Over the Hedge (United States, 2006)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Over the Hedge, a feature-length adaptation of the popular comic strip, offers further proof that the Golden Age of Digital Animation has come and gone. This is arguably the most entertaining animated film since The Incredibles, but it's not much more than an enjoyable diversion. There are cute CGI animals, clever dialogue, a satirical look at suburban America, and a preachy moral, but it doesn't amount to much. Considering how the marketplace has changed, maybe it's unfair to compare Over the Hedge with the likes of Toy Story, Shrek, and Finding Nemo, but there's a world of difference. Those films engaged audiences of all ages on a variety of levels. This one falls in their shadow in terms of both ambition and achievement.

Lest it sound like I'm being too harsh, let me emphasize that I enjoyed Over the Hedge. It's cute. What's more, it aims to be a family film rather than a children's film - meaning that it doesn't only cater to the under-10 crowd. Aspects of the movie are designed to entertain adults. While Over the Hedge may not be the kind of movie that encourages older viewers to venture into multiplexes without offspring at their side, the movie does not insult the intelligence of those for whom puberty is in the rear-view mirror. In fact, one element of Over the Hedge - the rather biting way in which it views suburbia - will have more of an impact upon parents than their kids.

The chief weakness of the film is the lack of a compelling story. Wild animals raid human habitations for food. Humans hire an exterminator to eliminate the animals. Those two sentences sum up most of Over the Hedge. Admittedly, it's probably not a good idea to expect more from a movie based on a comic strip but, even at a short 80 minutes, the movie feels thin. It's a good thing there's enough humor and good natured banter to minimize the lack of substance. The filmmakers try to provide Over the Hedge with an emotional component by introducing a moral about the importance of family. This comes across as obligatory - as if it's necessary for any movie targeted at children to teach something. While it's true that most of the top animated movies have something to say, they integrate their lessons better into the storyline.

The hero of Over the Hedge is RJ the raccoon (voice of Bruce Willis), who makes the mistake of stealing the post-hibernation stash of Vincent the bear (Nick Nolte). Vincent catches RJ in the act, and gives RJ one week to replace his pile of junk food. So it's off to suburbia for RJ. He rightly believes that he'll be able to find more than enough candy, chips, and soda in a cookie-cutter community to satisfy the bear. Rather than work alone, he hoodwinks a bunch of locals into helping him: Hammy the squirrel (Steve Carell), Stella the skunk (Wanda Sykes), Ozzie and Heather the possums (William Shatner and Avril Lavigne), and Lou and Penny the porcupines (Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara). Verne the turtle (Garry Shandling), the leader of the group, distrusts RJ, suspecting him to have an ulterior motive, but he reluctantly goes along with the scheme - to a point.

Over the Hedge doesn't have a strong bad guy. There are three minor villains: Vincent, who sets things in motion and makes an appearance near the end; Gladys (Allison Janney), the shrill and arrogant head of the development's homeowner's association; and the exterminator (Thomas Hayden Church), who is called in by Gladys to keep her property safe. But the danger represented by any of these three is minor, although it gives the filmmakers an opportunity to include a few action sequences (such as a car chase in which three porcupine children operate a steering wheel by dancing around on it).

Visually, the film is on par with the other recent top computer animated productions. The film is rich in foreground and background details. The settings look photorealistic, but there's an element of animated cuteness to the characters that keep them from being creepy. For the most part, the vocal work is fine, although it can create a bit of a disconnect to recognize the voice of the cute raccoon RJ to belong to Bruce Willis, and I kept waiting for Ozzie to flip out a communicator and ask Scotty to beam him up. Using well-known voices in animated films is always a double-edged sword. Steve Carell, on the other, not only does an excellent job of camouflaging who he is, but succeeds in making Hammy an adorable scene-stealer.

Over the Hedge is solid family entertainment, and it's better than 2006's previous tepid animated releases. This isn't a "must see" cartoon, but neither is it something to be avoided. It fulfills the modest expectations of giving parents something they can see with their children without having to flip the "off" switch in their brains. I used the term "cute" earlier, and that's probably the most apt one-word descriptor that can be applied to Over the Hedge.

Over the Hedge (United States, 2006)