Even seasoned box-office observers were caught off guard this weekend when "Hop" came out of nowhere not only to win the weekend but also to top the opening of every other 2011 release with an estimated $38.1 million at the box office.
That mark takes into account movies as different as "Paul," Beastly" and "Lincoln Lawyer" ("Hop" bested the opening-weekend takes of all of them ... combined) and also puts the movie ahead of top 2011 grossers, including "Battle: Los Angeles" and "The Green Hornet," that had the advantage of 3-D ticket prices. "Rango," the film closest to "Hop" on the box-office chart, also wasn't released in 3-D, which may suggest a blog post unto itself. (It's worth noting that overall box office continues to slide; it was down 30% compared with the same weekend last year.)
But perhaps most surprising about the triumph of the Easter Bunny picture is the fact that the subgenre of the talking-animal hybrid film -- movies with real actors and cartoon animals, epitomized in the last few years by "Alvin & the Chipmunks" -- has been in the doldrums lately.
Over the last 12 months, hybrids such as "Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore," "Yogi Bear" and "Marmaduke" all had dismal openings. It was starting to seem as though a modern trend that essentially began 13 years ago with "Dr. Dolittle" (in which the animals were real but also spoke), continued the following year with "Stuart Little" (where the animal was animated) and reached its apex over the following decade with all manner of gabby cats, dogs and guinea pigs (yes, "G-Force" is one of the category's top earners) was coming to a squeaky end.
But it's still far too soon to proclaim the talking-animal picture back. Marketing tie-ins abounded for "Hop," including Kodak (a rather clever spot), Burger King (more traditional for a kids' movie) and the all-important Wal-Mart. The Easter connection, though it perhaps may not have played an overwhelming role in the film's success, didn't hurt either.
And it's hard to underestimate the uncanny knack that producer Chris Meledandri has for predicting and shaping audience tastes -- his batting average is starting to rival Pixar's Ted Williams-like record. (Meledandri has been behind animated hits such as "Ice Age" and "Horton Hears a Who!" as well as last year's "Despicable Me.")
Maybe most important, "Hop" passed the Pee Wee Herman Test -- it was goofy and appealing enough for kids (candy-pooping bunnies, e.g.) but with enough adult material slipped in to allow parents to feel good about going. (Underscoring the point: the movie's references to the likes of David Hasselhoff and "Fatal Attraction," its contributions from "Simpsons" veteran Mike Reiss, the voice casting of Russell Brand and even incidental plugs on the likes of "The Colbert Report.")
It's possible that the next talking-animal movie will try to replicate the "Hop" template. It's more likely, though, that the prospect of simultaneously getting the endorsement or involvement of Wal-Mart, Russell Brand, mainstream parents and Stephen Colbert comes along about as often as a certain holiday animal.
-- Steven Zeitchik
Photo: "Hop's" protaganist, E.B., is voiced by Russell Brand. Credit: Universal Pictures