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Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers is a clever, exciting movie, with a pretty strong story and extremely strong visual gags. Picking up what the likes of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Last Action Hero, and Looney Tunes: Back In Action put down, it presents a world in which human beings rub shoulders with animated and puppet characters of all stripes. Animated TV shows in this world are just live-action shows starring animated actors. CGI reboots are the result of the original “actors” getting a form of surgery. The film is visually spectacular and absolutely jam-packed with funny shit, from classic cartoon slapstick to fourth-wall-breaking pop culture jokes Only ‘90s Kids Will Get.
Incredibly, the film’s wide range of cross-media cameos do not follow the path of Space Jam: A New Legacy or Wreck–It Ralph 2, both of which draw strings of cameos solely from their parent studios’ IP. It’s also more self-aware than the broad-spectrum cameothon that was Ready Player One, making jokes at the expense of “Ugly Sonic” and early uncanny-valley attempts at performance capture, and dealing with showbiz issues like fan culture, celebrity ephemerality, and more. It’s unabashedly an inside-baseball movie, and the more you know about Hollywood, the funnier it gets.
But there’s a point where knowing too much about Hollywood hurts the Chip ‘n Dale viewing experience, because it also has a curious relationship to, of all things, copyright law. The plot sees the titular animated chipmunks setting out to rescue a costar from their ’90s animated show, who’s been kidnapped by criminals engaged in a cheese-and-bootlegging ring. Cheese here is a simple analogue for drugs, but the bootlegging is a more interesting affair, wherein the criminals surgically give characters minor cosmetic alterations before forcing them to star in cheap knockoff shows and movies to skirt copyright laws and make a quick buck. The entire plot revolves around the circumvention of IP law, depicted as the barbaric torture and enslavement of beloved icons.
[Added June 6] Before we go into the copyright issue, a quick aside: these villains are led by Will Arnett’s washed-up, aged-out, overweight, and vengeful Peter Pan – specifically, the Peter Pan from Disney’s 1953 animated film. His backstory sees him having been tossed out when he reached puberty, and a result he started an organised crime ring that tortures fellow animated characters. The real actor who played Peter in Peter Pan, Bobby Driscoll, was tossed out by Disney when he reached puberty, after appearing in numerous hits for the studio, and fell into depression and narcotic abuse, winding up in an unmarked pauper’s grave at age 31 due to drug-related health issues. Peter Pan was the filmmakers’ second choice for their villain character, which they landed on due to their first choice, Charlie Brown, being too hard to figure out the licensing for. So, that’s not in terribly great taste.
Disney has a long history with copyright. The company’s bottom line depends on being able to exclusively exploit its existing IP, and letting those characters fall into public domain would be an existential threat – in that it would, among other things, force the studio to invent something new. So crucial is its intellectual property to its business that the company has spent millions over the years lobbying Congress, successfully, to extend the legal duration of copyright to its now complicated and lengthy state. This has largely been seen as a series of moves to prevent Mickey Mouse, Disney’s central icon if there ever was one, from falling into the public domain, but it’s granted Disney enormous commercial power, and it leverages that power constantly, through endless reboots (which Rescue Rangers parodies) and litigation (which it doesn’t).
This is a new phenomenon. A hundred years ago, entertainment conglomerates in the modern Disney mould didn’t exist, and copyright laws existed mostly to allow creators to profit from their work exclusively for a reasonable period (originally 14 years plus an option to extend for another 14). But to give its shareholders infinite growth, and a few million a year in lobbyist fees is worth it to maintain ownership over its iconography. IP operates as a kind of capital for corporations at this scale, and especially in the borderline-antitrust position Disney enjoys, clinging to it mostly benefits the corporation, its ability to control the market, and its shareholders. It certainly doesn’t benefit the creators, whom Disney is notorious for stiffing, and many of whom are long dead.
Taking a cynical view of Disney, its fandom, and Rescue Rangers, this film could be seen as an attempt to leverage the company’s corporate fans against both competitors and Congress. The company has elsewhere weaponised its fans against Sony (when the studio briefly pulled out of collaborating on Spider-Man movies), and it would absolutely do the same thing if it were punished for monopolistic practices (for anything from its strongarming of cinemas to its acquisitions of Fox and others). Disney likes to promote itself as a family-friendly “home” for its characters, and the studio may wish to get ahead of works like Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey that take advantage of characters’ entry into the public domain. (Taking an even more cynical view, you could even see it as a message directly aimed at lawmakers, as stop-animated police captain Putty is in league with the villains and suffers accordingly.)
None of this would be quite so galling if Rescue Rangers were at least a little self-aware about the situation. But unless you count the storyline’s very existence, there’s not a single joke about Disney’s hyper-litigious, law-rewriting approach to copyright. Narratively speaking, it’s treated as quite serious: Sweet Pete is the funhouse mirror image of reboot-hungry Dale, driven by bitterness at being yesterday’s news and trying to get ahead on past glories by any means necessary. The film gets halfway there by acknowledging that copyright laws exist, but it deals with this topic – historically of great interest for corporate Disney – without mentioning the fact that it’s corporations who own these characters, and who benefit from those laws.
The reason for that is baked into the premise: in Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers, there is no parent company beyond nebulous “studio” forces. These characters are people, and they have their own agency. Clearly, if characters are people, addressing the realities of copyright law would lead to the conclusion that Disney is a company that owns people. For all the wink-wink jabs at parent corporations in this and other films (most blatantly The Matrix Resurrections), depicting the hand that feeds as also holding a slaver’s whip might be a step too far.
Do I think that Akiva Schaffer, director of one of the greatest American comedies ever made in Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, is a Disney stooge? No. I don’t even think he intended this storyline to be anything more than a goof on reboots and Asylum-style copycats. And the movie is good! It’s fun and imaginative and full of jabs at other aspects of cinema’s weird blend of art and commerce. And indeed, if you don’t know anything about the history and politics the movie sternly avoids, nothing will seem amiss. But it’s a weirdly off-putting omission for anyone with knowledge of the history in question. For those viewers, it’ll be impossible to discount the fact that the film is produced and distributed (streaming-only, tragically) by Disney, the most obsessive IP-hoarder of all. And this is not to mention the fact that all those cute crossover moments will have been heavily negotiated in likely lengthy legal agreements.
To me, Rescue Rangers’ villains are a bit like Sid from Toy Story: despite how the movies present them, what they’re doing is still fundamentally creative. It’s just a matter of perspective. When you treat characters and iconography as people, fucking around with them does seem cruel and brutal. But characters and iconography aren’t people. They’re ideas, and new and subversive takes on ideas can keep them fresh. Rescue Rangers’ existence is itself testament to that, but its messaging seems to resist that idea, painting anything other than officially-sanctioned brand exploitation as cruelty.
Sometimes, letting someone else play with the toybox is just what’s needed.