Over The Hedge Review
A heist movie with cuddly animals as the thieves, Over The Hedge is a delightful computer-animated film, the best of its kind for some time. After a run of mediocre, CGI blockbusters like Shark Tale, Madagascar and Ice Age: The Meltdown, this one pumps fun and imagination back into the genre and whets the appetite for the slew of similar movies due out soon.
It's about a charming but greedy raccoon named RJ (voiced by Bruce Willis), who gets into big trouble when a mean bear (Nick Nolte) catches him stealing his food supply. Given one week to replace all the items he stole or be eaten, RJ heads for a newly built housing development, where he runs into a gang of peaceful woodland creatures led by a cautious turtle called Verne (Gary Shandling). They've just emerged from hibernation to find a large hedge looming over their clearing and they're unsure whether to explore it or worship it.
Introducing himself, RJ expains what a hedge is and shows them what's on the other side - suburban homes bursting with junk food! He convinces the animals, with little difficulty, to help him organise raids to steal the food. Of course his new friends don't realise RJ intends to disappear with the loot to save his skin. They also don't know that the suburbanites have caught on. Bossy social climber Gladys (The West Wing's Allison Janney) is afraid that an animal infestation will hurt her property value and she hires an unscrupulous pest control expert known as the Verminator (Thomas Haden Church from Sideways) to get rid of them permanently.
Everything is right about Over The Hedge. The animation looks great but that's to be expected. A decade has passed since Toy Story was released and Hollywood hasn't yet produced a computer-animated feature which hasn't looked the business. More importantly, this movie has something its recent rivals have lacked: a great script.
The characters are very well drawn - the rivalry between RJ and Verne is involving, if reminiscent of the Woody / Buzz relationship in Toy Story, and RJ's developing conscience gives the film a heart. The story is surprisingly gripping for an animated film aimed primarily at kids. Turning the second half into a heist movie is a stroke of genius. There's something disarming about watching cute possums and hedgehogs break into a kitchen as if they're Ocean's Eleven.
The script is based on an American newspaper comic strip of the same name, which I don’t believe is published in England. The strip carries an environmental message about the suburbs encroaching on woodland and man’s general mistreatment of nature. The movie, wisely I think, keeps the message but reduces it to subtext. It doesn't preach like Pocahontas. The points it does make are made humourously. RJ has a very funny monologue explaining how humans' lives revolve around food.
The film's humour is its strongest asset - it's as funny as the Shrek pictures and almost as funny as Antz, still my favourite computer-animated movie, which was also made by Tim Johnson, who co-directs this with first-timer Karey Kirkpatrick. The script is written by comedy veterans, including Len Blum who wrote Stripes and Private Parts, and it crackles with wit, much of which will sail over the heads of children (they won't get the Streetcar Named Desire gag, that's for sure!). My favourite bit: the baby hedgehogs who've learned how to drive by playing a video game called Auto Homicide 3!
The icing on the cake is the perfect casting. Glancing down the cast list and noting the involvement of Bruce Willis, Gary Shandling, Steve Carell, Nick Nolte, William Shatner and Avril Lavigne, you might be forgiven for thinking the producers hired a lot of big names just for their marquee value. That's what Dreamworks did last year with Madagascar, casting Ben Stiller and Chris Rock and giving them very little to do. Fear not however for Over The Hedge is as cleverly and judiciously cast as Antz and Finding Nemo.
Bruce Willis hasn't been such a likeable scoundrel for years. Having played mostly tough guys since Die Hard, he slips back into his smart-aleck, Moonlighting persona to very pleasing effect. Gary Shandling is the perfect foil, ditching his own wise-guy image to play the film's most sympathetic character. Nick Nolte, Alison Janney and Thomas Haden Church make a satisfying trio of villains. Who better to play a bear than Nolte?
Kids are obviously going to love Steve Carell as Hammy the hyperactive squirrel but all the supporting roles are well filled. Wanda Sykes is great fun as a self-conscious skunk. Even William Shatner and Avril Lavigne, playing father and daughter possums, prove ideal for their parts. You don't have to like Lavigne's angry-little-skater-girl act since she's playing a friendly, sweet-natured character here and she voices it well enough to make me view her forthcoming live action films (Fast Food Nation and The Flock) with a lot less trepidation.