Over the Hedge, the latest computer-animated offering from DreamWorks, is a fast-paced and silly 80 minutes of lightweight family entertainment. Based loosely on the popular comic strip of the same name, the film is populated with a loveable cast of goofy animal characters, voiced uniformly well by a variety of big-name actors. It is more successful prat-falling than moralizing, but it manages to stay engaging for kids and adults alike right through the end credits.
RJ (voiced by Bruce Willis) is a food-obsessed raccoon living near an interstate campsite. His proximity to humans (and their trash) has afforded him the opportunity to develop a potato-chip addiction so severe he is willing to risk life and limb in order to steal the winter larder of a hibernating bear named Vince (a menacing Nick Nolte). The bear awakens, a struggle ensues, and the bounty of saturated fats and preservatives (human junk food) is lost in an unfortunate cliff incident. Vince spares RJ's life only on the condition that the raccoon replace every morsel of stolen food within a week.
RJ knows he cannot come close to amassing the required provisions on his own. He is wandering through the woods pondering his demise when he comes across a group of foragers just stirring from their winter sleep. Verne the Turtle (Gary Shandling) is the cautious and kind leader of an odd little community of critters, including Hammy the hyperactive Squirrel (Steve Carell), a possum father and daughter (William Shatner and Avril Lavigne), a family of lovable, down-home porcupines (Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara), and a no-nonsense skunk named Stella (a perfectly-cast Wanda Skyes).
The animals discover a strange, foreboding object intersecting their forest and, despite their decision to name it "Steve," retreat in fear until RJ explains that the new apparition is a hedge. The freshly formed subdivision on the other side represents a foreign threat to the forest-dwellers, but RJ sees a golden opportunity. It takes only minimal snack exposure to hook the awestruck animals on the food humans keep in "gleaming silver cans" outside their homes. (Even the wary Verne has to admit that tree bark has nothing on the "magical combination of corn flour, dehydrated cheese solids, BHA, BHT and good old MSG" that makes nacho cheese chips irresistible.) RJ realizes with relief and glee that it will be easy to con his naïve new friends into unwittingly helping him acquire enough groceries to satisfy a homicidal bear.
What ensues is an epic struggle between animals and suburbanites, with the latter being represented by a couple of caricatured humans: Gladys, a shrill Homeowner Association President (Dictator) voiced by Allison Janney (The West Wing), and The Verminator, a militant exterminator brought to life by a delightfully over-the-top Thomas Haden Church. The battle culminates in a brilliantly funny action sequence featuring an extremely caffeinated Hammy the Squirrel. (Star Trek aficionados say the scene is inspired by an infamous episode entitled "Wink of an Eye," but it's hilarious with or without knowledge of the Trekkie connection.) Along the way Wanda gets a makeover and a Pepé Le Pew-inspired romance with a house cat named Tiger (Omid Djahili), the porcupine children get to drive a car, and RJ gets to learn the true meaning of family.
Over the Hedge has a good deal of fun skewering suburban consumerism, particularly as it relates to calorie consumption. In one grin-inducing scene, RJ gathers the animals around a dining room window and lets them peer in as family members bow their heads to say grace. RJ explains the human relationship to food—they package the food, they ship the food, they store the food, they serve the food, and then, of course, they pray to the food. Watching the homo sapiens gather around barbecue grills, refrigerators and pantries, it seems self-evident that food is the object of their worship. Popcorn-munching audiences will find most of these scenes more amusing than preachy, although there are times the script gets a bit heavy-handed and teeters over the edge of Political Correctness.
William Shatner and Avril Lavigne's father and teenage daughter possums are a real highlight of Over the Hedge. Ozzie, the father, has the possum gift for playing dead as a survival technique in times of peril. Shatner has a great time lampooning his infamous acting techniques in overwrought death scenes that feature classic film and theatre dialogue. Heather, the daughter, is continually and understandably mortified by her father's theatrics. There is a nice arc to their story and a sweetness to the resolve in their relationship that is amusing and compelling at the same time. Less successful is the overall storyline about RJ's need to learn the importance of family. The moralizing there feels obligatory, more a tacked on "lesson" than an organic part of the story. Fortunately, Over the Hedge keeps plowing ahead with enough comedic force to overcome any of its shortcomings.
Over the Hedge was directed by Tim Johnson (Antz, Sinbad) and Karey Kirkpatrick (writer of Chicken Run and brother of acclaimed Christian music producer and artist Wayne Kirkpatrick). In the competitive arena of CGI movies, they've crafted a solid contender. Over the Hedge does not have a story as realized and compelling as Finding Nemo or as innovative as Shrek, but it is refreshingly free of the current-but-fleeting pop culture references that marred Shrek and sank Shark Tale. The film's messages—pro-family (really more "pro-community"), pro-ecology, and anti-consumerism—sometimes feel a bit forced. But Over the Hedge is genuinely and consistently funny, for both children and parents. And in a world of often-unfunny kid features, that's a triumph.Discussion starters
- The humans clear-cut a forest to create a subdivision, and then seek to exterminate the animals they've displaced. Practical ecological implications aside, what moral and spiritual obligation (if any) do humans have to animals and the environment?
