Furry friends battle human encroachment

‘Over the Hedge,’ the DreamWorks animated feature satirizing the wasteful American consumer, is very patchy


Fri, Jul 14, 2006 - Page 16

Well, of course Nick Nolte makes sense as a bear — a big, grouchy, sleepy bear with a crackling, beautifully creaking voice that suggests too many late nights smoking far too many unfiltered cigarettes. That voice is one of the few charms in the animated frolic Over the Hedge, which features a menagerie of meticulously rendered, computer-generated creatures brought to something like life by a host of talented animators and some very fine actors, including Steve Carell, whose speed freak of a squirrel, Hammy, brings to mind Henry Hill just around the time he begins snorting too much of his product in Goodfellas.

No doubt the people at DreamWorks who made Over the Hedge would prefer that their film bring to mind animated classics like Disney's Bambi (or, as Hammy suggests, Ice Age), but no such luck. Although this tale about a group of woodland critters threatened by their new human neighbors (based on Michael Fry and T. Lewis's comic strip) has the technical trappings of a worthwhile Saturday matinee — the hair on the animal bodies stirs when they do — no one bothered to pay commensurate attention to the screenplay. The various writers, including Karey Kirkpatrick, who directed with Tim Johnson, pad the story with the usual yuks, allusions (there's a Rosebud moment) and some glop about family, but there is no poetry here and little thought. That's particularly too bad since the recent alligator attacks in Florida prove that the story of human encroachment on animal turf is topical and rich in thematic possibility.

The story opens with RJ, a devious raccoon voiced by Bruce Willis, stealing a stash of packaged sugar and carbohydrates from a bear, Vincent (Nolte), whom he accidentally awakens. Having been roused from hibernation, and perhaps being naturally peckish, the bear threatens to kill RJ unless he replaces his goodies. RJ sets out on his mission quickly, only to stumble on a gathering of animals faced with a terrifying new threat: a hedge that cuts them off from much of the rest of the woods. (And over the hedge? Humans living in a ticky-tacky planned community in Anywhere, US)

Realizing that he can use these naifs to do his work, RJ teaches them the joys of chips, doughnuts and other human fancies, thereby endangering their true animal selves.

With his flat, somewhat nasal intonation, Willis doesn't really sound like a raccoon; he would make a better guard dog. But Garry Shandling is wonderfully persuasive giving quavering, gentle intonations to a timorous turtle named Verne, the de facto leader of a rather unlikely melange voiced by Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara (porcupines with children); William Shatner and Avril Lavigne (father-and-daughter possums); and Wanda Sykes (an unattached skunk, whose hectoring voice surely repels more strongly than her scent). Each animal has a broadly articulated characteristic or, more properly, a shtick. Daddy possum is 100 percent ham and periodically falls into a theatrical swoon; the porcupines sound as if they migrated from Minnesota or at least count Fargo as a favorite flick. And so it goes, and goes.

There's more, including a couple of human villains (Allison Janney and Thomas Haden Church), but not all that much. It would be nice to report that the animals wreck the planned community and dance on its ashes, but, alas, the big theme here is the importance of family, as if the children who are the film's presumed audience needed the reminder, especially since Mom and Dad probably bought the tickets.

One imagines that, much like their adults, the tots would like to be entertained and perhaps even moved. The characters in classic Disney films like Pinocchio certainly learn life lessons, but the lessons have reach, ambition. Like great myths, these films give us characters that, even when blanketed in feathers and fur, learn what it is to be fully human, not just good little consumers.