26 March 2012

Dual reviews: Hop and The Muppets

We decided to hit the rental place this weekend to find some family movies so that we could spend a rainy Saturday inside. We have yet to watch the other movies (and I will likely spend a couple minutes to review them afterward), but we did manage to see both Hop as well as The Muppets.

It was rather telling when we offered the option of watching Hop or The Muppets to the children. All three would rather see Hop, so we bowed to their whims and showed that movie first.

For a quick summary of the movie, Hop is the story of a talking CGI bunny. The idea and visuals were revolutionary in 1989 (only twenty-three years ago!) when the movie was called Who Framed Roger Rabbit, though the graphics were far more interesting (in my imagination) when they were literal hand-drawn animated cartoons. On the other hand, while the story behind Who Framed Roger Rabbit was not particularly fresh – evil company wanting to landgrab, what was associated with good is not good anymore – the story didn’t exactly feel derivative of anything, they were at least attempting a fresh take on something old.

Hop is about as derivative as you can get. To its credit, it manages to crib from two movies rather than one. (I’m looking at YOU, Avatar, because Dances with Wolves had far more heart and far less contrivance.) Much like Alvin and the Chipmunks, the protagonist makes life hell for the poor unsuspecting main character, and it just so happens that “E.B.” the bunny rabbit LOOOOOVES to play the drums. And of course, it’s a holiday movie, so they lifted more than a few ideas from The Santa Clause, including the “succession crisis” story, the idea that being a holiday icon is somehow a day-to-day job, and more than a few of the ideas for the "Easter factory".

This is where I imagine more than a few people may shake their heads. See if you can wrap your mind around this one: there’s an Easter factory. Without any specific "North Pole" place that the scriptwriters could find, they decide to put it on that very traditional home of the Easter Bunny... Easter Island. (Better yet, the entrance to the Easter factory happens to be in one of the disguised mouths of the moai -- big head statues). The factory exists only to make Easter candy, nothing else… you can see it shaving chocolate into bunnies, or making marshmallow chicks (by mixing "marsh" and "mallow" together.) Workers include both prototypical baby chicks as well as bunnies, and they all talk to each other. As mentioned above, this setting is the Santa Clause portion of the movie.

Hugh Laurie, Dr. House, happens to be… err, voice the current Easter Bunny and very shortly into the movie is talking to the protagonist, E.B. (voiced by Russell Brand) about how he has to be the next Easter Bunny instead of following his dream to drum. E.B. hops into the nearest bunny hole, which happens to portal him directly to the Hollywood sign, and the next phase of the movie begins.

Here, James Marsden is the David Seville to only one Chipmunk. You almost feel sorry for Marsden due to the extremely weird browbeating that he gets in the beginning of the movie in one of the most clichéd "get out of the house you hipster slacker mid-20s too-old-to-live-at-home" speeches ever delivered. Next thing, E.B. happens into James Marsden’s life and shows even less sympathy for him than his movie-dad did two scenes ago. E.B. manages to hit the "trash the room in two seconds flat" cliché as well as the "make the tub (Jacuzzi) overflow with bubbles" cliché, not to mention the whole carrot thing. We’re up to two movies and countless clichés all within the first twenty minutes!

From there, the movie devolves into more Chipmunk-ness, employing a variable cringe humor based on embarrassment. Ordinarily, what happens to James Marsden would be what happens to Yosemite Sam or Elmer Fudd in one of the old Warner Bros. shorts. The biggest difference is a matter of tone. Bugs Bunny was many things, and I would like to think that he was a poke in the eye to meanness (or maybe perhaps even authority). There is no meanness in James Marsden’s character, though I suppose there is some sort of authority in that he doesn’t want the house he’s caretaking to be completely stinking ruined, or would like to get a job (albeit in a mailroom). The bunny gleefully trashes the majority of that though, and doesn’t really care.

See, I don’t mind embarrassment humor for the most part, though in the hands of some people it doesn’t work well. You need at least a bit of sympathy for the character dishing out the embarrassment, as well as at least a bit of animosity towards the target of the embarrassment. Watching someone get dressed down for being a slacker and then watching them fail to a CGI bunny? Unhelpful.

Ultimately, as this movie wound down towards the end, two things became exceedingly clear. Pretty much all of the actors, with the possible exception of James Marsden, mailed in their performances. More than a couple got lucky that they didn’t even have to move around, just speak their lines in a magic can in a soundproof building. Marsden kind of tried, but I think that he knew in the end that it was a lousy premise and ultimately couldn’t save the whole thing by his lonesome. Bonus points in this case go to Russell Brand, who managed to get a role that would have normally gone to Andy Dick. In this case, it’s good news and bad news… while it’s good that the role did NOT go to Andy Dick, it means that there are still roles that WOULD go to Andy Dick and that Hollywood still has a use for him (and others who want to be Andy Dick). I fear that poor Andy Dick was frozen out only because all Easter bunnies are from the U.K. and therefore need to have the appropriate accent. (?!)

Issue number two is that the movie really did a crummy job of tying up its loose ends or even sticking to its continuity. Marsden tried to lampshade the idiocy of a talking rabbit… in a public café, on some random Los Angeles street, and he literally warned E.B. to not talk or else he’d get dissected. Two seconds later, E.B. is talking to a nonplussed café waitress. No one cares. The subplot of the movie is that E.B. goes to an "America’s Got Talent" television show knockoff (there it is again!) called "Hoff Knows Talent", starring David Hasselhoff himself. The bunny talks, ostensibly only Hoff is in the room, but Hoff also tries to provide cover by saying something to the effect of “I’ve seen it all in show business”. But… well… the talking rabbit?! If everyone’s nonchalant about the talking rabbit, as if it’s not a big deal... why? Why even care to put a talking rabbit on television if it’s no big deal, even if it does
play the drums?

