Over the Hedge
Director : Tim Johnson & Karey Kirkpatrick
Screenplay : Len Blum and Lorne Cameron & David Hoselton and Karey Kirkpatrick (based the comic strip created by Michael Fry and T. Lewis)
MPAA Rating : PG
Year of Release : 2006
The computer-animated comedy Over the Hedge, which is being billed as the new movie from the creators of Shrek and Madagascar even though the only thing they have in common is the fact that they were all produced by DreamWorks (no, wait, co-director Tim Johnson got a “Special Thanks” credit on Shrek), is based on the comic strip by Michael Fry and T. Lewis about a group of woodland animals who happily subsist off their suburban human neighbors. It is part animal comedy, part social satire, although the movie’s obvious desire to be a plushy mega-hit tends to soften its parodic edges, especially when it resorts to the Disneyified stand-by of ensuring that the main character learns an import life lesson at the end of 90 minutes, in this case the importance of family.
The idea behind the story is that, while the woodland creatures were hibernating for the winter, an enormous, 50-acre suburban development was built and a tall hedge erected to separate the manicured lawns and garden gnomes from the unruly underbrush of the wild. The main characters are an odd assortment of animals that have come together as a family under the measured, steady leadership of the turtle Verne (Garry Shandling). The other animals are a sassy skunk named Stella (Wanda Sykes, natch), a hyperactive squirrel named Hammy (Steve Carrell), a possum named Ozzie (William Shatner, jovially mocking his own penchant for overacting every time he “plays possum”) and his teen daughter Heather (Avril Lavigne), and a pair of porcupines (Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara) and there three little ones, all of whom sound like they stumbled out of a snowy drift in Fargo.
Their usual way of doing things (which consists mainly of foraging for 275 days a year and then hibernating) is upset with the arrival of RJ (Bruce Willis), a world-wise raccoon who has learned to live off humans. He introduces the other critters to the tasty pleasure of nacho-cheese chips, after which berries and bark just don’t seem as good. RJ then shows them the wonders of suburbia, which allows the film to view human beings and their food obsessions from a slightly canted animal point of view (“And here is where they worship the food,” RJ announces as they look through a window at a family saying the blessing before digging into their delivery pizza).
The human characters are, therefore, pointed exaggerations of our worst characteristics. The movie’s representative human is Gladys (Allison Janney), an SUV-driving, power-suit-wearing busybody-president of the homeowners’ association. Obsessed with the manufactured perfection of the sparkling new neighborhood, she doesn’t take kindly to the animal intrusion, and promptly calls “The Verminator” (Thomas Haden Church), an pest exterminator who isn’t quite as funny as he could have been (I kept thinking of John Goodman’s great performance as the maniacal exterminator in 1990’s underrated horror-comedy Arachnophobia).
RJ has a hidden motive in organizing the woodland creatures and invading the suburbs: he owes a rather large grizzly bear (Nick Nolte) a season’s supply of food. Thus, he is just using Verne and his family for gathering the suburban delights, after which he plans to take off. Not surprisingly, once he is made part of the “family” and realizes the benefits of familial love and forgiveness, he learns the error of his ways (but not before said grizzly bear shows up to wreak havoc).
Despite its various shortcomings, Over the Hedge is a much better computer-animated comedy than a number of recent entries, including Disney’s Chicken Little and The Wild and DreamWorks’ Madagascar. It never feels like it’s trying too hard, which is the weight that sinks many animated comedies these days. It has a frantic pace at times and crams in its share of cultural references, but because the story is primarily a satire on suburban life, it fits the material, rather than overshadowing it. And, in today’s increasingly product-placement-glutted media environment, it is nothing short of amazing that a film that features every possible variant of junk food imaginable doesn’t contain a single recognizable brand.
Copyright ©2006 James Kendrick
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All images copyright ©2006 DreamWorks Animation