Even Easter Bunnies question their calling. That’s the high-concept premise behind Universal and Illumination Entertainment’s half-animated, all-hyperactive “Hop,” an innocuous, young-skewing comedy in which a magic CG rabbit set to inherit the family candy-delivery business decides he’d rather take a shot at rock ‘n’ roll stardom. Why rock, rather than hip-hop, is anybunny’s guess, though either way, the basic overnight-sensation pop-star fantasy will surely appeal to a demographic weaned on “American Idol,” spelling another hit for the toon studio behind last summer’s “Despicable Me,” with built-in repeat potential on the cinematically underserved holiday.
Unlike “Despicable Me,” Illumination’s entirely CG debut, “Hop” integrates animated characters into live-action settings, relying on director Tim Hill to handle the logistics of convincingly blending both worlds. In the tradition of Hill’s earlier work (flesh-and-toon hybrids “Alvin and the Chipmunks” and “Garfield: A Tale of Two Kitties”), “Hop” requires a lovable doofus to roll his eyes and generally look annoyed by all the mischief the toon troublemakers cook up, a task that falls to James Marsden as unemployed, overly picky job hunter Fred O’Hare. But the pic’s obvious star is E.B., the jellybean-pooping Easter Bunny-to-be voiced by Russell Brand.
While most kids have a relatively rigid concept of the Santa Claus legend, the mythology of Easter gift-giving is vague enough that “Despicable Me” screenwriters Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul, working with Brian Lynch, are free to imagine an elaborate Willy Wonka-style operation based on Easter Island. Hidden beneath the primitive tiki statues, a long line of magical rabbits have secretly prepared a bounty of sweets to be stashed around the world via a giant Faberge egg-shaped sleigh.
E.B. is intimidated by his looming responsibility and runs away to Hollywood to audition for a David Hasselhoff-hosted talent search. Although E.B. is mostly there just to complicate Fred’s life, his first time off the island supports a few cute culture-shock gags, as when he shows up looking for shelter at the Playboy Mansion. That one-off joke aside, “Hop” is commendably forward-thinking in how it positions female characters, drawing Fred’s mom (Elizabeth Perkins) and sister (Kaley Cuoco) as successful professionals, while pitting E.B. against a trio of highly trained girl bunnies, aka the “Pink Berets,” dispatched to track him down.
Brand’s cheeky, Brit-inflected voicework helps smooth over E.B.’s self-absorbed adolescent behavior (including an unfortunately catchy rendition of “I Want Candy”), though the character’s decidedly un-cuddly design (credited to Peter de Seve, the cartoonist behind “Ice Age’s” Scrat character) doesn’t translate especially well to CG. Sounding positively Santa-like in his delivery, Hugh Laurie plays E.B.’s even less adorable dad, while scene-stealer Hank Azaria affects a hilariously un-PC Spanish accent as Carlos, the power-hungry chick who plots to seize control of Easter Island in E.B.’s absence.
On the human side, matinee idol-handsome Marsden has long since outgrown such roles (and is comedically capable of so much more, as he proved in “Hairspray” and “Enchanted”) and yet the star’s irrepressibly daffy grin allows him to pull off a twentysomething dude who crashes with his parents and still believes in the Easter Bunny. (Playing Fred’s exasperated dad, Gary Cole is just 17 years Marsden’s senior, while Perkins could be his older sister.)
Although the toon work by Rhythm & Hues (which also handled “Alvin” and “Garfield”) is polished enough that E.B. looks at home in the live-action world, Fred seems out-of-place at Easter Bunny HQ — a cavernous, Bond villain-scale virtual set where the relatively simple-minded story finally erupts into full-blown nuttiness.
The haphazard climactic showdown may not be elegant, very nearly sabotaging “Hop’s” soft-boiled holiday-classic potential, but it does manage to bring together the various story threads (even redirecting E.B.’s aborted dream of becoming a star drummer) while answering the prologue’s claim of how Fred O’Hare came to be “the first human Easter Bunny.” That kind of wording ensures Illumination can make sequels with or without its smiley star.