Review: ‘Hop’ offers charming Russell Brand, James Marsden, scattered jokes

One of the great surprises of the last half-dozen years has been the emergence of James Marsden as a committed, unabashed goofball.

When Hollywood gets hold of a guy like Marsden, they inevitably push him towards leading man roles.  Romantic roles.  Heroic roles.  And while he may have been overshadowed in the “X-Men” series by virtue of Hugh Jackman’s star-making performance and writing that barely knew what to do with Cyclops, that’s not his fault.  He just did what he could with what he was given.  It was only once he wrapped that series that things started to get genuinely interesting for him.  His role in the flawed “Superman Returns” was one of the best things about that film, and he took the very small role of Corny Collins in “Hairspray” and ran with it.  The two films that confirmed for me that this is a guy who will not stop until he’s exhausted the comic potential in a role, though, were “Enchanted” and “Sex Drive,” and that’s when I started to hope that more directors would pick up on this stealth-weirdo lurking beneath those movie star good looks and really give him something to do.

In “Hop,” Marsden stars as Fred O’Hare, a guy who is adrift in his life, unable to find a job that satisfies him, constantly flirting with the disapproval of his parents (Gary Cole and Elizabeth Perkins) and leaning on his sister Sam (Kaley Cuoco) for help.  And while the ads all emphasize the talking CGI bunny named E.B. (voiced by Russell Brand) as the star of the film, structurally, this is Fred’s story.  As a little boy, he saw the Easter Bunny one morning, and before he could take a picture to prove it, the Easter Bunny was gone, leaving Fred with questions for the rest of his life.

E.B. is being raised to become the new Easter Bunny when his Dad (Hugh Laurie) finally steps down from the job, and all he wants to do is become a rock drummer, leading him to run away on the eve of him getting the job.  He and Sam cross paths, and they begin to help each other accomplish these dreams they thought impossible.  It’s a simple story, and the film fits neatly into a weird subgenre of movies that could be called “Talking CGI Things That Comedy Actors Frantically Respond To,” a subgenre that includes such films as “Alvin and the Chipmunks,” “Yogi Bear,” and the upcoming “The Smurfs.”  These films fall into a rigid formula, and they are difficult for me to sit through as an adult.  Still, watching them with my kids, I can see that younger viewers find them somewhat fascinating, and certainly my older son Toshi had a great time watching “Hop.”

I’m a little more mixed on it than he is.  Tim Hill, who directed the first “Alvin” film as well as the “Garfield” sequel and “Muppets From Space,” manages to keep the pace on this film relentless without making it frantic.  It feels like the film is 45 minutes long.  It races by in large part because it tends not to take itself seriously.  The film shrugs off any serious attempts at establishing a mythology or even answering some basic logic questions of how this world works.  It doesn’t care.  All that really matters in the movie are jokes, more jokes, and, yes, even more jokes.  And on that level, “Hop” is frequently funny.  Brand proves to be an engaging lead for an animated movie, and his E.B. is casually charming.  He and Marsden both give their all to the material, which is good, because it’s basically a two-man show.  The other performers in the film are given a few moments here and there, but no one really has a significant impact on the film aside from Marsden.  If he was not so good at investing a character with a lunatic appeal, the movie wouldn’t work at all.

This is the second movie to come out of the deal between Illumination Entertainment and Universal, and it’s obvious that Illumination knows the value of the Minions from their first film, “Despicable Me.”  Not only do the Minions appear during the company logo at the start of the movie, but they are also reproduced very closely in the behavior and personality of the chicks that all work on Easter Island to get all the candy ready for all the kids of the world.  One chick in particular, Carlos (Hank Azaria celebrates a milestone here by providing his 100th silly Latino accent), has designs on the head job, irritated at the bias that would mean only a bunny can have the job.  There are some very funny moments with Carlos and the factory, but because even Carlos is so easily dealt with, there is no peril at all in the film, no stakes of any kind.  E.B. and Fred just sort of breeze through things.  It’s an incredibly easy journey for the two of them.  That makes this feel more conventional and rigidly formulaic than “Despicable Me” did, but that’s not going to matter to younger viewers.  They’ll respond to the rapid fire jokes and the appealing designs.  I just don’t expect adults to enjoy this the same way it was possible to enjoy “Despicable Me” as something smarter than expected.

Overall, there’s a Teflon quality to “Hop”:  it does the job, but it doesn’t stick.  The film is closer to Will Ferrell’s “Elf” than it is to the awful “Alvin” movies, but it never quite makes the leap from amiable to genuinely good.  It is a harmless movie, and with family films, sometimes that’s the best you can ask.

“Hop” arrives in theaters everywhere today.