Over the Hedge

Robin Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Robin Clifford 
Over the Hedge
Laura Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Laura Clifford 

The woodland creatures are waking up after their long winter hibernation and are ready to start foraging for next winter’s food stores. But, something is not right in the forest when they discover a huge green “thing” now surrounds their home. When a mischievous raccoon named RJ (voice of Bruce Willis) arrives on the scene, he claims that on the other side of the green thing is a land of milk and honey. This chagrins Verne the turtle (voice of Garry Shandling), especially when RJ convinces his little family of critters to go “Over the Hedge.”

I had seen the trailer for “Over the Hedge” and, with its concentration on the slapstick humor, I deemed it to be another obligation-to-see animation akin to “The Wild” and “Chicken Little.” Boy, I could not have been more wrong in my initial judgment. What we have here is a true for-all-ages animation classic that will thrill the kids and keep the adults laughing throughout.

RJ is in big trouble after he steals the food stash belonging to Vincent the bear (voice of Nick Nolte). The small mountain of goodies is accidentally destroyed and the huge bruin gives RJ just one week to replace all of it. When the opportunistic raccoon comes across Verne and his varied family of woodland creatures – Hammy the hyper squirrel (voice of Steve Carell), sassy and odiferous skunk Stella (voice of Wanda Sykes), a possum family headed by Ozzie (voice of William Shatner) and Lou (voice of Eugene Levy) and his hedgehog clan – he promises them the “gateway to the good life” just on the other side of the giant green hedge. Everyone, except for the skeptical Verne, jumps at the chance for a shot at easy pickings. RJ, of course, just wants to use them all to keep from being a snack for Vincent.

This brief description of the plot setup for “Over the Hedge” only scratches the surface of this intelligent and complex (though not complicated) story that humorously, very humorously, deals  with such things as selfishness and using others for personal gain, rampant consumerism in America and, most of all, the importance of family and teamwork. It does this with dazzling CGI effects that will easily keep the younger kids watching but also has smart, subtle (and, sometimes, not so subtle) humor that make this the kind of film that even adults without kids will want to see.

Co-directors Tim Johnson and Karey Kirkpatrick take what could have been a story-by-committee (the screenplay is by Kirkpatrick, Len Blum, Lorne Cameron and David Hoselton, utilizing characters created by Michael Fry and T. Lewis) and create a finely crafted animation that is a delight. DreamWorks Animation stands toe-to-toe with CGI megastar, Pixar, with an animated feature film that doesn’t go for just cheap laughs and, with all the adult-level references, begs for multiple viewings just to catch all of the jokes and topical references that abound throughout.

The name cast, led by RJ’s Bruce Willis and Verne’s Garry Shandling, lose their human personae in their characters making this a true ensemble performance. Each character is well voiced and given unique dimension by the vocal actors who, to a man (animal?), do fine voice work. The melding of good vocal characters, terrific story and expert computer animation make “Over the Hedge” a must to see at the theater, where you can best enjoy the total package in its wide screen splendor. It will fare quite well in ancillary release, I’m sure.

Over the Hedge” blows the doors off of the other two anime hits from earlier this year – “Ice Age: The Meltdown” and “The Wild” – and it is going to give any other animations released this year (read: “Cars”) a real run for the money for award notice. It is a truly for-all-ages movie that is a joy to behold. I give it an A.

When Vincent (voice of Nick Nolte), a bear, comes out of his hibernation, he catches RJ (voice of Bruce Willis), a raccoon, about to make off with his towering stash of junk food, which gets destroyed in RJ's resulting panic.  Vincent gives RJ one week to replace every last bit or it's curtains for the coon, but RJ gets lucky when he meets a group of innocent woodland creatures who've never experienced the joys of nacho cheese chips and convinces them to venture into human territory to gather new food types "Over the Hedge."

Dreamworks may be behind Pixar when it comes to computer generated imagery, but they're certainly ahead of Blue Sky Studios ("Ice Age: The Meltdown") in the storytelling department. "Over the Hedge" improves upon the animals-in-a-strange-land formula from "Madagascar" by instead honing in on a phenomenon we have all probably experienced, that of wildlife being forced out of its natural habitat and adapting to human manufacture.  And it's funnier.

Writers Len Blum ("The Pink Panther"), Lorne Cameron ("Brother Bear"), David Hoselton ("Brother Bear") and Karey Kirkpatrick ("Chicken Run," "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy") choose two wild species who pioneered the exploration of human trash - the bear and the raccoon - to start spinning their tail before then introducing us to the more unspoiled species led by Verne (voice of Garry Shandling), a turtle.  This group, who are also just awakening from hibernation, include a family of porcupines (mother and father given Canadian inflected vocals by Catherine O'Hara and Eugene Levy of "A Mighty Wind"), Ozzie (voice of William Shatner) the opossum and his daughter Heather (voice of pop star Avril Lavigne), skunk Stella (Wanda Sykes, "Monster-in-Law") and Hammy (Steve Carell, "The 40 Year Old Virgin"), the now completely cliched over-caffeinated squirrel (see "Ice Age's" Scrat or "Hoodwinked!'s" Twitchy) character.  They don't know what to make of the giant hedge that wasn't there when they packed it in for the winter and Verne's exploratory trek to the other side is rather terrifying as he comes into play with an automatic sprinkler system and witnesses a butterfly connect with a bug zapper.

When RJ comes across these innocents, his savvy with acquiring tasty treats and entertainments seduces and corrupts all but Verne, whose tail tingling indicates something is not quite right.  And RJ's unchecked cheekiness does indeed get them into hot water when the neighborhood reacts to its overturned trash cans by hiring the Verminator (voice of Thomas Haden Church, "Sideways") to do them in.

"Over the Hedge" doesn't feature cutting edge animation (it's animal characters are of the squeeze toy variety with minimal touches of texture) and its relationship storyline - scam artist comes to love those he seeked to harm - is no where near as clever as its nature versus suburban sprawl backdrop.  Its human characters are the same type of havoc wrecking humans used in "Toy Story. "  Yet it is packed with so many delightful observations and its actors so well cast that one can forgive it its shortcomings.  Hammy may be a tired concept, but Carrell makes him fun and a climatic 'Hammy-eye-view' of 'time-come-to-a-standstill' is a hoot.  RJ's perspective on how animals 'eat to live' but humans 'live to eat' is backed up by a witty demonstration and his foray into backyard barbecues with a well-meaning Verne is a classic cartoon set piece.  The filmmakers astutely spin their own version of brand name slogans ('Spuddies - because enough just isn't enough') and cleverly incorporate pop culture references from 'The Waltons' to Pepe le Pew.

"Over the Hedge" could be the beginning of a series with something to say about man's influential relationship with his fellow creatures.  It's laugh out loud funny while getting its audience to look at itself from another perspective.

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