Little kids have it rough. They get pushed around by older siblings, they get turned away from the best roller coasters on account of not being tall enough, and they get sent to bed early. And this weekend, while the PG-13 audience gets the thrill of seeing “The Dark Knight,” the youngsters are stuck with “Space Chimps,” a G-rated mess of a movie that’s the worst thing to happen to the space program since loose insulation tiles.
Our hero is Ham III (voiced by Andy Samberg), grandson of the legendary Ham I, whose orbit of the Earth in a space capsule paved the way for manned spaceflight. The hammy Ham III keeps the family legacy alive in a circus, where he gets shot out of a cannon nightly for the delight of sparse audiences.
Destiny comes calling, however, in the form of an unmanned satellite that goes through a wormhole and finds a planet of badly-designed aliens. A meanie (Jeff Daniels) of the get-off-my-lawn school suddenly becomes the planet’s ruler when he harnesses the satellite’s power; meanwhile, back on Earth, scientists are thrilled to have evidence of extraterrestrial life. Since the button-pushers aren’t sure whether or not humans could make it through the wormhole, they decide to send a shuttlecraft of chimps along the satellite’s course, and Ham is recruited for the mission against his will, mostly as a P.R. move devised by an ambitious senator (Stanley Tucci).
Ham immediately butts head with the chimp commander Titan (Patrick Warburton — who else?) and becomes smitten with second-in-command Luna (Cheryl Hines), who is thoroughly unamused by Ham’s laid-back attitude. Once they’re in space, however, Ham proves himself under fire and saves the day and da da dee dee doo.
If the massive profits of Disney and Pixar’s animated work is what inspired rival studios to get in on that action, why is no one else aping those studios when it comes to good writing and inspired characterization? And if they’re not going to at least spend time on the script — “Space Chimps” was co-written and directed by Kirk Di Micco, who previously abused young audiences with “Quest for Camelot” and “Racing Stripes” — couldn’t they at least make the aliens worth looking at? There are some cool Gummi Bear–ish creatures, but most of the otherworldly characters are hideous, and not in an interesting or intentional way.
Some very talented actors make up the cast, but it’s a double shame: For one thing, they’re taking away work from great voiceover artists (Billy West and June Foray spring to mind) who have been shoved aside in recent years to make way for marquee names; even worse, why should the likes of Jane Lynch and Kenan Thompson waste their time with such flimsy material? Kristin Chenoweth, as a big-headed alien who lights up when she’s afraid, at least has some fun channeling JoAnne Worley’s operatic yelps.
“Space Chimps” wants to eat its banana cake and have it too when it comes to humor; Ham chides Titan about his stupid puns (“You’ll be chimp-martialed!”) but a movie can be allowed to be arch about its bad jokes only when it offers good ones as well. Since the zingers fail to land, it seems hypocritical (albeit in a post-modern way) for the movie to point out its groaners.
See “Wall-E” again. Give “Kit Kittredge: An American Girl” a chance. Heck, even that Werner Herzog Antarctica documentary has a G rating. But be kind to your children and spare them the agony of “Space Chimps.”