Hop (with Russell Brand)
Making a holiday movie is a risky proposition. For every ELF or CHRISTMAS STORY, there are a half-dozen JINGLE ALL THE WAYs or SANTA CLAUS: THE MOVIEs, and the icy wastes of the North Pole are littered with the bones of these failures. And a little ways away we find the Island of Misfit Holiday Movies, the earnest efforts who aren’t good enough to be memorable but aren’t bad enough to be legendary – the made-for-TV variety specials, the VeggieTales VHS tapes, the Hallmark Original Movies…and HOP.
HOP actually begins promisingly, teasing its premise – a human being telling us that he is the new Easter Bunny, and that this is the story of how he got that way – and then dropping us into a fantastic and imaginative animated segment in the Easter Bunny’s headquarters beneath Easter Island (geddit?), where we see chocolate rabbits and marshmallow Peeps and creme-filled eggs being created on an elaborate Rube Goldberg assembly line by armies of dutiful rabbits and yellow Easter chicks. It’s a moment worthy of Pixar, and if the rest of the film had lived up to its energy and imagination we’d be looking at a classic kids’ movie.
The Easter Bunny is actually a title, we learn, passed down from magic talking rabbit father to magic talking rabbit son down the generations. (The movie’s Easter, by the way, is a completely secular one, “a 4,000-year-old tradition,” which may offend some but puts it right in line with millions of Americans who are happy for any excuse to scarf chocolate and peanut butter on a Sunday morning.) The problem with that tradition is that E.B. (voice of Russell Brand), the slackerly prospective heir, would rather be a drummer, which confounds his well-meaning but traditional father (voice of Hugh Laurie) greatly. After a fight, E.B. runs off to Hollywood to chase his dream, leaving behind him a distraught father and his father’s conniving right hand, the obese chick Carlos (voice of Hank Azaria), who sees an opportunity to seize power.
Meanwhile, in the real world, another slacker is having family troubles of his own. Fred O’Hare (James Marsden) is a thirtyish manchild who steadfastly refuses to find paying work, much to the chagrin of his father (the great Gary Cole, wasted on a bit part) and sister (Kaley Cuoco). Leaving aside the offensive idiocy of this story choice in a time when many talented and hard-working twentysomethings have seen their careers abruptly dry up, no reason is ever given for Fred’s laziness – he simply is because it makes a story about a guy becoming the Easter Bunny easier to tell.
On his way to housesit his sister’s boss’s fancy mansion, Fred hits E.B. with his car, and the talkative, wheedling rabbit guilts the shocked human into letting him stay. Some odd-couple antics ensue as E.B. (and the squad of rabbit commandos dispatched to retrieve him) ruins Fred’s latest job interview, floods the house, and pursues his dream of rock stardom by trying out for a talent program hosted by David Hasselhoff. The bunny doesn’t want to deliver Easter candy, the human needs a job – you see where this is going, but the characters take their time getting there.
I want to emphasize that none of this is really bad, per se – there are some funny jokes and some exciting scenes, and Marsden and Brand are having fun with what they do and that adds to the enjoyment – but taken as a total package HOP is just so flat, so monotone, despite its earnest effort to entertain. A lot of this has to be laid at the feet of director Tim Hill, who brought us ALVIN AND THE CHIPMUNKS. Despite his previous experience with stories involving humans bedeviled by CGI critters, he never manages to make the human and CGI worlds quite mesh, so, especially in the early scenes before Fred and E.B. meet, the movie feels weirdly schizophrenic – which isn’t helped by the CGI bits, which were animated by the same company that did the much better DESPICABLE ME, being noticeably funnier and more interesting. The movie also suffers from the same issue that plagues a lot of Dreamworks animated features: a weird over-reliance on celebrity cameos and pop-culture humor that people in Hollywood probably think is hilarious but will bore all but the one weird ten-year-old who knows who David Hasselhoff is.
That said, completeness and honesty compels me to admit that I was pleasantly surprised by the complete lack of crassness or vulgarity in HOP. It’s not the funniest thing ever, but it does what it does without reliance on mean-spirited humor or potty jokes. A parent can take a mixed group of children to HOP with confidence that their kids aren’t going to learn any interesting new four-letter words. As for the kids, judging by the four in front of me at the theater, they will be entertained enough, but this is probably not going to get quoted on the playground. Still, if you’re a busy parent or caretaker who needs something to keep them occupied, there really are worse ways to kill ninety minutes.