24 Frames

Movies: Past, present and future

Category: Holiday Movies

Is 'Hop' a one-off success or the beginning of a talking-animal comeback?

April 4, 2011 |  7:00 am


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.


Hop bounds into first place

Movie review: Hop

Hop director Tim Hill: Our movie almost didn't make it

-- Steven Zeitchik

Photo: "Hop's" protaganist, E.B., is voiced by Russell Brand. Credit: Universal Pictures


Is Hollywood mounting a war on Christmas?

December 7, 2010 |  8:38 am

Movie studios to Santa: Drop dead.

For now, anyway.

It's hard to know how much is cultural, how much is financial and how much is cyclical. But whatever the reason, there isn't a single Christmas movie on studios' calendar this December.

There are, of course, a number of movies meant to appeal to family audiences: the Jack Black adaptation of "Gulliver's Travels," the latest "Chronicles of Narnia" installment, a "Tron" sequel. But movies having to do with snow, reindeer, Santa or anything else holiday are nowhere to be found.

There isn't even a darkly comic anti-Christmas movie, like a "Bad Santa" or "Christmas with the Kranks." (The lone Christmas release of any kind, Elle Fanning's "Nutcracker in 3-D," wasn't released by a studio and is a holiday turkey; about seven people have seen it since it came out two weeks ago.)

Things don't change much next year, either. There's only one major holiday release scheduled for 2011, the animated movie "Arthur Christmas" -- and that comes from the U.K.

As my colleague Dawn Chmielewski and I explore in a story in Tuesday's Times, there are plenty of explanations for the trend. Studios don't usually take sides in culture-wars debates. They do, however, pay attention to the shifting winds. And as Joe Roth, the former Disney executive who once shepherded holiday hits like "Home Alone" and "Santa Clause," says, holiday pictures just aren't where the creative or monetary Zeitgeist is circa 2010.

"The way to do a big-budget film these days is to take stories that everyone in the world knows and take them in a new direction,"  Roth told us. "But no one's come up with a fresh way to do a holiday movie, so we're all doing it with other kinds of stories." (Roth is doing just that with "Snow White" and "The Wizard of Oz.")

In past years there have been scads of movies playing off the holidays. In fact, as recently as 2006 we had a sack full of them, from a Danny DeVito comedy ("Deck the Halls") to a Nancy Meyers heartwarmer ("The Holiday"), to a horror movie ("Black Christmas").  That glut has turned, just four years later, into a scarcity. (Whether any of the '06 movies were any good is another matter.)

But don't be quick to blame Hollywood. Most of the movies from that fertile year of 2006 flopped. So right now, Hollywood executives' assumption is that Americans would rather come to theaters to see stories about pretty much anything other than Christmas. Are they right?

--Steven Zeitchik


Photo: Billy Bob Thonrton in "Bad Santa." Credit: Dimension Films


Christmas movies: Is Hollywood playing Scrooge?


Recommended on Facebook


In Case You Missed It...




Get Alerts on Your Mobile Phone

Sign me up for the following lists: