Good cartoons have always been hard to come by, and I never know what I'm going to get with Dreamworks Animation. Every time I watch one of their movies, I'm hoping for Shrek, but I'm fearing I'll get Madagascar. The good news is Over the Hedge is somewhere in between.
RJ the Racoon (Bruce Willis) royally pisses off Vincent, a hibernating bear (Nick Nolte), by stealing his cache of food, getting it accidentally destroyed, and waking him up a week before he's supposed to rise. Vincent gives RJ that week to return all of his stash, threatening to eat him if he doesn't. RJ has no idea how he's going to accomplish such a task so he sets off at first to run away, but stumbles on a small group of forset foragers. These tiny animals include thier leader Verne the turtle (Gary Shandling), Hammy the squirrel (Steve Carell), Stella the skunk (Wanda Sykes), a family of porcupines, and a father-daughter opossum team (dad is voiced by William Shatner).
These tiny denizens of the woods discover a hedge has grown up in their world while they were sleeping for the Winter. Beyond that hedge they discover that Suburbia has sprung up. RJ, an opportunistic scavenger, gets the brilliant idea of getting the little group to help him get the food for the bear, knowing he can con them into buying the idea of all the free food that humans tend to throw out. He doesn't tell them, of course, that humans don't particularly like having their homes and garbage cans ransacked by scavengers, so one uptight suburbanite Gladys (Allison Janey) hires an exterminator (Thomas Hayden Church) to lay out traps an eliminate the foragers with extreme prejudice.
I like this movie but I didn't love it. Over the Hedge does some things right - silly jokes for both children and adults, detail-oriented animation, and the best part: remembering that it's a cartoon and deliberately violating the laws of physics to hyperbolic degrees. I like the characters for the most part as RJ is amoral and opportunistic as a raccoon should be, Verne is deliberate and cautious, and Hammy is twitchy with the attention span of a 2-year old who just finished off a large bag of halloween candy. Yet there's something so familiar about this whole movie. Even without previews I knew what was going to happen and how it would end, and even the telling of the story was familiar. I do not love Over the Hedge because Dreamworks played it safe and went with its formula. I love the Shrek movies but Shark's Tale, Madagascar, and now this movie all have too much in common: flawed heroes who Learn Lessons about Life, a Designated Lovable Wacky character, the Sassy character, and on and on.
Dear Spielberg, Katzenberg, and Geffen: I know you are having success with your formula. When Disney had great success with The Little Mermaid they took the safe route too. They released Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, all wonderful cartoons in their own right. But eventually their formula wore down with such movies as Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Norte Dame, Hercules, and even Lilo and Stitch. They are ok movies but they are kind of the same old tired flavors. No wonder Disney Animation is overshadowed by Pixar, a company who goes out on a limb with each one of its creations and tries something new. The Incredibles is a totally different movie than Toy Story. They find a good story to tell and the right characters to tell it. Pixar doesn't sit down and say "we need a sassy character in this movie because sassy characters are funny!". At least you guys helped produce The Curse of the Were-Rabbit even though I heard Nick Park had to fight you guys on some things because you wanted to Play it Safe and Stick to the Formula. I'm ranting now so here endeth the sermon.
Dreamworks always seems to get the DVDs right and packs them to bursting with extras. When I reviewed Shrek 2 the best part about the commentary for me was the chance to really pay attention to the details of the animation and I did the same with Over the Hedge. The detailing that goes into each scene is astonishing - and the second time through I enjoyed this movie more (I appreciated all the Warner Brother's style mayhem - something Warner Brothers doesn't do any more). The commentary is surprisingly good with directors directors Tim Johnson and Karey Kirkpatrick and producer Bonnie Arnold talking mostly about the right things: stories of how characters were developed, anecdotes about the movie, and how the story evolved over time. If you ever were fascinated by how a movie is made by committee here's your chance to hear about it.
The other goodies are fun including a short feature about Hammy and a boomerang as well as enough behind-the-scene stuff to please anyone interested in how movies are made. I'm going to be pissy again as the disk has sneak previews to some movie about a bee (featuring the voice of Jerry Seinfeld) that looks like it's the same old Dreamworks animation formula, and a disappointing sneak of Shrek III which recaps (and spoils, so consider yourself warned) the first two movies and shows us absolutely nothing but a short clip of Donkey being sassy.
As I said earlier, the biggest problem with Over the Hedge is the Law of Diminishing Returns - it's too familiar to watch again and again like the Shrek movies or everything that Pixar has done to date. It will become an addition to my DVD collection simply because my son will enjoy it and there aren't enough fun cartoons out there any more (what I mean is there's a lot of animation out there that is far worse). If you don't have a child this movie is worth a rental, maybe even a buy if you miss wanton destruction and small furry animals getting clobbered in your cartoons (I know I do).