The new film Chip 'n' Dale: Rescue Rangers, which combines live action and animation, debuted on on Friday, and though the trailers hinted it would pack more unhinged humor than you'd expect from the kid-friendly Disney characters, nothing could prepare me for a truly unexpected cameo: Ugly Sonic.
I should hate Ugly Sonic's presence here, which could feel like a cheap reference to an obscure internet joke, but I don't. Because brands these days are better than ever at getting the audience to laugh with them, not at them, making themselves more relatable and having fun with the masses.
The 2020 live-action's titular hedgehog was going to appear like Ugly Sonic... until (and haunting teeth) convinced studio Paramount and game maker Sega to redesign him with a more classic likeness. But instead of being consigned to the dustbin of history (or at least increasingly obscure memes), Disney brought Ugly Sonic back as a witty, self-aware punchline in its new movie.
"You can't hurt my feelings if I'm in on the joke," Ugly Sonic says while standing at a deserted booth at a fan convention. "Are you, though?" replies another character, the minor Marvel hero Tigra, similarly cast aside by fandom.
This is the savviness media companies and brands are wielding today, and it's no surprise to see it coming from Disney, which has mastered the art of the character cameo. It's not just teasing new Marvel or Star Wars characters in shows and films -- it's showing them in pivotal moments and contexts, like hiding the Netflix Daredevil villain Kingpin until the final episodes of Hawkeye, or bringing the galaxy's most famous Jedi master into the last moments of .
Or, in Ugly Sonic's case, knowing which characters the audience thinks are a joke and inserting them accordingly. It's a hilarious reference in the first 10 minutes that contextualizes where we find our beloved chipmunks at the start of Rescue Rangers -- and doesn't overstay its welcome.
Contrast this with another film full of pop culture references, last fall's. Instead of brief cameos for a context-sensitive joke, viewers are blasted with a firehose of everything in Warner Bros.' licensed library, with Looney Tunes characters stuffed in scenes from Game of Thrones, Harry Potter, The Matrix, Rick and Morty, Mad Max and even Casablanca. It vaguely makes sense within the film, but it's not clever or funny.
Compared with Space Jam: A New Legacy and its forced cameos, Chip 'n' Dale: Rescue Rangers is a surprisingly savvy film, but let's give credit where it's due: It's directed by Akiva Schaffer of the Lonely Island comedy troupe and director of the underrated film Pop Star. It's also written by Dan Gregor and Doug Mand, both of whom wrote for popular sitcom How I Met Your Mother and the lauded Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, explaining the deftness of the self-aware humor in Chip 'n' Dale.
What is surprising is that Disney gave so much leeway to let its characters be reimagined for modern comedy tastes. Though there's nothing truly deranged in Chip 'n' Dale (at least by the halfway mark, as far as I got), Disney is famously protective of its characters and rarely allows them to be associated with anything even close to defamatory or inappropriate. It's fun to watch Chip 'n' Dale skirt that line by, say, satirizing fallen stardom in Hollywood and swapping out cheese for illicit substances.
Disney loosens up
By loosening its content control and poking fun at itself in new ways, Disney racks up "cool company" points, seeming more relatable by inviting viewers to laugh with it. Sound familiar? It's how brands have refashioned themselves on Twitter with snarky tweets, generating engagement by looking far savvier than an old burger joint, like, say, Wendy's, is expected to be.
Not every brand can pull this off, and there are missteps when a tweet is too raunchy, insensitive or offensive. But the end result, as Vulture's great Brand Twitter timeline explains, can be more engagement as brands like Denny's and Arby's tweet out messages that resonate with people who spent lots of time online and Wendy's gets into a beef (sorry) by trouncing McDonald's often-broken ice cream machines.
Fortunately for viewers, Chip 'n' Dale has good writing; solid voice and in-person acting; a brisk plot; and some great visual jokes. The character cameos from Disney and other companies are icing on the cake, they're not the whole meal, and they're always part of a gag. Long after Ugly Sonic fades from relevance, the character will still be part of a good punchline, likely endearing viewers to the corporate entities behind the film.
As for Sega, it won't care that you're laughing at its big gaffe from years ago when the first Sonic movie almost launched with a revolting character design. It's basically free (if bizarre) advertising for the second Sonic film, which is.