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Dreamworks has continually tried to give computer animation giant Pixar some decent industry competition. What started out as a vendetta for Jeffrey Katzenberg against his former employers ended up creating solid results with the Shrek franchise, which beat out Pixar for the first “Best Animated Movie” Oscar. Now, with Over the Hedge, Dreamworks Animation turns its eye away from making fun of the Mouse empire and creates their strongest film yet.
Over the Hedge is a bit of a modern fable. RJ the raccoon (voiced by Bruce Willis) shows his lack of loyalty when his hunger pangs get too strong and he tries to steal food from Vincent, a bear he is supposed to be friends with. “Just take what you need” RJ tells himself but, despite that intelligent thought, RJ quickly tries to load up Vincent’s entire food stash. When the bear awakes, he forces RJ to refill the stash within a week or he’ll kill the raccoon. It is a violent, clearly stated threat for a children’s film, but the film’s only real dark moment, which the children in the audience of my showing didn’t seem to take exception to. The rest of the movie is fun filled age-appropriate content, nicely balanced with humor adults will appreciate and laugh at as well.
RJ heads for the only place a raccoon can find the needed amount of food in such a short amount of time: the suburbs. There he encounters a group of foraging animals who are new to suburbia. When the animals settled down for hibernation they were surrounded by woodland. When they wake up they find a mysterious wall in the form of the hedge. With RJ as their guide the animals begin to understand suburbia and the new forms of food it brings, nacho chips instead of bark, cookies instead of twigs, etc. Only the animal’s leader Verne, a turtle voiced by Garry Shandling, is wary of the raccoon, but even he is unaware that RJ isn’t helping them get a supply of food as much as he’s using them to get the food stash he needs to return to a hungry bear. This sort of double crossing storyline is nothing new to animated films, particularly when RJ starts feeling at home with the other animals and they start treating him like family. Those themes have been seen in other animated films recently like Ice Age, but that doesn’t make Over the Hedge feel like it’s just recycling a plot. The film takes familiar storylines but really makes them its own.
Directors Tim Johnson and Karey Kirkpatrick assemble an incredibly talented vocal cast for this movie, and then intelligently use what those cast members have to offer to create strong characters. Willis has done voiceover work in the past, but RJ really captures the mischevious, smart-aleck roots of Willis’s early career. I typically find Garry Shandling too whiney for my tastes, but his character voice for Verne loses that whine and feels earnest and loyal. Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara are teamed together in another husband wife relationship, this time in a family of porcupines. At this point the two play off each other so well they really should consider not doing a movie if the other one isn’t in it. Really, when was the last time Levy had a hit that didn’t involve O’Hara in some capacity? Wanda Sykes applies her attitude to Stella, a skunk who has a strong friendship with the other animals but doesn’t trust anybody new beyond that. William Shatner plays the father possum to Avril Lavigne’s daughter possum, which may be the oddest casting in the movie. Shatner actually breaks against the type of character he’s played lately, which mostly makes fun of himself, and puts in an honest fatherly performance. He still gets a few jabs in at his own acting style however, when he’s forced to play possum. Finally, Steve Carell steals the show in yet another supporting role, this time as Hammy, a hyperactive squirrel who really takes a liking to the new sugary food RJ introduces the animals to.
One of the things I liked best about Over the Hedge is the filmmaker’s efforts to make any joke they wanted to use bigger. Stella’s skunk spray doesn’t just fill a room, it poofs out of every window, door, and chimney in the house. A laser attack doesn’t smoke something in the backyard, it surges out into space where it destroys an orbiting satellite. Johnson and Kirkpatrick aren’t afraid to push credibility aside to go for a bigger laugh and, frankly, that’s what cartoons are about. Who ever questioned where all those anvils came from that were used in “Bugs Bunny” cartoons? By pushing everything bigger, Johnson and Kirkpatrick truly use the animated genre to their advantage. Over the Hedge is a cartoon, not just a story that happens to be animated.
There are a lot of things about Over the Hedge to like. The overblown approach to the gags is a great return to classic cartoon styles, with a relatable story told through well-grounded characters. If I had any complaints about the movie it would be the songs by Ben Folds, which appear sporadically through the movie but aren’t exactly memorable by the film’s end. It’s a minor complaint about what is otherwise a fantastic, fun-filled movie.