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Friday, April 1, 2011

Rabbit Week: Rabbit Hole and Hop

Here's a bit of a random twofer review that I did for Artslink.


From Artslink.co.za (Originally posted 1 April 2011)

I'm not going to deny that this is a huge leap – if you pardon the very flimsy pun – but we do have a week that features two films whose titles allude to those adorable, bouncy rodents so why not compare the two? Or, at least create a “double-feature” review comprising the two films? Well, yeah, I realise that the connection I am trying to make is both pathetic and tenuous to the point of non-existence but that only makes it all the more interesting! What's really interesting though, is that it's not actually a given as to which of the two is better.


Let’s start with Rabbit Hole. Here we have a film that earned one of its stars a fairly well-deserved Oscar nomination for best actress. It's a film that deals with the very worthy, very sobering theme of a couple trying to get through the tragic death of their young son. And it is very, very good.

Its subject matter is obviously a powerful one but it is also one that could have led Rabbit Hole right down its very own rabbit hole (am I on a roll this week or what?) - a hole filled with all the worst overacting, mawkish sentimentality and lazily manipulative tear-jerking that is a staple of the worst examples of these tragi-dramas. It's a powerful testament to the quality of the acting, the script and John Cameron Mitchell's restrained direction that it is emotionally moving rather than vomit inducing.

It's especially a stand out film for Nicole Kidman. Aaron Eckhart is as great as ever and Dianne Wiest is really impressive in her supporting role but it is by Kidman that I am most pleasantly surprised. While I liked her work a lot in the 1990s/ early 2000s in films such as The Others, To Die For and Moulin Rouge, since then I have found her to be an increasingly infuriating screen presence. She possesses this brittleness that when harnessed properly can be used for great emotional poignancy – as best displayed in the very underrated The Others – but, when left to its own devices, gives many of her later performances an irritatingly humourless and self-important flavour that I find very difficult to stomach. Here though, not only does her fragility work perfectly, she also brings a fire and a passion to this role that is all too often missing from her lesser works.

Kidman, aside though, I never really felt that Rabbit Hole was robbed of Oscar nominations. Not just because it was a strong year but because, while it may be very very good, it never quite makes the leap to true greatness. While it's a very solidly crafted piece of work, there is a definite ordinariness to it that stops if from working on the same emotional or intellectual levels as, say, Never Let Me Go, Black Swan or Winter's Bone.

The rabbit hole of the title, incidentally, refers to a sub-plot in the film where the young man responsible for the child's death starts working in a comic book that portrays a “rabbit hole” through time and space to a limitless number of parallel worlds. It acts as a comfort to Kidman's character who uses the idea of parallel universes to imagine one where her son is still alive and she is still happy. It's a part of the film that feels both like one of the more intriguing parts of the drama while coming across as slightly out of place.





And then we have Hop.

Putting aside Academy Award nominations and emotional poignancy for a minute, lets take a look at what Hop offered at the outset.

For a start, we have the title. Now, “Hop” may not have the unwieldy incomprehensibility of something like “Legends of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole” but it's still a pretty crappy and very uninformative title. Of course, when you consider its premise, it's not that hard to understand why they went with something so vague. Just take a look at this brief plot synopsis:

The Easter Bunny's teenage son doesn't want to take over the candy-making and delivery service from his father so he runs away from Easter Island to Hollywood to pursue a career as a drummer. While looking for a place to stay he is run over by an out-of-work, young layabout who is on his way to house sit his sisters' bosses Beverly Hills mansion. The young bunny and young man suddenly find themselves forming an uneasy friendship and it's not long before the two of them work together to help fulfil each other’s dreams. The bunny soon finds his way onto David Hasselhof's talent-scouting show, while the young man finds himself on his way to becoming the first human Easter Bunny.

That's the plot. I kid you not. It really is that mind-boggingly daft. Here's the thing though: Hop is kind of awesome.

For a start, that plot is so far off the reservation, so brilliantly bonkers that it becomes all the more endearing as it continues its free-fall into nonsensical hogwash. Within minutes, Hop abandons all sense of logic and reality as it more and more starts to resemble a very trippy fairy tale. A very trippy fairy tale, by the way, that also happens to exalt the crass commercialization of what is surely one of the most holy days of the year for most Christians – all the while coming across as one of the least Marxist films I've seen in a good long while. Oh yeah, along with all that, this “kids-friendly” holiday offering makes reference to the Playboy mansion. Twice. To go back to that strained earlier metaphor, if Rabbit Hole's greatest strength is that it avoids falling into its own rabbit hole, Hop's greatest strength is that it plunges in head first.

Beyond being clinically insane, Hop also has the twin virtues of being incredibly charming and incredibly funny. Quite aside for the fact that talking bunnies can't help but be cute and/ or cool – a fact never more in evidence than in the Easter Bunny's own personal, ninja-like security team, “The Pink Berets” - the rapid-fire jokes come thick and fast and the cast is filled with great comedic talent.

“The Hof” poking fun at himself is always a great source for amusement but that is only the tip of the iceberg here. Hop is a film that combines CGI animation with live action and there is great comedic talent on both sides of the “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”-like divide.

On the voice-acting front we have Hank Azaria, Hugh Laurie (in traditional, very British form) and, as our young rabbit protagonist, Russell Brand. Brand, in particular, is especially and consistently hilarious. On the live action side, we have Gary Cole, Elizabeth Perkins and, most importantly, James Mardsen as Russel Brand's chief sparring partner. Mardsen is just brilliant here. Not only do Brand and Mardsen work terrifically off one another, there is something about Mardsen that makes him perfect for this role.

It's odd, while he's generally OK in relatively straight, traditional leading-man roles, James Mardsen suddenly becomes one of Hollywood's most sublime comic talents when it comes to these live-action-cartoony family films. He was fantastic in Enchanted and he's even better here. Without falling into the Jim Carey school of comedic overacting, he brings this goofy and cartoon-like likeability to the kind of roles that would, in most people's hands, be cringe-worthily embarrassing, at best. It is thanks to him, more than anyone else, that the film works as well as it does.

Now, I know it might seem that I am simply being contrary when I say that, though Rabbit Hole and Hop are both basically 8/10 films that are well worth your time, I would have to give the nod to the latter as the more satisfying film. There's just no getting past it though, the ridiculous Easter film just charmed my socks off and it is easily my film of the week.



Both films:

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