Talking animals star in practically every animated film, but they're invariably cast against type. No matter how many cartoon features present shark tales and bug's lives, the finned or furry characters should not be confused with actual animals. In real life, the fish of Finding Nemo wouldn't be concerned with aquarium escapes or parenting skills. In or out of the wild, Madagascar's zoo animals wouldn't be close friends, or quote famous movies.
On one level, DreamWorks' Over the Hedge anthropomorphizes its cast of critters as shamelessly as any other. The film's possums, porcupines and other beasts have celebrity voices, inter-species relationships and implausibly high problem-solving skills. But Over the Hedge refreshingly gives its undomesticated heroes a dilemma frequently faced by actual animals, turning the CGI comedy into a vehicle for some canny social satire.
An extended "family" of mismatched woodland creatures, led by a cautious turtle named Vern (Garry Shandling), awake from hibernation to discover a towering hedge now extends endlessly in either direction. Their rolling forest has become a greenspace in the midst of a suburban development called El Rancho Camelot, which cuts the foragers off from the oak trees and berry bushes that gave them sustenance.
In one of the film's best gags, Vern ventures nervously into the alien landscape, gets tossed about and lands in a toy SUV, only to have a cell phone and coffee cup drop into his hands. Set one toe in the suburbs, and even a reptile instantly conforms to the middle-class stereotypes.
As the animals panic at the prospect of starvation, a raffish raccoon named R.J. (Bruce Willis), wearing a little golf bag on his back like Robin Hood's quiver, swoops in to explain that human civilization amounts to one big feeding frenzy. R.J. launches into a rapid-patter spiel about how eating unifies all of mankind's endeavors. "They ship the food! They wear the food! That's the altar where they worship the food!" he says, pointing out, among other things, a fast-food delivery and a dinner table. R.J. offers a rhapsody of conspicuous consumption, although the animals find a nemesis in the homeowner's association president (Allison Janney), who's obsessed with residential regimentation.
R.J. enlists Vern and company to swipe scraps from trash cans and Girl Scouts, but has a hidden agenda. Early on, he accidentally destroys the stash of a sociopathic bear (Nick Nolte), who gives him a week to replace it. The deadline feels like a false crisis to make R.J. more sympathetic, just as R.J. and Vern's early rivalry, followed by wary friendship, too closely follows the kid-flick formula.
Amid the fast-paced slapstick chases and snack-food heists, Over the Hedge's subtext gives it teeth. The animals become as addicted to super-sized culture as any human couch potato as they steal status-symbol gadgets like digital cameras and video games. Many crave junk food -- "Anything that tastes this good has to be good for you!" -- which is notoriously hard on the health of genuine wildlife. It would be nice if Over the Hedge repudiated processed food more forcefully, without going all Morgan Spurlock on us.
Not surprisingly, the film features plenty of amusing voice actors, including Steve Carell as hyperactive squirrel Hammy, Wanda Sykes as a sassy skunk and Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara as porcupines with Minnesotan accents. Perhaps the most memorable performance comes from William Shatner, who plays a fatherly possum as an elaborate, self-deprecating inside joke. Shatner has become the world's greatest Shatner impressionist, and gives the varmint his trademark delivery in lines like "Playing possum is what-we-do! We die ... so we may live!"
Over the Hedge makes a few pop references, like a goof on the old Memorex ad, but by the standards of DreamWorks' other cartoon features like Shrek, the new film has virtually none. Astoundingly, in a film filled with fast-food and chain-store labels, it features no brand names, either. By Hollywood standards, turning down that much product placement qualifies as a beacon of integrity.
A routine in which the skunk gets a feline makeover to seduce a Persian house cat seems so transparently based on Pepe Le Pew, it comes across as more homage than rip-off. Earlier this year, Hoodwinked beat Over the Hedge to the punch with a gag about a hyperactive squirrel and caffeine, but Hedge's joke turns out to be so ingenious, it counts as one of the year's funniest scenes.
Over the Hedge also relies on a great deal of earthy, bodily-function humor, so grown-ups weary of that sort of thing may want to take their children elsewhere. It might be better to think of Over the Hedge as a Toy Story for grown-ups.
In fact, you could practically call it Atlanta Story. I've lived most of my life in this city, and developers have torn up the big, wooded spaces that stood alongside nearly every neighborhood. El Rancho Camelot could be any one of countless sites in Gwinnett County, except it's a little more attractive: The lawns are bigger than billiard tables and the houses seem to be farther than arm's reach. The comedic dilemma of Over the Hedge is happening in our own back yards.
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