Saturday, April 2, 2011

Film Review with Robert Mann - Hop

Hop *** Last year newcomer production company Illumination Entertainment stormed onto the CG animation scene in a big way with their first film, Despicable Me, which proved to be both a huge winner at the box office and a strong performer with critics as well as providing a much needed boost to the then (and, to some extent, still) flagging Universal Pictures. The huge success immediately transformed Chris Meladandri’s Illumination from a company no one had even heard of into one of the big boys of animation, no easy feat to achieve with just one movie, and now their second feature is upon us.
With such a huge debut you may well expect something equally as big for their sophomore and Hop has certainly had all the hype and marketing exposure – there has been a lot of trailers (although, despite several of them having been presented in three dimensions and Despicable Me having been released with the extra dimension, the film is surprisingly not being released in 3D) , posters and TV spots not to mention a surprisingly large amount of merchandising (albeit only available in America), although strangely the obvious piece of merchandise seems to have been overlooked, Easter Eggs – you would expect it to have. That said, however, ‘Hop’ is a very different kind of movie to Despicable Me. With Meladandri clearly out to try something new, which is quite a bold move for only the company’s second feature, Illumination’s latest is not an all CG animated feature like their debut film but rather a live action/animation blend in the style of Alvin and the Chipmunks and Garfield – and even by the same director as the first Chipmunks film and the second Garfield movie, Tim Hill – albeit one that does have some all CG animation segments. 

With echoes of the Santa Clause films – the second film of which was actually co-written by two of the screenwriters on Hop, Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio, both of whom who also penned Despicable Me – and the story kind of coming across a bit like Fred Claus, only with Christmas replaced by Easter and Santa Claus’ brother replaced by the Easter Bunny’s son as well as humour that is right of the Alvin and the Chipmunks formula of average family filmmaking that gets the kids in every time, originality is obviously not something that Hop delivers much of. But the Alvin and the Chipmunks formula has been proven to work, as evidenced by the humungous box office success of both films to date in that franchise (even if they were helped out by the Christmas holidays) and with the Easter school holiday imminent it seems that Hop is positioned to be one of the films that really stands out. With Russell Brand returning to vocal duties after his impressive turn in Despicable Me and once again demonstrating that he is quite a versatile performer, Hop is undoubtedly a film that has some hooks to make it stand out from the crowd but does it prove truly worthy of standing out from Easter competitors like Rio, Mars Needs Moms and Winnie the Pooh? E.B. (voiced by Russell Brand) is the teenage son of the Easter Bunny (voiced by Hugh Laurie). 

He has been groomed since he was just a young bunny to take over the family business but there’s a problem – E.B. doesn’t want to become the next Easter Bunny. Instead he wants to make it as a drummer. So on the eve of his coronation as the new Easter Bunny, E.B. runs away and heads to Hollywood where he hopes to make his dreams come true. Here he encounters Fred O’Hare (James Marsden), an out of work slacker who has had extremely lofty goals for his life ever since seeing the Easter Bunny when he was a kid and whose aimlessness in life has forced his family – parents Henry (Gary Cole) and Bonnie (Elizabeth Perkins) and sisters Sam (Kaley Cuoco) and Alex (Tiffany Espensen) – to give him a push in life, a push that leads him to his fateful encounter with E.B. After accidentally hitting E.B. with his car, Fred finds himself manipulated into giving the bunny shelter, it soon becoming apparent that E.B. is the world’s worst houseguest. 

Nonetheless, an unusual friendship forms between the two and as Fred helps to make E.B.’s dreams come true, E.B. decides he is going to do the same for Fred. Fred has decided that he wants to become the new Easter Bunny in E.B.’s place and E.B. decides to help him achieve this most lofty of goals. Their time together, however, may be short lived as the cute but deadly Pink Berets have been dispatched to bring E.B. home and, worse still, trouble is brewing back at Easter Island. The Easter Bunny’s head chick Carlos (voiced by Hank Azaria) has decided that he wants to take control of Easter and has begun unleashing a plan to take the power of the Easter Bunny for himself. Can E.B. and Fred save the day and prevent Easter from being ruined forever? From the moment the Universal logo appears on screen with a slight twist, the Earth being shaped like an Easter Egg (something that is also notable in a globe of the world that appears later on in the film), it is clear that Hop is trying to be smart as well as funny. It’s true that there are some very good touches here that could perhaps be described as smart (in the context of a light-hearted family film at least) but at the same time there is little to be found here that is even remotely original. 

