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"Over the Hedge": Just Another Funny Critter Picture

Oh God, only a month has lapsed since the release of Disney’s The Wild, and already it’s time for another CG-animated farting animal picture? And from DreamWorks, the studio that fills its movies with pop culture references instead of actual jokes? Never mind Over the Hedge—is there a wall I can jump to get out of this assignment?

Apparently not.

Well, as it turns out, this latest extrusion from the Jeffrey Katzenberg processed-baloney factory is not as loathsome as it could have been. At least it’s not as smugly self-pleased as that studio’s two Shrek pictures, which thought they were funny just because they existed. And Over the Hedge has a few charming moments. But if that sounds like faint praise, it is. I’m tempted to cheat on this article by systematically replacing “The Wild” with “Over the Hedge” in our review of that film. Peas in a pod; crap in the can: that’s these two films.

Based on the Michael Fry and T Lewis comic strip of the same name, Over the Hedge has a mixed group of woodland creatures waking from their winter hibernation to find themselves literally hedged in by a suburban development. They are taken in hand by R. J., a raccoon who shows them they can meet their annual foraging quota in a week simply by raiding the new neighborhood. But R. J. has an agenda of his own: he has to steal the booty they’ve gathered and deliver it to a bear, or else he’ll be killed by said bear.

Did you sit up straight when you read that? I did when I heard it in the theater. For a movie ostensibly aimed at tots, it has a startlingly grim premise, and I don’t mean “grim” as in “Grimm.” Many classic fairy tales employ the threat or tragedy of death, from Snow White’s poisoned apple to the killing of Bambi’s mother. But these stories get at something primal in a way that is also poetic: a lot of them (like “Little Red Riding Hood”) come off as sublimated screams of horror at the concept of extinction. But in Over the Hedge the death threat is just a plot point, something to goose R. J. into action. It’s a lazy device, too, because it tells us nothing about R. J: because anyone would be motivated by a death threat, R. J. isn’t different from anybody else. And its emotional treatment of the threat is flaccid; the movie makes getting whacked sound about as bad as having your allowance suspended. There’s something insensibly crude—even thuggish—about using this kind of incident to kick off an otherwise innocuous movie. It makes me wonder what kind of techniques the filmmakers use to prod their kids into brushing before bedtime.

And once the premise is set up, the movie proceeds with merciless predictability to connect its very obvious plot dots. R. J. gets the loot he needs while growing fonder of the other animals. He feels bad about betraying them but betrays them anyway. At the last minute he has a change of heart. And the bear gets his hash settled in a wacky, slapstick free-for-all. All of this is easily predictable within the movie’s first fifteen minutes, so you spend most of the time waiting impatiently for it to get to where you know it’s going. A guided tour of your own living room could scarcely be more tedious.

I’m also getting very tired of movies that turn animals into little human beings. Theoretically, we’ve got a turtle, a skunk, a squirrel, some possums, and some porcupines in this movie, but aside from some obvious schtick with shells and smells and the like, there’s nothing to make one kind of animal seem different from the others. If a mad scientist threw them into a personality switcher, no one would notice.

Do the people that make these films realize that animals are not people, and that by ignoring the kaleidoscopic reality of animal natures they are cheating the audience of what could be a sublime experience? Over the Hedge could have given us real but stylized woodland creatures confronting a real but stylized suburbia, and in doing so shown us something that is fresh but, well, real about both sides. But R. J. and his pals themselves just act like funny-looking suburbanites, and watching their antics is about as much fun as watching Texans getting lost in a Connecticut cul-de-sac.

At a couple of points the movie sidles up to something like satire, but it’s a toothless, jokey kind of satire that relies on caricatures and stereotypes. It also sits poorly with the film’s own stale, prefabricated style, which looks designed to be sold as part of a Happy Meal. When an exterminator accidentally bags a lawn flamingo because it looks too “real,” you sense the movie is trying uneasily to admit to its own inadequacies. But the admission isn’t disarming. It’s damning. Everything in Over the Hedge, including its own lame satire, feels like it’s made of styrofoam.

There are a few pleasures along the way. Technical work in the film is competent, and there is some good acting, especially from the squirrel, Hammy, who is suitably hyperactive, and R. J. With the raccoon, in fact, the animators have, thankfully, gone for subtlety. He’s the “smart” guy in the story, and there’s always a temptation to make such characters overact. But they’ve played up R. J.’s intelligence by not showing him cogitating. The other animals have to “think” through what they’re doing, but R. J. just does it. That itself is a very smart and effective decision. Overall, though, the movie, despite having some attractive character designs, is not very convincing, especially in its action scenes, when the animals’ weightlessness makes the physical comedy just look silly.

A large cast of recognizable names provides the voices; none are interesting to listen to. You’d never turn your head if you heard one these guys talking behind you at the mall.

In fairness I should note that the children in the theater I saw it in screamed with laughter at some of the antics, which shows Over the Hedge can hold the attention of its target audience. And parents probably won’t be bored to distraction. But that’s just a backhanded way of saying that junk food will satisfy: the film has nothing to nourish the spirit or the imagination. Over the Hedge is completely disposable, and if the previews that came with it are any indication, it won’t be the last CG-animated picture making a short and well-deserved trip to the landfill.

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