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Over the Hedge

Been There, Seen That

Based on the long-running, syndicated comic strip by Michael Fry and T. Lewis, Over the Hedge is the latest computer animated/family film from DreamWorks Animation (Shrek I and II, Madagascar). In 1995, Pixar Animation Studios released Toy Story, the first in a remarkable string of commercial and critical hits. The film also became the template/formula for the genre: anthropomorphic characters, recognizable voice talent drawn from a pool of A- and B-list Hollywood actors, unobjectionable life lessons, occasionally subversive gags, slapstick-filled set pieces, and bland, forgettable pop songs. And that's exactly what we get with Over the Hedge.

RJ (voiced by Bruce Willis), a prankster/raccoon, finds himself on the wrong side of Vincent (Nick Nolte), an angry, semi-hibernating bear, who catches RJ in the act of stealing, or rather attempting to steal, Vincent's junk-food stash from his cozy cave above the local highway. Worse, Vincent's stash is destroyed through RJ's carelessness. Vincent threatens RJ with dismemberment (the word "kill" is actually used), but gives RJ one week to replace the lost items, including Vincent's most prized possessions, a red wagon and a blue cooler.

At a loss on what to do next, RJ comes across a makeshift family emerging from hibernation to a much-changed reality, a giant hedge separating them from their traditional food source. Verne (Garry Shandling), an ever-cautious turtle, leads the "blended" family. Other members of the family include Hammy (Steve Carell), a hyper-active squirrel, Stella (Wanda Sykes), a tough-talking skunk, Ozzie (William Shatner), a possum prone to melodrama, Heather (Avril Lavigne), Ozzie's teenage daughter, Lou (Eugene Levy), a porcupine with a Midwestern accent, Penny (Catherine O'Hara), Lou's wife, and Bucky (Sami Kirkpatrick), Spike (Shane Baumel), and Quillo (Madison Davenport), Lou and Penny's children.

RJ reveals that the giant hedge is a barrier created by "pink primates," humans who have made (suburban) homes for themselves from the formerly pristine forest. RJ presents the world beyond the hedge as a virtual utopia, at least food wise, where the forest creatures can sneak in, dine on leftovers, and stock up for the coming winter). RJ, of course, plans on trading the stockpile for his safety. Complications get added into the mix when Gladys (Allison Janney), the president of the local homeowners association, comes across the foragers digging through her garbage. She ends up hiring Dwayne (Thomas Haden Church), the "Verminator," to eliminate RJ, Verne, and the rest of their group. Gladys' housebound Persian cat, Tiger (Omid Djalili), also ends up playing a role in the unfolding storyline.

As Over the Hedge winds down to the predictable finish (e.g., the exposure of RJ's duplicity, and set pieces centered around Gladys and Dwayne's traps, and Vincent's reappearance), viewers are left with the unshakeable sense that they've seen Over the Hedge before, or at least enough similar genre films with similar or near-identical characters that the movie offers nothing new or innovative, story or animation wise. Over the Hedge doesn't stray far (actually not at all) from the formula set up over the last decade and followed in film after film. Beside RJ, the character designs are derivative and easily forgettable (Dwayne closely resembles an unsympathetic human character from Toy Story 2).

Over the Hedge also offers the usual life lessons about honesty, duplicity, friendship, and family, but we also get a bit more subtext, with more than a few digs or gags aimed at suburbia and its discontents. In one of the more subversive scenes, RJ gives his new friends a tour of the suburban world beyond the hedge. "We eat to live, they live to eat," and then goes on to criticize consumerism and our culture of excess (including SUVs, of course). The hedge can be interpreted several ways: as a barrier between nature and civilization or, to stretch a bit, as a barrier against everything we mistrust (or simply don't like), including refugees, immigrants, and the natural world. Whether that's enough to keep parents interested all the way through Over the Hedge's running time, though, is a moot point. After all, children will dictate whether Over the Hedge is the first pick at the local multiplex this weekend (it will be).

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars