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"Can't seem to rise above to see the hedge for the trees."
"The film scores big points for its use of lighting and the manipulation of hair and fur."
"A bland entr?e in a world where one man's junk becomes another animal's treasure."
Over the Hedge  

Cast

RJ the raccoon: Bruce Willis
Verne the turtle: Garry Shandling
Hammy the squirrel: Steve Carell
Stella the skunk: Wanda Sykes
Ozzie the possum: William Shatner
Lou the porcupine: Eugene Levy
Vincent the bear: Nick Nolte
Dwayne: Thomas Haden Church
Gladys: Allison Janney
Review May 2006

Based on the popular comic strip by Michael Fry and T. Lewis, "Over the Hedge" cleverly depicts a suburban environment in which humans infringe upon nature and nature infringes back. All told from the perspective of a handful of woodland animals, who in an effort to save their outdoor neighborhood, discover the hidden pleasures and dangers of urban sprawl. So it comes as no surprise that in the film version of "Over the Hedge," the two central characters, RJ the raccoon and Verne the turtle, find themselves at odds over a mysterious hedge that has sprung up in their back yard while asleep for the winter. Along with a cast of idiosyncratic characters, they leap onto the other side to catch a glimpse of this new world, comprised of homeowner's associations, vending machines, and garbage collection. Yet, while the film is crisply animated and colorfully curious, sadly, it lacks the social punch of the comic. And because of a conservative and ineffectual story, it can't seem to rise above to see the hedge for the trees.

With the emergence of spring, Vincent the bear awakens from his long hibernation to discover his entire food stash is missing. Looking high and low, he finds the culprit, a feisty raccoon by the name of RJ. But instead of killing RJ on the spot, he gives RJ an ultimatum - to bring back his food in a few days or else. Not wanting to become mincemeat, RJ contemplates his next move in a nearby forest. And while doing so, he encounters a group of forest critters, also emerging from the winter freeze. Coincidentally, their food supply has gone bad over the last few months and they too must search to replenish their stock. But to all of their surprise, during the winter, much of the forest has been replaced by a housing edition, separated by a large hedge, comparable to that of the Great Wall of China.

Looking to take advantage of his newfound friends, RJ explains the benefits of this brave new world - a world where strange creatures called humans live to eat. A world full of wondrous food, ripe for the taking. In spite of Verne the turtle's initial misgivings about crossing through the hedge, the rest of the group comprised of Stella the skunk, Hammy the squirrel, Heather and Ozzie opossum, and Lou and Penny porcupine decide to take a chance and explore the snack filled suburbs along with RJ. But little do they know their over-indulgent neighbors have a little something else planned. In particular, Gladys, the head of the homeowner's association, who employs a savvy exterminator, named Dwayne the Verminator, to rid the community of the food-seeking pests. Narrowly avoiding traps and lures, RJ and the gang form a unique friendship, as they learn how to prosper and avoid the dangerous temptations of their new neighborhood.

Created in 1995 by Michael Fry and T Lewis, "Over the Hedge" has become a successful comic, particularly in the way it intermingles social satire with situational comedy, all from the perspective of forest creatures, whose very lives are impacted by suburban expansion. Ironically, the comic pokes fun of the growing populace that wishes to be close to nature, just not too close - where nature comes back at them. So, here you have a handful of cute characters that are uprooted from their homes only to discover a wonderland comprised of big screen televisions, fast food delivery, garbage disposal, port-a-potties and vending machines, and comfy lawn furniture. It's an intriguing premise and the repartee amongst the animals is priceless, analyzing and digging into everything from religion to pop culture to pollution and terrorism. For instance, in the film, when Lou ogles over the vastness of the SUV, asking how many passengers it can hold, RJ sarcastically responds, "Usually...one." These moments are bitingly funny, but few and far in between in a film that takes fewer risks and opts for much safer material.

If DreamWorks intention was to mimic the animation style of Pixar, then with "Over the Hedge," they have narrowed the gap. In the film, the characters appear luminous and spry, the depth of field helps clarify focal points, and the cinematography beautifully establishes point of view. In fact, the perspective of the film, from the animal's vantage point, is what uniquely distinguishes this film from others in the genre. Think of all those wonderful upward looking shots from "Toy Story." And the technology even lends itself to a few comedic moments; in particular, when Hammy overdoses on caffeine. Additionally, the film scores big points for its use of lighting and the manipulation of hair and fur. From the short and well-manicured mattes of RJ and Hammy to the white fluffy pompadour on Stella's forehead to the dangling, bad comb over of the Verminator. The fur and the hair are expertly and individually rendered, as if each strand had a life of its own!

While the film deviates from the comic by omitting such characters as Plushie, Luby, and Velma, it pleasantly inserts a few of its own - Stella, Ozzie, Lou, Vincent, and Tiger. And like many other animated films, "Over the Hedge" benefits from the voice-overs of many distinguished actors. Bruce Willis, as the mischievous raccoon RJ, Garry Shandling as the sensitive and reflective turtle Verne, Allison Janney as Gladys, the president of the local homeowner's association, and William Shatner as Ozzie the opossum - all lending their own personality to the mix. But far and away, the best performance goes to Steve Carrell, whose hyperactive squirrel named Hammy steals the show. Carrell is a comic genius who not only delivers his lines with spastic energy, but knows how to change the inflection of his voice to maximize the effect. The result is a character that infuses unpredictable wit and charm into a story lacking an emotional quotient.

"A great animated film starts with a great story." So says DreamWorks Animation SKG boldly on their website. But does "Over the Hedge" really abide by that motto? Without dissecting the story for scientific fact, i.e. which animals hibernate, the plausibility of co-habitation, or the attraction of one species toward another, the film hinges on one simple plot point - Humans live to eat. There is even a great montage that demonstrates this point with great humor. However, beyond the film's sole selling point, there is a noticeable lack of depth and rapport between characters as Woody and Buzz, Marlin and Dory, or The Incredibles family have demonstrated amongst each other. This, of course, makes it difficult to empathize or get involved emotionally with what is happening to the hedgers and their world. In particular, the secondary characters such as Lou, Penny, Ozzie, and Heather are so undistinguished that they simply tag along without raising much fuss or concern. And when the film's lone story arc involves RJ, a character who greedily destroys another's food source while manipulating others to achieve his means, there is even less compassion and interest in the final outcome.

Overall, "Over the Hedge" is a noteworthy attempt by DreamWorks to narrow the gap with Pixar. But where Pixar continues to maintain its lead in the industry is in story and character development - the two key areas where "Over the Hedge" struggles. Although there are smart performances by Bruce Willis, Garry Shandling, and Steve Carrell and the animation has taken a giant leap forward from previous outings such as 1998's "Antz" and 2004's "Shark Tale," the film lacks affable characters and a coherent story to sustain interest. It also plays it too safe when confronting social issues of importance, issues that are deliciously delivered daily in the comic, but scarcely scrutinized in the film. And because of that, "Over the Hedge" is simply a bland entr?e in a world where one man's junk becomes another animal's treasure.



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