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Entries in Hop [2011] (1)

Sunday
Apr032011

Hop (2011)

It was a Good Friday

I'm sick of kids' movies that rely on easy, dated pop-cultural references to keep parents awake while their children zone out to zany, colorful nonsense.  I'm appalled by writers who use kick-to-the-nuts jokes and characters saying "awkward" out the sides of their mouths during tense situations to garner cheap laughs instead of taking the time to write real jokes for well-rounded characters.  And I'm absolutely through with animated features using music from Kill Bill and/or Pulp Fiction to indicate that a fight is about to break out.  Sitting through the trailers for Hoodwinked Too: Hood vs. Evil and Rio the other night, I wanted to kill myself.

Fortunately, Hop is nothing like what I've just described.

Yes, it's true: I'm about to recommend this movie.

I was nervous going in, for all the reasons listed above.  The previews made Tim Hill's family comedy look like an Alvin and the Chipmunks rip-off, with Annoying Brit Cad du Jour Russell Brand voicing a slacker Easter Bunny.  But Hill and screenwriters Cinco Paul, Ken Daurio, and Brian Lynch have created a genuinely funny film that parents and kids can enjoy without needing too many pop culture Cliff's Notes. Hop is neither Shrek awful nor Pixar profound; rather, it belongs in the same harmless-fun-and-lessons category as the Muppet movies.

James Marsden stars as Fred O'Hare, a directionless suburbanite still living at home with his disapproving parents (Gary Cole and Elizabeth Perkins) and over-achieving adopted grade-schooler sister, Alex (Tiffany Espensen).  His other sister, Sam (Kaley Cuoco), desperate to help him find his way, sets Fred up with a job interview at a video game company and the keys to her vacationing boss's mansion.  On his way to the new digs, he almost runs over E.B. (Brand), the runaway twenty-something heir to the title of Easter Bunny.  The wisecracking rabbit left his father's (Hugh Laurie) Wonka-like candy-eggs-and-Peeps factory on Easter Island to pursue his dreams of becoming a famous drummer in Hollywood.  Gradually, he and Fred bond over their parental issues and a desire to do something cool with their lives.

I was relieved to see that a good deal of Hop was spent on this story, and not the cute but superfluous Easter Island sub-plot.  When E.B.'s Dad learns that his son has gone missing, he sends a team of highly-trained spies called The Pink Berets to retrieve him.  The factory's second-in-command, a gruff chick foreman named Carlos (Hank Azaria), schemes to lead his fellow chick workers in a revolt against their bunny employers and seize the power of Easter to...um, seize the power of Easter, I guess.  Like I said, this part of the movie doesn't work that well, and, fortunately, it wasn't too intrusive.

The best moments in Hop involve E.B. getting into mischief and Fred struggling to keep up with him--but not losing his shit when he can't.  Most of the gags and situations have been played out in similar movies.  But what makes this incarnation fresh is the way the characters react to the predicaments they find themselves in.  In a lesser film, the scene in which E.B. sneaks into a recording studio during Fred's job interview and winds up playing drums with The Blind Boys of Alabama would have ended with a madcap chase involving an overweight security guard and an explosion of toppled drums and cymbals.  Here, he just jams with the band in a sweet and rockin' interlude.  Later, when Fred tells E.B. he didn't get the job, he doesn't make a flustered, funny-face show of things; he shrugs it off with a "wasn't meant to be" attitude and continues circling want ads in the paper.

Soon, E.B. learns of an open audition for Hasselhoff Knows Talent, a variety show in downtown L.A. He and Fred attend, and the drum-whiz rabbit is a hit.  David Hasselhoff personally invites E.B. to be on the show (one of the film's quirkier running jokes is that despite Fred's attempts to hide the magical, talking rabbit, no one who learns his secret seems to notice or care).  Ahead of the big night, though, The Pink Berets kidnap Fred from the mansion by mistake, and E.B. must leave his dream behind to return home and face his dad.  This leads to Hop's bad, fifteen-minute climax, in which Carlos turns on E.B.'s Dad and mutates into a hulking chickster-bunny using a mystical egg-sceptre.

When I say the climax is bad, I don't mean to disparage it on a technical level--or even, really, a storytelling level.  I understand the conventional wisdom that necessitates villains and spectacular climaxes in all movies targeted at children; and the one in Hop is alright.  The effects are really well done, and I loved the Easter factory's design, gadgetry and majesty.  But to me, the most compelling part of the story was left hanging on the mansion's couch, at the end of a cute training montage; you see, in parallel to E.B.'s drumming ambitions, Fred decides that what he'd most like to do in the world is become the new Easter Bunny (there are no rules, apparently, that the job-holder must be an actual rabbit, which speaks volumes to the universe's role as an equal-opportunity employer).  It's an unofficial nod to the terrific Art Carney Twilight Zone episode "Night of the Meek"--with a different mythical gift-giver as the hero--and I hated being ripped away from it to watch a pretty uninteresting foregone-conclusion battle between good and evil.