It’s not the only unicorn in the garden. In the denouement, James Marsden becomes the "co-Easter bunny" (?!) as if this is a full-time job, Dad is suitably impressed (?!?), his little sister whose only onscreen time consisted of eating food or getting upstaged in an elementary-school play by E.B.’s antics isn’t still pissed, nothing is said of what happens to old Easter bunnies (they must have to finish their seasons of House despite cashing out for roles like this), nobody cares that there’s a freaking Easter sleigh pulled by dozens of somehow-flying chicks and one huge chick that’s a half-rabbit mutant (?!?)… the end just becomes kind of a mess.

Much like Easter, I think. The first half-hour is the candy-fueled freak-out, the next half-hour is trying to figure out what to do with the little gifts that you may have received, and the rest of the day is... well, another Sunday with candy wrappers all over the place. Now what? I suppose that by being derivative of everything yet apropos of nothing, the movie in and of itself managed to capture the (non-religious) aspects of the holiday it was honoring.

In the "thank heaven for small favors" area, there was pretty much zero blue humor (no sexual innuendo), and while there were a couple moments of scatological humor, it was limited to the knowledge that Easter bunnies, unlike regular bunnies, excrete jellybeans as feces. (Yum.)

Overall rating for Hop: 0.7. I could sit through this movie again if requested to, though I would certainly not be the person who requested it.

That brings us to the figurative nightcap to our afternoon, The Muppets I think I know where the kids’ antipathy towards Muppets come from, after all my children pretty much rejected “Sesame Street” fairly early on, with the older kids making sure that the younger kids wouldn’t watch it because the older kids wanted no part of it. They had seen a few of the old "Muppet Show" episodes, including “Manamana” and a few others. Much to their credit, they all decided to watch the movie with us and they did seem to at least be interested in it (even if they did not completely enjoy it).

I have watched many previous Muppet Show-based movies and features. One of the main things that I dislike about previous Muppet Show productions is the introduction of new Muppets and the focus of the story being on the new Muppet alone. The problem seems to be that I can never get a handle on the new Muppet, nor can I figure out why the audience should care about the New Muppet. The New Muppet this time is named Walter, and thankfully he’s not a talking prawn or anything, just a Muppet designed to look human (much like Prairie Dawn from Sesame Street). While the focus was on Walter for quite a bit of the movie, thankfully they widened the focus to bring more of the Muppets in before it became too painful.

The movie operates in a very odd dichotomy that I’m not sure I’ve seen too many times before. The best way to express it was that the movie knew that there was a fourth wall and strived to break it down in such a way as to try to bring the audience closer into the movie. (Fourth wall, for those not in the know, is the wall between the movie and the viewer... if the movie tells you "I’m a movie!" and shows you a picture of one of the movie cameras, it’s breaking the fourth wall.) The odd dichotomy came about because the movie knew full well it was a movie, it started talking about how the Muppets weren’t popular anymore, which was pretty much the truth. Then it broke the fourth wall more, talking about traveling "by map" in order to drive from the U.S. to Paris, France, and describing how they managed to find all the rest of the Muppets "by montage", with Rowlf the Dog complaining that his story should have been interesting enough to at
least make the montage. Additionally, "The Muppet Show" exists in the movie, including all of the things that have happened previously... unlike the anonymity that all of the characters shared in The Muppet Movie among other examples.

Well, plotwise, the Muppets needed to raise $10M in order to pay off some oil tycoon in order to keep their theater and later their Muppet trademark (?!). They decide to "put on a show", and happen to be in the room talking to a network executive just as a two-hour timeslot happens to come available. Next, they run a telethon (interspersed with the other main plot, Gary and Walter’s internal monologues) and end up raising 9,999,999 as the power goes out on the last few seconds. Evil Badguy gets bonked on the head, relents, and the Muppets walk out of their studio to a Field of Dreams-esque lining up of fans along whichever LA street they were filming on.

See, I’m of mixed mind when it comes to the above plot taken in the context of breaking the fourth wall. There’s a lot of unbelievable up there, and the characters were already commenting on the movie as being a movie… yet no comments on some of the more unbelievable stuff. Ultimately, the fourth wall was broken successfully, as the movie really did take in quite a bit, the Muppets became popular again both in their movie universe as well as in the “real world”, so I suppose overall it worked out.

I bring up the fourth wall because that was where the vast majority of the humor was in the movie. If you’re a fan of meta-references, this is a good movie as long as you can put on your "suspension of disbelief" armor afterward. I really do wish though that there was a bit more funny in this... I loved the Muppet Show sequences, not so much with the Gary/Walter plot-that-thankfully-got-shelved-until-the-end, and I miss the old-old Muppet Show and kind of wish that the movie got back to what made the Muppets popular first (being a shoestring operation that had awesome writing and was funny for funny’s sake) instead of what it may do now (being a bankrolled operation that can be funny but may also go back to cashing in on the nostalgia and cachet more than the good writing.)

With that being said, this installment had decent music, was funny and self-referential, and I would watch it again given the opportunity. What makes me happy is that it seems that there are more Easter eggs hanging about and that I could find even more humor on a second or third viewing.

Overall rating for The Muppets: 3

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