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Over the Hedge   B

Paramount Pictures / DreamWorks Animation

Year Released: 2006
MPAA Rating: PG
Directors: Tim Johnson, Karey Kirkpatrick
Writers: Len Blum, Lorne Cameron, David Hoselton, Karey Kirkpatrick (based on characters created by Michael Fry and T Lewis)
Cast: Bruce Willis, Garry Shandling, Steve Carell, Wanda Sykes, William Shatner, Nick Nolte, Thomas Hayden Church, Allison Janney, Eugene Levy.

Review by Rob Vaux

The central lament about Over the Hedge has decidedly adult overtones. It won't bother the intended audience of wee tykes in the least, and even for us grizzled old hacks, the complaint is fairly minor. But in adapting Michael Fry and T Lewis' comic strip about forest animals dealing with advancing suburbia, the filmmakers had a real opportunity to say something sharp about the way we live. The movie's exquisitely animated landscape of cookie-cutter houses and disposable consumer culture cries out for biting, potent satire: a scathing condemnation of how we devour the natural world for the sake of a few bags of Cheetos. Promising moments surface throughout Over the Hedge, mostly in raccoon protagonist RJ's (voiced by Bruce Willis) observation of humans in their natural habitat. But more often than not, those instincts are submerged in favor of more standard animated fare: cute animals, slick one-liners, and a lot of frantic visuals designed to keep sugar-addled kids focused and attentive. Seen from grown-up eyes, one can't help lament what might have been.

Having said that, it still makes a pretty solid family film. The characters are fun and endearing, the dialogue clever and lightweight. The plot may be typical cartoon material, but it moves along briskly, and directors Tim Johnson and Karey Kirkpatrick add a few genuinely imaginative visual cues to the proceedings. If it settles for being ordinary, at least it's a well-made ordinary, delivering dependable entertainment without actively insulting our intelligence. And it sets itself apart by adopting as cuddly protagonists critters that might otherwise be considered pests. After inadvertently destroying the food stash of a very grumpy bear (Nick Nolte), RJ elicits the help of Verne the turtle (Garry Shandling) and his rag-tag band of possums, porcupines, and hyperactive squirrels to raid the local cul-de-sacs for goodies. Naturally, he doesn't tell them why he needs their assistance, preferring to hustle them on the empty promise of discarded chips, melted ice cream, and half-eaten pizza crusts -- a big step up, he assures them, from their usual diet of nuts and berries.

The predictable crisis of conscience that ensues -- as the overprotective Verne starts to question RJ's motives while RJ finds himself growing closer to the creatures he originally planned to exploit -- touches the same points as a thousand other kiddie films before it. Johnson and Kirkpatrick are skilled enough, however, that the ensuing storyline feels more comforting than hackneyed, and while nothing here breaks new ground, it's respectful enough to at least put some effort into the final product. The real joy comes in the smaller scenes, when the directors find simple ways to defy our expectations (such as a supposedly fearsome watch dog who turns out to be a goofy, if inadvertently dangerous, play pal).

The voice cast is uniformly well chosen, creating characters that, while hardly immortal, are at least pleasant and enjoyable. William Shatner makes an oddly perfect possum dad (yes, he has a death scene -- packed to the gills with Maximum Ham), and an offbeat romance between Wanda Sykes' skunk Stella and a local cat (Omid Djalili) riffs nicely on Warner's old Pepé Le Pew cartoons. The film's best moment involves Hammy the ADD squirrel (Steve Carell), and what happens when he's finally allowed a good jolt of caffeine. Over the Hedge really fires on all cylinders during such periods, as the directors' visual gags blend perfectly with the modest personalities of the characters. The remainder gels sufficiently to provide an agreeable 80 minutes that no one under 12 should be too picky to discard.

Still, the barely prodded subtext lingers over the film, providing a tantalizing hint of something better. The push and pull between wilderness and civilization finds an unusual embodiment in these figures: wild animals who learn how to thrive in the shadows of humanity's encroachment. While Over the Hedge makes a quiet point about how we should learn to live with nature, it addresses the issue only in the most basic terms. The directors amply demonstrate the talent to probe such a subject more deeply, without losing the good-time family fun that ultimately trumps it. Their unwillingness to do so won't bother the core audience, but parental chaperones may find themselves hoping for more than they finally receive. It's interesting to note that, while the movie focuses so much on discarded junk food, not a single box or wrapper bears a recognizable brand name. Did the filmmakers make a conscientious choice to boycott the product-placement dollars of Hostess and Frito-Lay? Or did those companies want to avoid being associated with the trash-heap waste of suburban sprawl? Either way, it says a lot about the underlying message of Over the Hedge... a message that, for all the movie's assets, remains frustratingly unexplored.

Review published 05.15.2006.

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