Space Chimps

Every year there are good movies and bad movies; movies we love and movies we wish we had never seen. In between there is a larger category of mediocre movies that we probably won’t remember seeing long after walking out of the theater doors. That’s the kind of movie Space Chimps is. It’s not great, not terrible, but probably won’t stay long in my memory.

The movie opens with a NASA probe sent out to detect alien life accidentally disappearing through a wormhole and landing on a alien planet styled after something Dr. Seuss may have dreamed up and then discarded. Zartog, the planet’s version of the Grinch, is busy yelling at the citizens he hates when the probe crashes in to his house. Through a series of accidents, Zartog manages to gain control of the probe’s technology and uses it to dominate over the other aliens.

Meanwhile, back on Earth, NASA is being grilled by an ambitious senator about the missing probe. The scientists decide to launch a shuttle to go after the probe, but since they are unaware of what effects the wormhole might have on human life, they decide to send a team of chimps. The senator wants more of a PR blitz for the mission, so NASA tracks down the grandson of Ham I, the first chimp to go into space. Brought in from his circus life, the clownish Ham III has to work with the astronaut-trained Titan and Luna to get to space, find the probe, and eventually save the alien planet from Earth’s technology gone awry.

The first thing I typically notice when I’m looking at an animated movie is the quality of the animation (duh!). Here, the animation isn’t anything special. There’s a lack of depth in a lot of the work, and the illusion of depth is lazily implemented in other places through bad texturing. Sand and liquids don’t move very well, and the humans are virtually expressionless, other than whatever is permanently locked onto their face. In a summer of movies like Kung-Fu Panda and Wall-E, this movie is like the quality difference between the classic Disney animated features and Saturday morning cartoons.

The vocal performances here are largely underused or wasted. You have to wonder how a picture with Andy Samberg and Patrick Warburton scores major names like Stanley Tucci and Jeff Daniels. Don’t get me wrong, I love Warburton’s work, but the man has been in more Disney animated rip-off series and direct to DVD movies than most working actors. Tucci is wasted here, playing one note as the movie’s frustrated senator. Daniels… well, this returns balance to the actor’s career, with the reminder that for every The Lookout he’ll do something silly like Space Chimps.

That leaves the story, which is actually a little bit of fun. There’s several easily recognizable science-fiction references, although I begrudge the writers for not going with something so easy - a Planet of the Apes nod. The problem is that the allusions, as well as most of the movie’s jokes and chimp-related puns, are above the heads of the children who will make up the viewing audience. In the theater I saw the movie in, the story was captivating enough to keep the kids’ attention, but I heard barely any laughter until the story descended into bathroom humor. It’s great that the writers could fall back on that tried-and-true punchline.

With animation and acting that won’t appeal to adults, but a humor level and cleverness that is above the heads of children, Space Chimps is a movie without a target audience. It’s enjoyable enough that most people will be able to keep from rolling their eyes while watching the movie, but good luck remembering what was so enjoyable even a few hours later.