Over the Hedge

Crisp animation, clever and precise characterization and some nimble joke-writing all come together in Over the Hedge, a colorful and engaging comedy of suburbia’s encroachment into the wilderness and its consequences for a motley crew of animals just awakened from hibernation. The muggy and often oppressive possibility of Hollywood’s favorite F-word — franchise — hangs over every animated film these days, and why wouldn’t it, given the huge, upwards-ramping grosses of the Shrek films? Over the Hedge, though, is the first film since DreamWorks’ introduction of that big green ogre in 2001 in which the possibility of continued stories actually feels innate and graceful, so rich and winning is its ensemble.

The film is based on the popular comic strip of the same name by Michael Fry and T. Lewis. When ever-cautious turtle Verne (voiced by Garry Shandling) and his extended woodland family — which includes bug-eyed, hyperactive squirrel Hammy (voiced by Steve Carell), melodramatic thespian possum Ozzie (voiced by William Shatner), porcupine couple Penny and Lou (voiced by Catherine O’Hara and Eugene Levy) and sassy skunk Stella (voiced by Wanda Sykes) — awaken from their season-long slumber, they find their homeland fenced in by a thick, green bramble. On the other side are humans, with which Verne and his friends have little knowledge or experience.

The interloper who wanders into the midst of this little unit is RJ (voiced by Bruce Willis), a rascally, self-centered raccoon who’s run afoul of a bear, Vincent (voiced by Nick Nolte), by accidentally destroying his stockpile of food during a botched attempt to boost it. Given one week to replenish said supply in exacting detail — right down to the blue cooler and specific can of potato chips — the manipulative RJ sees opportunity and a bunch of free labor in the naïve faces of the woodland brood. While Verne preaches isolationism, RJ insists that the world beyond the hedge is in fact a gateway to the good life. Introducing Hammy and the others to the sugar rush of processed food, RJ argues humans’ excesses and surpluses are ripe for exploitation and free plucking.

On the other side of that hedge, however, the high-strung president of the local homeowners’ association, Gladys (voiced by Allison Janney), isn’t about to see her neighborhood overrun by wildlife. She hires Dwayne (voiced by Thomas Haden Church), an equally dogmatic pest-control man who calls himself “the Verminator,” to rid the area of our forest critters. A showdown ensues, and unlikely friendships are forged and reconsidered as RJ’s duplicity is dragged out into the light of day.

The movie features its small share of incongruities, sure. Turtles don’t hibernate, and Verne and company awaken to accumulate more food for the next long winter, while Vincent is… storing the bulk of his stash until he wakes up? Still, as co-directed by Tim Johnson (Antz) and Karey Kirkpatrick (the screenwriter of Chicken Run and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), Over the Hedge is a bright, vibrant treat. The animation, full of canted perspective shots to highlight the animals’ disorientation in a human world, is confident and sure of itself, and if not packed with the same sort of background-detail jokes to which adult audiences of the Shrek and Toy Story films might have grown accustomed, then no less involving for the distinction.

The biggest reason for that is the script, credited to Kirkpatrick and three others. There’s plenty of physical humor — an extended sequence in which Verne first apprehensively explores the other side of the hedge, and is met with crazy slapstick consequences — but some smart dialogue too, embodied by a funny, manic homily from RJ on human over-consumption. Loveable chatterbox Hammy is an easy-to-spot audience favorite much in the mold of Shrek’s Donkey, but there are full arcs and recognizable motivations for no less than four characters, and it’s this healthy three-dimensionality that most benefits the movie. Few do roguish better than Willis, who turns in some superlative voice work, and even though you know RJ’s lessons learned will contribute to an eventual change of heart, the movie scores points for forestalling this as long as possible, and still finding some ways to surprise you.

Peerless pop-song stylist Ben Folds provides a number of ditties that solidly feed Over the Hedge’s emotional track, and even reworks his funky “Rockin’ the Suburbs” for the end credits. As an added bonus for select Los Angeles and New York audiences, the film will also play with a new computer-animated short, First Flight, that, in the tradition of Pixar’s Birds, lovingly, and without dialogue, charts a fastidiously organized businessman who gets an adjustment in perspective courtesy of an encounter with a baby bluebird. Enjoying Over the Hedge might provide a similarly refreshing experience. (DreamWorks/Paramount, PG, 96 mins.)


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