The Easter Bunny or rather, his rambunctious teenage son E.B., as voiced by Russell Brand came early this year, as Hop, the kid-friendly mix of live action and cartoonery released by Universal's new animation unit, earned $38.12 million, according to early studio estimates, to thump the new thrillers Source Code and Insidious and land at the top of the North American box office. But for Hollywood, which has seen severe drops each weekend from the same times last year, the pre-Easter presents have been rotten eggs.
Made for $63 million (not a lot for a film employing animation), Hop saturated the kids' networks with commercials and, according to IndieWire's Anthony D'Alessandro, "touted 92 tie-in partners and licenses, valued at $76 million, with a big push from such family brands as Walmart, Hallmark, Burger King and the Hershey Company. The most prolific partner, Walmart, offered an array of crossover Hop and Easter tchotchkes." The broad-based promotion paid off. Hop stole tweens away from last week's No. 1 film, Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules, and mopped up with the very young and their indulgent parents. Depending on the final weekend totals issued April 4, Hop's first-three-day total may pass Rango's $38.08 million to register the top weekend gross of 2011 so far.
But that's not much to brag about. Consider that the bunny movie's executive producer is Chris Meledandri, who went to Universal after heading Blue Sky Studios, the makers of the three Ice Age films and Horton Hears a Who!, and who birthed last summer's animated hit Despicable Me; that its writers include Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio, who helped fashion Horton and Despicable Me; and that its director, Tim Hill, did Hop's obvious predecessor, Alvin and the Chipmunks same bratty rodent, same flummoxed human slacker sidekick.
Now, if you have any of these films on your all-time list of greatest animated features, you must be 11. But enduring quality aside, all of them were solid hits. They enjoyed at least $40 million first weekends (some were much higher, and in years when ticket prices were much lower) on their way to worldwide grosses in the multiple-hundred millions. So by the standard of its creators' earlier work and aiming at the one currently reliable demographic of moviegoers, Hop flopped. It may have, in industry parlance, great legs school vacations are staggered, and plenty of kids will see the film on their coming weeks off but it's still another of this year's underperformers, compared both with other movies in its class and the similar films (in this case, How to Train Your Dragon) that opened in the same time frame last year.
The critics panned Hop, with a flunking 24% grade on Rotten Tomatoes, though audiences (those adorable, easy-to-please tots) gave it an A in the CinemaScore polling of Friday-night moviegoers. Source Code, a time-travel melodrama starring Jake Gyllenhaal and directed by Moon's Duncan Jones (the son of rocker David Bowie, known in his youth as Zowie Bowie or Joey Bowie), pulled a generous 89% from Rotten Tomatoes' reviewers but only a B from CinemaScore's actual paying moviegoers. The picture earned $15 million, a bit below industry forecasts. Source Code had to fight for its adult-male audience with another sci-fi-premised film, the Bradley Cooper holdover hit Limitless, which has now earned $55.6 million in its first 17 days in theaters.
The other new entry, Insidious, from the writer (Leigh Whannell) and the director (James Wan) of the first Saw movie, is a mix of the haunted-house and possessed-kid horror subgenres. Made for a piddling $1 million, sold to the infant indie FilmDistrict for $5 million and with an advertising budget of $25 million, Insidious earned $13.5 million this weekend much higher than expected, and a nice return on investment for the filmmakers, but not a blockbuster take for a well-reviewed thriller. (Source Code and Insidious together couldn't match the weekend gross of Hop.) The number offers another indication that teens, Hollywood's core constituency for ages, have gone AWOL to social networking.
Teens certainly didn't support Sucker Punch, the $80 million sexy-schoolgirl fantasy from Zack Snyder, the fanboys' fave auteur (300, Watchmen). Opening at a modest $19.1 million last weekend, Sucker Punch plunged 68% in its second frame exactly the drop in Watchmen's second week, though that film made its suicide plunge from a much loftier level (from $55.2 million to $17.8 million). Snyder may be experiencing one of the fastest rise-fall directorial careers since Dennis Hopper went from the sleeper hit Easy Rider to the almost unreleased The Last Movie.