Hop has other problems, to. The gooey reconciliation-with-dad ending felt rushed, and I attribute that to shoehorning the aforementioned fight.  I also spent way too much time wondering how the hell old Fred is supposed to be.  In a flashback, we see him as a kid (at age eight, I'd guess).  The rest of the film takes place 20 years later, meaning Fred is almost thirty and living at home after having lost the one job he'd ever held--it's disconcerting because James Marsden is almost forty, and has played adults in way too many movies for me to buy him as whatever age he's supposed to be with this hapless disposition.  But I blocked that stuff out after awhile, and just focused on him as an earnest guy looking for a job; it was tough, but I managed.

I've shit on the Carlos sub-plot already, but allow me to return for one last squirt.  Hank Azaria needs to stop with the "funny" Spanish accent.  Yes, he's very good at doing European voices, but rarely does he say anything with them that isn't meant to be humorous simply because he's talking with an accent. There's a weird undercurrent of racism in Hop, where the (literally) yellow labor force is denied upward mobility by the proper English management; I suppose the only things keeping the Easter Island operation from being a sweatshop are the good intentions of E.B.'s dad, and the fact that chicks don't actually sweat.  But Carlos is a caricature rather than a character, and I was put off by his Chicken Guevara coup--mostly because of the accent, but also because of the script, which sees Fred and E.B. "saving the day" by essentially putting the workers back in their place (worse yet, the subjugated chicks seemed to be really happy about pulling the magical egg chariot).

But the screenplay glosses over these minor issues with a steady stream of surprises.  I'm not talking about the over-flowing-with-bubbles Jacuzzi or the real-life-rabbit-posing-as-a-stuffed-animal bits.  What got me was the handling of two key characters, Sam and Hasselhoff.  From the trailers, I'd expected Sam to be Fred's love interest; that a good amount of screen time would be eaten up with his attempts to woo her; and her not seeing that he's Mr. Wonderful compared to her current douche-y boyfriend (etc., etc., etc.).  By making Sam Fred's sister, the creators relieve a lot of the bullshit tension these movies rely on and build a great sibling relationship for the audience to connect with.  They also avoid the pitfall of making the relationship an antagonistic one, which I appreciated.

David Hasselhoff turns in another stellar cameo in a children's movie. The first, 2004's The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie (which Hill wrote), featured the actor in full-on cheese mode with a bizarre tribute to his Baywatch character.  Seven years later, The Hoff is best known as a judge on TV's America's Got Talent; so of course he plays a hot-shot reality-show judge.  I'd assumed that his part would either be relegated to one scene or that he'd turn out to be a villain--dangling the bunny's rock dreams in front of him while secretly tipping off government scientists to come get the talking rabbit.  It's shtick I've seen a hundred times in a hundred movies starring a hundred has-beens.  But Hasselhoff plays a really nice guy in Hop--he's full of himself, sure, but he's a good dude who helps E.B. make a very important life choice. Aside from a wholly unnecessary and rather flat Knight Rider reference, Hasselhoff plays a real character here, instead of just relying on his reputation as a pop icon to coast his way to the bank.

Something else I wasn't expecting was the treatment of Easter as the new Christmas.  Really, Hop is a holiday movie without the snow.  Don't worry, my dear Atheist friends: There's not a single mention of the risen Christ in this bizarre romp, but we do get a shout-out to 4000-year-old traditions (Pagans rejoice!).  In other words, if you're looking for spiritual messages, you can find them in the story about a dad asking his son to sacrifice the rest of his life in order to make the world happy; if that's totally not your scene, there's more Hugh Hefner (seriously) than "Hallelujah" here, so don't be afraid.

Had I done my research and learned about Hop's pedigree before going to see it, I could have saved myself a lot of undue dread.  In addition to the SpongeBob connection, two of the three writers worked on last year's smash, Despicable Me, a movie that I loved half of.  Hill and company know their audience--not just the kids but the adults who used to be kids; the ones starving for modern entertainment that matches the Warner Brothers classics and/or Spielberg-ian coming-of-age films of their youth.  Hop doesn't quite get there, but it's different enough, generally non-offensive enough, and certainly warm enough to expose kids to without worrying that they'll become bored or cynical.  There was a hearty round of applause at the end of the screening I attended--much of it coming from enthusiastic little hands.