Monday, April 11, 2011

HOP (2011) and RANGO (2011)

PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: (1) *poor,* (2) *good*

These two animated films make a perfect diptych. Neither could be said to be exceptional enough to “break the mold,” and in comparison with even a work that hits on all cylinders, like Pixar’s THE INCREDIBLES, one might call both of them somewhat “average.” Yet there’s a line of quality between the two, in which the first of them is “depressingly average” while the second is “pleasingly average.”
HOP concerns the adventures of E.B., a young talking rabbit who is both the son of the current Easter Bunny and the destined inheritor of the Easter Bunny tradition. But though his name pretty well reinforces his destiny, he flees the hidden “Easter Bunny workshop” where Daddy Bunny and his assorted assistants (a handful of other rabbits and dozens of baby chicks) prepare the eggs for Easter morning. E.B. seeks out the human world in order to gain fame as a drummer. He latches on to Fred (James Marsden), a young guy who not only lacks a job but any sense as to what his destiny might be. While E.B. tries to pursue his dream, his father sends a trio of ninja bunnies to bring him back, while Carlos, the rebellious, Spanish-accented leader of the chicks, plots to take over Easter from all the bunnies.
The animation in HOP is pleasing enough, and James Marsden does yeoman service in countless reaction shots to assorted cartoon wonders. But HOP is too pleased with its high-concept idea to bother crafting even half-decent jokes. In one sequence E.B., fleeing the ninja bunnies, tried to get help from Fred while Fred is being interviewed at an office for a job. One expects E.B. to bring about some major chaos so that Fred gets kicked out, but all that happens is that E.B.’s presence makes Fred so nervous that he blows the interview—offcamera! But the visit to the office does serve a clunky plot-point: while there, E.B. finds out how he can audition at a talent-contest supervised by David Hasselhoff—which leads to even more egregiously unfunny shenanigans.

HOP’s near-jokelessness may pale before the fact that its high concept is really no concept. The United States inherited the tradition of the Easter Rabbit and his eggs from Europe, where it seems to have descended from archaic pagan rituals. But whatever deeper meanings the Easter Bunny may have for Europe, in the States the Easter-egg ritual is little more than a ritualized game. The filmmakers try to give the Easter Bunny tradition a semi-sacred resonance by borrowing tropes from Christmas, including having the Bunny deliver eggs in an “egg-sleigh.” But the resonance simply isn’t there. It’s true that both Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny are extra-Christian traditions that became associated with Christian religious occasions. But Santa really does incarnate a quasi-sacred quality that makes his raison d’etre credible even in the worst Santa movies. It might not be impossible to rethink the superficial tradition of the Easter Bunny so that it took on a deeper symbolism. But HOP can’t even begin to jump up to that challenge.

RANGO is the story of a city-boy lizard who must take on the persona of a fearless gunfighter to save a town full of Western talking animals. But though RANGO is a comic take on the Western genre, it comes far closer to imparting to its genre that “semi-sacred resonance,” even though the Western descends not from archaic myth and religion but from relatively modern history and literature. Yet despite these secular origins, the Western has often attained the stature of archaic legend for contemporaries, though less so in this century than in the previous one.

RANGO, in addition to having a fair quantity of good jokes and exciting action-sequences (no live-action tedium here), does seem to understand the psychological tone of the Western better than most live-action Westerns of the last twenty years. The lizard-- who’s never given any other name than “Rango,” his made-up name --becomes the archetypal “stranger in town” who becomes the town’s secular savior. In a trope possibly borrowed more from CHINATOWN than from any western, the town is dying due to the stranglehold that the evil turtle, the Mayor, has on the available water-resources. Even though the film is funny, the seriousness of the water-shortage is never played for comedy. Thus Rango’s transformation from fake hero to real hero becomes real as well, even to the point of his undergoing a sort of Campbellian “hero’s death,” in which he “dies” and is borne away on a catafalque made of beetles.

The filmmakers populate the town with assorted funny-animal takes on Western character-types, with emphasis on Rango’s destined girlfriend, feisty Miss Beans. True, not all of the characters are, strictly speaking, necessary to the plot. Still, the filmmakers seem to have taken an effusive joy in coming up with as many weird frontier-types as they could. If they err, it’s on the side of doing too much, in contrast to HOP, which does too little. And the film’s secondary villain, “Rattlesnake Jake,” may go down in history as one of Western animation’s best villains.

Both are in essence sociological myths, in that they deal with heroes who realize their destinies in order to maintain the social order.

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