"Over the Hedge," like previous Dreamworks animated releases "Shark Tale
" and "Madagascar
," is pleasing to the eyes, but doesn't sit well with one's heart and conscience. Directed by Tim Johnson (2003's "Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas
") and Karey Kirkpatrick (screenwriter of 2005's "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
"), the film is done in by a misguided and terribly thin plot that inadvertently paints the plucky ragtag group of critter protagonists as more at fault than the human villains. Because the characters never come into their own as memorable screen creations, and because the premise is so frivolous and pillowy to begin with, there is virtually nothing to care about and no one to be endeared by. The animation unit at Dreamworks may have struck gold with the "Shrek" series, but that is where their creative success ends. All other movies have been second-rate Pixar knockoffs with barely a small fraction of the imagination and enchantment.
RJ (voiced by Bruce Willis), a mischievously independent and very hungry raccoon, makes an error in judgment when he tries to sneak off with a cart of food that hibernating grizzly bear Vincent (Nick Nolte) has stocked up. Vincent wakes up long enough to witness it get destroyed and make an ultimatum to RJ: replace his food before the spring cycle begins or, to put it bluntly, die. RJ is certain he is a goner until fate shines on him in the form of a gaggle of woodland animals, including delicate but determined tortoise Verne (Garry Shandling); overly hyper squirrel Hammy (Steve Carell); tell-it-like-it-is skunk Stella (Wanda Sykes); father and daughter possums Ozzie (William Shatner) and Heather (Avril Lavigne); and a family of porcupines headed by Lou (Eugene Levy) and Penny (Catherine O'Hara) who sound as if they've watched "Fargo" one too many times. They have all just woken up from a long winter's nap to discover, much to their horror, a suburban sprawl built on top of the forest they went to sleep in. As RJ teaches his fellow animal friends about the hierarchy food maintains in the modern human world and the schemes of collecting it for their next winter stash, they have no idea RJ is secretly using them for the labor and planning to give their food to Vincent as payment.
"Over the Hedge" opens with a scene blatantly ripping off "Ice Age
"Scrat's endless attempts to capture a nut are replaced by RJ's scheme to acquire a bag of nachos from a vending machineand then goes downhill from there, never locating a voice of its own. First of all, the entire plot doesn't work because the villains of the movie (i.e. the humans) don't stand out as being overtly bad enough, and the heroes (i.e. the animals) aren't exactly virtuous. As RJ and his gang of patsies go about stealing food from the suburban residents, occasionally destroying property in the process, fed-up victims like Gladys (Allison Janney) and professional exterminators like Dwayne (Thomas Haden Church) plot to set up traps and stop the vermin. These two are supposed to be viewed as despicable people, but they are completely justified in their actions, with Dwayne simply doing his job and Gladys tired of having her yard messed up and her food supply pillaged. Gladys isn't an animal-hater, eithershe dotes on and spoils her catso the viewer can't even accuse her of that.
Meanwhile, the central animal figures continue on their one-track quest for food. Sure, they have to start saving up for the next winter, but the ways they go about getting the food are wrongheaded and free of remorse for the harm they cause the humans around them. By the end, when they crash a truck into Gladys' house and ruin it from top to bottom, "Over the Hedge" has long become a distasteful and ignorant exercise in commercial filmmaking targeted towards the whole family. The lessons taught by this filmand there aren't manyare careless and invaluable, particularly when directed at the kids in the audience. The animals, despite being thieves and vandals, are cast in a positive light just because they are cute and spit out would-be witty one-liners, while the humans instantly take on the "villain" persona for no reason other than because they have two legs rather than four. Indeed, Gladys' life is destroyed through the course of the movie, and the fact that there isn't a moment of sympathy toward her by either the animals or directors Tim Johnson and Karey Kirkpatrick makes her one-dimensional role all the more regrettable.
Is it possible to disregard the spurious treatment the plot receivesnot to mention the out-of-place commentary on genocideby screenwriters Len Blum (2006's "The Pink Panther
"), Karey Kirkpatrick, Lorne Cameron and David Hoselton and view "Over the Hedge" as but a mindless animated comedy for children? Only sporadically. There are a handful of comic highlightsa clever reference to "Citizen Kane;" a joke commenting on the irritatingly loud THX logo placed at the beginning of DVDs; a scene showing just how much stuff the super-fast Hammy can get accomplished while everyone else is standing still; and a quirky, truthful montage dealing with the world's obsession with foodbut overall the film isn't as funny as it thinks it is. Likewise, the universally spry and energetic voice talentWanda Sykes (2005's "Monster in Law
") is a standout as the self-deprecating skunk Stellaare at the mercy of characters who always seem to be on the verge of breaking out into fully realized roles, but never quite make it. There is a strange, unspoken sadness, too, in the way many of themRJ the raccoon, Verne the tortoise, Hammy the squirrelseemingly know no one else from their own species and don't have families. One can only imagine what happened to the mother of Heather the possum, who has been raised by her single (widowed?) father.
"Over the Hedge" is a rambling, aimless family picture with immoral characters posing as lovable, cuddly-looking angels and a story so inconsequential that it should have been scrapped (or at least developed further) during the pre-production phase. It's slow-paced, to boot, and the colorful but undetailed computer-generated animation is also on the comparative weak side. For most of its 84 minutes, "Over the Hedge" doesn't look to have a clue where it's heading and what its goals are, and when it finally gets to those places there is a disingenuousness surrounding the material that makes you feel unclean. 2006 has not been a kind year to the animated genre"Ice Age: The Meltdown
" and "The Wild
" were mediocre, if relatively harmless, affairsand the empty, irresponsible "Over the Hedge" is so far the worst of the lot.