Film Reviews: Wednesday, May 17, 2006
R.J. and some whipped cream make Hammy look like a rabid squirrel in ‘Over the Hedge.’
Over the Hedge\r\nVoices by Bruce Willis and Garry Shandling. Directed by Tim Johnson and Karey Kirkpatrick. Written by Len Blum, Lorne Cameron, David Hoselton, and Karey Kirkpatrick, based on Michael Fry and T Lewis’ comic strip. Rated PG.
Hey, Verne

Check out Over the Hedge, an animated film that’s much better than it appears.


After a bright start in 1998 with the vastly underrated Antz, DreamWorks Animation faded into the shadow of Pixar, and deservedly so. For all the stretches of inventiveness and visual splendor in DreamWorks’ computer-animated movies (the Ice Age films Shark Tale, Madagascar, even the Shrek films), they never matched the wit, depth, and emotional resonance of the Disney-affiliated outfit’s fantastic pictures. Someone has to set the standard, and someone has to fall short of it, right? Well ... maybe not. DreamWorks’ latest film, Over the Hedge, ranks not only as its best movie to date, but also one of this year’s more stunning cinematic achievements.

I know, you’re thinking, Over the Hedge? Yet another movie with big-time Hollywood stars lending their voices to cuddly woodland creatures? The one with the lame trailer? The one exactly like the other one that came out last month called The Wild, which wasn’t good at all? Yes, all that is correct, but that shouldn’t scare you away from this satisfyingly smart and funny family film.

The movie begins with a worrywart of a turtle named Verne (voiced by Garry Shandling) and his motley crew of mammalian friends waking up from their hibernation to find half of the forest where they live has been cleared away in favor of a gated community of suburban homes. This development looks disastrous for the animals’ food supply until a savvy, smooth-talking raccoon named R.J. (voiced by Bruce Willis) swoops in and turns them onto the stuff that the humans are throwing away. Verne’s suspicious of the new guy, and his feelings are driven by more than jealousy about being replaced as the group’s leader. R.J. turns out to owe a mountain of food to a nasty bear named Vincent (voiced by Nick Nolte) after being found pilfering from Vincent’s stash, and he’s using his new friends’ scavenging efforts to pay off his debt so Vincent won’t eat him.

Over the Hedge started out as a comic strip by Michael Fry and T Lewis, in which Verne and R.J. make observations about the human world from their animal perspectives. That element provides some tasty comic business in the movie when R.J. introduces the animals to suburbia. “That is an SUV,” he says, pointing one out. “Humans drive around in them because they are slowly losing the ability to walk.” He has a great extended riff that interprets every facet of human society as driven by eating. (He’s not wrong, you know.) A telephone: “That is a device to summon food.” A dining-room table: “That is the altar where they worship the food.” A treadmill: “That is where they work off their guilt so they can eat more food.”

Of course, the movie introduces a whole new cast of characters for Verne and R.J. to interact with. They’re not that fascinating as written, and some of their shtick is a tad repetitive — the porcupine parents (voiced by Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara) and the father-and-daughter possums (voiced by William Shatner and Avril Lavigne) particularly need more layers. Whatever flaws there are in the writing, though, are redeemed by the shrewdly cast voiceover actors, who make these characters pop off the screen. Nowhere is this more true than when it comes to Steve Carell, back in his scene-stealing supporting-player mode, as a squirrel named Hammy whose hyperactivity makes him a compelling wild card. Other actors fit their roles so beautifully, you’ll want to cry: Nolte as that bear, Allison Janney as a ball-busting homeowner’s association president who wants to kill the animals, Thomas Haden Church as a manlier-than-thou exterminator whom she calls in. And how can you not be taken by the Iranian actor Omid Djalili providing the voice of a pompous Persian housecat who, in a delightfully unexpected turn, falls in love with a skunk (voiced by Wanda Sykes) in Verne’s group?

If that isn’t enough, the action sequences here are cleverer and more resourceful than the ones in Mission: Impossible III or Poseidon, often using unusual props like the mechanical display on top of the exterminator’s truck, which is a marginally funny sight gag when it first appears but later plays a key role in the climactic car chase. I have to mention the scene when Hammy helps save the day by drinking a caffeinated soda — the same thing happened to a character (another hyperactive squirrel, wouldn’t you know?) in Hoodwinked earlier this year, but this movie still manages to handle the situation in its own distinctive way.

This is great if you’re just looking for a summer blockbuster, but like all superior mainstream entertainment, Over the Hedge has more to offer than that. With its complex characters and multifaceted sense of humor, it lays down a challenge to the firm whose name has lately become synonymous with high-quality family films. I never thought I’d write this, but this movie is good enough to make me say it: Top this, Pixar.

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