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Over the Hedge (2006) Print E-mail
Friday, 19 May 2006
“Over the Hedge” is based on the mediocre comic strip by Mike Fry (writer) and T Lewis (artist); it’s still published, but was yanked from the Los Angeles Times after a relatively short stay. There seemed little to hope for from a movie version of the strip, even if it’s in flavor-of-the-decade CGI animation.

However, big surprise: after a shaky start, the movie becomes increasingly funny with well-formed characters and a simple but effective storyline. Co-director Tim Johnson directed “Antz” and “Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas,” while his partner, Karey Kirkpatrick, makes his directorial debut here. The screenplay is credited to Kirkpatrick, Len Blum, Lorne Cameron and David Hoselton.

“Over the Hedge” feels fresh and inventive, if not exactly innovative, with likeable characters moving about an unfussy landscape. There’s some CGI creativity in the depiction of lawn sprinklers and one of those mirror-surface lawn balls that rolls about the landscape. But the movie is about incidents and how the characters react to what happens; it’s not about the story, it’s not about the animation.

As the story opens, a small section of woodland is on the verge of spring. Crafty raccoon RJ (voice of Bruce Willis) is attempting to steal the junk food cache of hibernating bear Vincent (Nick Nolte), but things go wrong. Vincent wakes up, the cache is lost, and the bear threatens to kill RJ if he doesn’t turn up with replacement goodies by the first full moon—a few days away.

RJ encounters turtle Verne (Garry Shandling) as he and some furrier pals wake up from their own winter hibernation in a hollow log. Verne and his friends are stunned to discover that a long, high, well-trimmed hedge cuts right across the land they’ve long regarded as their own. On the other side is a newly-erected suburb; the animals are in the small section of “unimproved” forest.

Their first need is food. Well, the first need of just-awakened hyperactive squirrel Hammy (Steve Carell) is to take a pee, but the various porcupines and opossums, more or less led by the conscientious Verne, are indeed hungry. RJ sees their need as his chance to accumulate the food Vincent demands. Most of the rest of the movie is about the efforts of the woodland animals to round up the food—and about RJ keeping the real reason from his new companions.

Ozzie (William Shatner) is an opossum who feels his ability to fake death convincingly is a great theatrical triumph; Shatner is just wonderful in the role of the never-REALLY-say-die grand old ham, and singer April Lavinge is okay as his daughter Heather. Penny (Catherine O’Hara) and Lou (the very busy Eugene Levy) are proud porcupine parents. Stella, a skunk, is equipped with the brassy-African-American-woman voice (Wanda Sykes) that turns up in almost all CGI-animated features, but she undergoes some appealing and funny changes.
There are human beings involved, too. Gladys Sharp (Allison Janney) is the owner of the property just the other side of the hedge, and regards all animals as vermin. Dwayne (Thomas Haden Church) is an exterminator—he prefers The Verminator—she hires to clean up her yard. While the animals are animated reasonably well, for some reason the animation of the human beings, particularly of Gladys, is wildly over the top, full of broad gestures and extreme facial expressions. However, that of Dwayne does handle his impressive weight very effectively, not easy to do in any form of animation.

Gradually, RJ comes to like his new friends, to regard them as the family he’s never had, but Verne, though he likes RJ, remains very suspicious of the raccoon’s motives. (The characters and their relationships are not very much like those in the comic strip—for the better.)

The movie has a peculiar and definitely non-politically-correct attitude toward junk food; to persuade these “foragers” to switch from bark and leaves to Fritos and candy bars, RJ voices a paean to the kind of food you find in vending machines. Willis is especially good as RJ; it’s not at all the kind of role he’d ever play in live action (bear Vincent is more what you’d expect), and to my ears at least he sounds like he’s having a great time. Nick Nolte is fierce and authentically threatening as Vincent, who seems more like an Alaskan brown bear than the timid black bears often found near suburbs.

Among the junk food RJ favors are those high-energy drinks that come in narrow cans. Since Hammy is already frenetically active, Verne and RJ try to keep those drinks away from him. But finally, as it should, this pays off—at the climax it becomes necessary for Hammy to guzzle one of those drinks. What then happens is the biggest surprise in the movie, a very funny, imaginative take on hyperactivity. (Aging comic book fans like myself may remember something like this happening in the first Barry Allen/The Flash story.)

I suspect the makers of “Over the Hedge” are familiar with “Finding Nemo,” because they come up with a worthy variation on one of that film’s smaller gags—that what seagulls are always saying is “mine? Mine!” Here, a neighbor’s dog, a slavering Rottweiller, breaks loose and chases our heroes. But he’s not fierce. In fact he’s constantly saying “Play! Play! Play!”

As part of the food quest, Verne and RJ sort of redecorate Stella, changing her from a sure-to-be-smelly skunk to an attractive almost-kitty cat. Glady’s cat Tiger (Omid Djalili), pompous and pudgy, instantly falls for her. He’s supposedly a Persian cat, and has an Arabic accent, but he sure looks like a Siamese to me. Whatever.

The story is basically about RJ learning that it’s good to be part of a family, but the point is effectively dramatized rather than spelled out. Kids will have a lot of fun with the climax—there was applause at the press screening—even though some elements, like Vincent’s death threat to RJ seem a bit strong for younger kids.

“Over the Hedge” isn’t a classic, but there’s no indication that that’s the level the filmmakers were striving for; it’s a good family movie, and will no doubt be even more popular on home video.

The movie is preceded by “First Flight,” a pleasant if overly sentimental tale of a middle-aged man’s encounter with a baby bird.

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