps' was a satisfactory picture, it gets two opposable thumbs down from me.