Over the Hedge

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 05/19/06 00:48:40

"Cute characters, fine animation... all they forgot were jokes and a story."
2 stars (Pretty Crappy)

“Over the Hedge” is beautifully animated, occasionally funny, and fairly cute. It will be mostly forgotten within a couple of weeks after the DVD comes out.

Why? Because while the movie has its moments, the script feels as if it were thrown together during a lazy weekend - there are some decent one-liners and joke ideas, but the story itself is paper thin. And we must remember that while solid animation may impress for a little while, only a solid story will actually make a cartoon worth watching. Heck, even the title comes off as something created with minimal effort, a cutesy pun that’s just good enough to get by. With all this flatness, the whole thing achieves little more than a general sense of “meh” from those watching.

The four-word premise here is: woodland animals invade suburbia. This might work as the center of a lively cartoon, but it’s so bloated with the wrong main plot that it never connects the way it should.

R.J. (voiced by Bruce Willis) is a slickster raccoon who’s busted trying to steal a load of junk food from the cave of Vincent (Nick Nolte), a particularly villainous bear. When the food winds up splattered all over the highway, R.J. is then given one week to replace it.

And right there, right from the start, we’re handed a storyline that flops. Because we have seen the trailers and know that R.J. will eventually meet a handful of critters unfamiliar with the ways of humans, we can immediately (and correctly) assume that R.J. will then con these animals into helping him gather up the replacement goodies, betray the very characters who thought he was their friend, and eventually have a change of heart when he realizes that family is better than being a greasy backstabber.

It’s a well-worn plot device seen in too many kiddie flicks to count; it’s so tired, in fact, that not even the screenplay (which comes across like it was tossed around from rewriter to rewriter - which, it turns out, it was) can muster any excitement for the story. The script merely meanders from jokey scene to jokey scene, barely interested in moving the story along.

It makes sense that the movie is adapted from a rather unimpressive daily comic strip (on which we can blame the lousy title, if little else). The whole film plays out in tiny disconnected bites, often leading up to a half-baked punchline that was tossed together just in time to beat the deadline.

This is all quite a shame, because there’s quite a lot of potential here. The central characters are undeniably cute, especially Verne, a friendly, nervous turtle voiced by Garry Shandling; as a cartoon character, Verne is simply adorable, and Shandling’s hesitant voice work helps make him quite endearing. But he’s given very little to do, outside of fulfilling a few clichéd plot points and slipping out of his shell for comic relief. (You know, when Daffy Duck and Foghorn Leghorn would lose their feathers, it would always be funny. When Verne gets knocked out of his shell, the animators miss so much comic possibility, instead going for a quick shot of “turtle butt” and calling it a day.)

We also get William Shatner as an overly melodramatic opossum who takes his death scenes very, very seriously. It’s a bit of inspired casting, to be sure, but again, the movie wastes it. Shatner’s many death scenes play as only so-so, the script unknowing how to continue the running gag without having it run out of steam (only Shatner’s energy keeps it alive, if only slightly). Instead, the writers opt to throw more cliché our way, with Shatner’s opossum daughter (Avril Lavigne, of all people) not wanting to continue the family tradition of faking dying, until, of course, the plot really needs her to, etc., etc. Of all the things this movie could have done with William Shatner in this role, and this is all it can think up? Ridiculous.

More wasted opportunities: Steve Carell appears as an ADD-addled squirrel who’s reduced to yelling a lot; Wanda Sykes is a sassy skunk reduced to a series of lame butt jokes; Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara play mom and dad porcupines whose goofy Minnesota accents are the closest they get to having any actual material. This is a comedy dream cast, but the writers give them next to nothing in terms of workable humor. Every now and then, a joke will crackle well enough, but often this is simply the result of fine voice acting and not decent writing.

Even more wasted opportunities: the bad guys. Not the bear, who’s hardly in the film at all, but the humans. The president of the suburb’s home owners association (Allison Janney) is the one who discovers the animal intruders and gets all uptight about it. The bumbling, psychotic exterminator (Thomas Haden Church) is the one who’s supposed to have his plans to capture or kill the creatures comically foiled at every turn. Both, in their own ways, should be the Elmer Fudds of the story, fools whom the heroes will outwit again and again. And yet neither character actually works, mainly because neither character is given enough screen time to be built up to Fuddian status. The exterminator only pops up for a few brief, random scenes that do very little; it’s only in the finale that his role becomes remotely important. But the things that happen to him in the finale should be happening throughout the film, Wile E. Coyote style (if you’ll pardon the sudden switch in Looney Tunes analogies), with the finale reserved for something spectacular.

It all comes back to the amount of effort put in to the movie’s making. “Over the Hedge” is a story I can’t imagine anyone yearning to tell, and one I can’t imagine anyone yearning to watch over and over again as the years go by. The animation is gorgeous, yes, but at this stage in computer cartooning, such quality is a given. What we need is a movie that looks as if as much effort went in to writing it than went into animating it. “Over the Hedge” is not that movie. It is instead a generic multiplex space holder in between better cartoon releases, one that gives us just enough burp jokes to keep the kids happy, just enough pop culture references to keep the parents from drifting off, just enough possible family entertainment to earn the studio a nice box office weekend or two (and some decent DVD sales later on). But “just enough,” well, that’s just not enough.

A final thought. You’d think that in this era of junk food backlash, the filmmakers would bother to include some sort of lesson here about healthy eating. After all, it’s a new found love of energy drinks and nacho chips that put the critters in danger in the first place. But no. The film ends without a single character suggesting that maybe they were better off eating berries (and if you watch the film, they were, in fact, better off eating berries, living a quieter, more peaceful life). It’s hinted that the animals will continue to eat natural food, too, but only slightly. Isn’t it a bit irresponsible to make a kiddie movie about the wonders of gorging oneself with donuts and cheese spray?

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