- When RJ finally confesses his agenda, he's shocked to discover his friends would have willingly helped him if they'd known his need. Are there times when your desire to hide your own need keeps you from being completely authentic in your relationships?
- Most of the humans in Over the Hedge are more concerned about the appearance of the lawns than the state of the hearts in the neighborhood. Is there a sense of community where you live? Do you know how your neighbors are doing? Do you even know their names?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
Over the Hedge is rated PG for some rude humor and mild comic action. The rude humor is fairly innocuous, having mostly to do with a skunk and a cork in one scene and an exposed turtle posterior in another. The "mild comic action" is actually surprisingly violent for the intended audience. For example, the bear says he intends to "kill" RJ, rather than using a euphemism that makes the plot clear to older kids without freaking out younger ones. The resulting sense of peril made my eight-year-old fairly anxious at times (although he still loved the movie); it may be upsetting for sensitive kids or children under 6. There is also a fair amount of Road Runner-esque violence involving the exterminator's devices; it's funny but a bit gratuitous for younger kids.
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from Film Forum, 06/08/06
Andrew Coffin (World) says the movie "doesn't begin to reach Pixar-level transcendence (in the age-defying use of the term), this DreamWorks effort holds up well as amiable entertainment. One might not be tempted to recommend Over the Hedge to adults without children, but the cartoon is fun, energetic, and, mostly, family-appropriate."
from Film Forum, 05/25/06
Releasing a computer-animated family comedy during a stretch of the year when there's precious little all-ages entertainment out there? Good marketing. Releasing it on the same weekend as a film so controversial that many families and religious groups will go see anything else to avoid putting money in the devil's pocket? Ingenious.
On the computer-animated food chain, Over the Hedge doesn't hold a candle to the best of Pixar's family classics, but its position is certainly nothing to scoff at. On the one hand, it lacks the technical mastery and creative innovation of the Toy Story films and the emotional resonance of Finding Nemo; then again, it's got much more heart than the Shrek films, and its skillful animation puts Hoodwinked to shame.
Perhaps the best analogy is to compare it to such stylish, energetic films as Monsters, Inc. Like that movie, Hedge pulls off the tricky feat of never wearing outs its welcome or seeming overlong, despite the fact that it's basically one long Saturday morning cartoon. Its plot is simple: RJ the raccoon (Bruce Willis) gets caught red-handed (pawed?) stealing a wagonload of food from vicious bear Vincent (Nick Nolte), who proves what Stephen Colbert has been cautioning us all along—bears are godless killing machines. Thankfully for RJ, Vincent's still got a week's worth of hibernation to attend to before he'll have the energy to unleash his fury, giving RJ a precious seven days to replenish the bear's snack supply if he wishes to save his life.
In order to complete his goal, RJ enlists the help of a gaggle of unwitting accomplices: Vern, an ever-cautious tortoise (Gary Shandling); a pair of porcupines (Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara, reunited after their scene-stealing work in A Mighty Wind) and their three kids; Stella (Wanda Sykes), a feisty, usually-cranky skunk; Ozzie (William Shatner), a drama-loving opossum, and his daughter Heather (Avril Lavigne); and a lovable, hyperactive squirrel, Hammy (brilliantly voiced by Steve Carrell, who manages to make the character into something far more than the Hoodwinked knock-off he could have been). Together, the intrepid varmints begin a week's worth of pillaging and pilfering, venturing into the world of human suburbia and swiping as much junk food as they can get their paws on.
My full review of the film is posted at Reveal.
Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) is not quite as excited: "Over the Hedge is pretty middle-of-the-road entertainment — until the final third, when it kicks into high gear and goes out on a high note."
David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) agrees: "Mediocre but cheerily enjoyable, the movie imparts a commendable message about family and acting unselfishly, while offering funny commentary on our consumer society's obsession with excess, whether it's for food, sport utility vehicles or entertainment electronics."
Marcus Yoars (Plugged In), however, praises the film for its "several sweet messages about family and loyalty, great onscreen textures that will likely have tots reaching out to pet the furries, and vivid vocal performances. What you end up with is an animated critter caper that, while certainly not perfect and not even necessarily a classic, is better than average in the clever, creative—and clean—categories."
Stephen McGarvey (Crosswalk) says, "You could say that Over the Hedge is predictable, but in the end that doesn't really matter. It's cute, laugh-out-loud funny, and can be enjoyed on many levels."
Shari McMurray (Christian Spotlight) also sings the film's praises: "Full of wonderful realistic computer animation, Over The Hedge has characters you can relate to and have a fun time with. What modern kid's animation flick doesn't have 'potty jokes' these days? This one has a few, but they are not as distasteful as many out there and it is kinda funny when a character burps and tinges the air a deep magenta."
Mainstream critics are generally pleased with the film, if not overwhelmed.
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