This is a film that so clearly borrows from other family movies that it often seems like some bizarre mash up of them all. The basic idea of focusing on the Easter Bunny’s son who isn’t interested in the family business blatantly draws from Fred Claus, many aspects are so obviously inspired by the Santa Clause films – in place of the North Pole, the Easter Bunny’s headquarters is located on Easter Island (with one of the iconic statue heads concealing the entrance to his factory); the Easter Bunny’s factory itself is essentially like Santa’s workshop, only producing candy rather than toys; the Easter Bunny travels around the world in a sleigh pulled by loads of chicks; and, just like Santa Clause 2, there’s a baddie trying to take over the factory – the Easter Bunny’s factory itself is somewhat reminiscent of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and the humour and music are purely in the vein of Alvin and the Chipmunks. Noticing that, with the possible exception of the first Santa Clause film and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, none of these films is all that great, Hop really isn’t all that great either. 

That said, though, it also isn’t all that bad. Sure, the storyline – which is basically Santa Clause 2 with Christmas substituted for Easter – is predictable and obvious and the same is very much true of the humour but the predictability won’t bother the young target audience and on the humour front there are some scenes that prove very funny, even if the humour is largely aimed at undemanding youngsters – E.B. poops jelly beans for instance – and the chicks often seem like poor imitations of the minions from Despicable Me (who themselves make a brief appearance in the Illumination Entertainment ident at the start of the film). While younger viewers are clearly the primary target audience, however, it doesn’t mean that accompanying adults are completely overlooked. A scene where E.B. tries to stay at the Playboy Mansion will go right over the heads of younger members of the audience and an appearance by David Hasselhoff, hosting a talent show which E.B. auditions for called “Hasselhoff Knows Talent”, is hilarious. With one line – when E.B. says “You’re not surprises I’m a talking rabbit”, Hasselhoff replies by saying “My best friend is a talking car” – Hasselhoff may have many adult members of the audience in stitches, he certainly did in the screening I was at. In general, this is a film that looks pretty good. 

The animation is quite well done, being extremely cute, colourful and charming, and the blending of the animated content and live action footage is virtually seamless, the CG characters – who are extremely cute, particularly the deceptively sweet Pink Berets – looking as though they are part of the real world environments and in one scene late on James Marsden looking as though he is part one of the CG environments. The scenes set in the Easter Bunny’s factory, which are some of the best in the film, are entirely animated and the animation and design in these scenes is quite wondrous. It’s something of a shame, however, that the film isn’t available in 3D, as these scenes would look great in three dimensions and, in fact, look as though they were actually designed for 3D. As for the performances on display here there is little that really differs from other similarly styled movies. The human actors are largely wasted and it is in fact only James Marsden who appears for more than a scene or two. Marsden himself proves reasonably entertaining but his role really does not give him all that much to do. The vocal performances are somewhat more notable although again there’s only one person really worth mentioning. 

Russell Brand (who also makes a cameo appearance in his own human form) may seem like a bit of an odd choice to voice E.B. but his casting works, him imbuing the character with an immensely likable charm and charisma, something that makes us really like the character. On another note, while the film features less music and songs than Alvin and the Chipmunks, music is still a significant factor here, Fred and E.B. sharing a musical number and there being some very good drum performances. Overall, Hop comes across as little more than the Easter equivalent to Santa Clause 2 with a touch of Alvin and the Chipmunks thrown in and proves to not be a great follow up to Despicable Me, being an enjoyable but unremarkable sophomore effort for Illumination Entertainment. Nonetheless, this very sugary Easter treat is entertaining enough to make it worth hopping down to your local cinema with your kids to see it, just as long as can overlook the film’s shameless ripping off of the Santa Claus legend. I will leave you with this line from the film: “Happy Easter to all and to all a good late morning”. 

Review by Robert Mann BA (Hons)

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