May 25, 2006

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Over the Hedge (PG)
A group of woodland animals learns to cope in the strange new world of the suburban development in the bright and cheery Over the Hedge, a film based on the comic strip by Michael Fry and T. Lewis.

RJ (Bruce Willis in full David Addison mode) is a fast-talking raccoon who has adjusted well to life in the ever-more-developed outdoors. He carries a golf bag full of handy implements and has a fondness for nacho-flavored corn chips. A fondness for all junk food, really, and that fondness causes him some trouble when he is overwhelmed by temptation and attempts to steal a Sam’s Club worth of cellophane-sealed goodies from hibernating bear Vincent (Nick Nolte). Vincent catches him but the snacks (and the lovely red wagon they are carted around in) end up on the freeway and quickly become roadkill. Vincent tells RJ if he doesn’t want to become the post-hibernation snack, he’ll replace all the missing eats.

RJ has only a week to find all the food he needs and decides that the only way he can gather so many cans of chips and bags of cookies is by outsourcing. Luckily, he runs across a multi-species family of foragers who are just waking up from their winter naps in the communal log. Verne (Gary Shandling) is the cautious turtle who leads the pack that also includes hyper chipmunk Hammy (Steve Carell), grouchy skunk Stella (Wanda Sykes), overdramatic possum Ozzie (William Shatner) and his daughter Heather (Avril Lavigne), and a family of porcupines (including a Catherine O’Hara-voiced mom and a Eugene Levy-voiced dad). Since foraging is their thing, the group would make the perfect unwitting suckers in RJ’s gathering plan.

When the group awakes, they find a strange, giant green bush cutting through their woods. Upon examination, they discover that this mysterious hedge (which they initially call “Steve”) is the gateway to a strange world filled with pink primates, big structures and scary things on wheels. RJ explains that the people, houses and cars all mean one thing — food. He introduces them to chips and then cookies and power drinks and soon they are as eager as RJ to horde goodies.

Verne, however, is not so sure. He sees potential dangers in the world beyond the hedge — especially from the hyper homeowner Gladys (Allison Janney) and her exterminator Dwayne (Thomas Hayden Church). And he doesn’t trust the shifty RJ, who is, in spite of himself, starting to like having all these helpers around.

Over the Hedge has a very early Warner Brothers feel to it. Like the Looney Tunes, the animal characters still have parts of their animal behavior in their personalities even as they also display human attributes and act in a very modern human world. (Bugs Bunny, you’ll remember, lived in a pretty modern 1930s through 1950s world as well.) The result of this approach to animal animation seems to be a movie that is action -packed but not as frantic and shrill as some cartoons (most recently, The Wild) are. There is an easygoing “What’s up, doc?”-ness about these characters, even spazzy Hammy or increasingly desperate RJ. They relax, we relax and everybody gets a good story.

And the story is another part of Over the Hedge’s success. It is, at is heart, about friends and how it is good to help your friends, bad to cheat your friends and in the end everybody wins if you and your friends work together. By choosing such a simple theme, Over the Hedge avoids some of the ridiculous, encumbering weight that drags down cartoons that lose children when they have at their heart complex psychological issues. (The Wild, for example, seemed like a failure in part because its central story was about mushy issues of disappointing your parents and not living up to their image and parents who fabricate an image to make others proud. In contrast, the recent Ice Age: The Meltdown was, again, all about sticking with and caring for your friends.)

Over the Hedge takes this simple theme, gives it a simple plot (raccoon needs food to keep from being eaten by bear; wacky woodland creatures help) and keeps the story moving with consistent but never over-the-top action. There are a few slow parts, but they are brief and never long enough to make the story feel like it’s dragging. And, subtly and without alienating the younger people in the audience, Over the Hedge adds in just enough humor to give the adults a few chuckles. Over the Hedge is a nearly perfect family film. A


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