DreamWorks set the bar very high with "Shrek", perhaps too high. Since then, they have had difficulty creating an animated effort with the story or laughs to keep both adults and children happy. They have the animation right; they just need to recapture the wit, sarcasm and originality of "Shrek" and its sequel. "Over The Hedge" is good, but it falls a little short. When you have a studio like Pixar producing top-notch, consistently great animated efforts, just off the mark isn't enough sometimes.
RJ (Bruce Willis), a street savvy raccoon, decides to steal food, Vince (Nick Nolte) from a hibernating bear. Just as he thinks he has everything, he spots a package of "Spuddies" under Vince's arm. Not content to leave with what he has, a huge wagon overflowing with junk food, he decides he needs the Pringle-like food. He is successful, but as soon as he opens the container to take a bite, Vince wakes up. Some quick talking on RJ's part saves his life, but he has to replace all of the food in a week, when Vince wakes up from his hibernation. It is a lot of food and he will need some help. The next morning, RJ stumbles upon a group of woodland creatures who are waking up from their hibernation. Verne (Garry Shandling), a cautious turtle, is the leader of the group and immediately starts organizing them to replenish their food for next winter's hibernation. RJ recognizes an opportunity and soon convinces them that they can find all the food they need, over the new hedge bordering their property, in a new suburban development. Hammy (Steve Carell), a hyperactive squirrel, Ozzie (William Shatner) and his daughter (Avril Lavigne), possums, Stella (Wanda Sykes), a skunk and a porcupine family (Catherine O'Hara and Eugene Levy provide the voices of the mom and dad) are dubious, but as soon as RJ introduces them to processed junk food, they are all for it, immediately hooked. Soon, their shenanigans attract the attention of Gladys (Allison Janney), the A-type human who is the head of the homeowner's association. Horrified, she contacts the Verminator, Dwayne (Thomas Haden Church).
"Over The Hedge", based on a popular newspaper comic strip, and directed by Tim Johnson and Karey Kirkpatrick, is a cute, mildly funny animated effort.
A short cartoon called "First Flight" precedes the feature, also directed by Johnson and Kirkpatrick. In it, a businessman waiting for the bus to work finds a newborn blue bird, becomes attached to it, and tries to teach it how to fly. This short has many of the same elements of "Hedge", providing a sort of mini version of the feature length film. But in the long film, we grow tired of them. These elements work well for an 8 minute short, but when you stretch the same elements into a 90 minute long film, they wear thin.
"Hedge" is beautiful to look at. The animation is top notch and skillfully blends certain more realistic elements with more surreal, interesting animation. All of the scenes with RJ, Verne and the woodland creatures in their wilderness home are almost beautiful. The animals are fairly realistic, appearing just a couple of degrees from the real thing, giving them a cute, cuddly appearance just ripe for marketing and stuffed animals. As soon as these creatures set foot in the sub development and humans enter the picture, everything takes on a more surrealistic look, including many artificial plants and animals. But this is part of the joke and handled well. The humans are living in a much more artificial world, so it should look surreal to animals that are used to real grass, trees and nature.
As RJ attempts to entice the group to help with his plan, he provides a quick rundown of the excess we live with and are used to. This monologue is funny because it provides an innocent interpretation of what we are all used to. He is basically pointing out the truth, but has to explain it to animals that aren't used to it, and he doesn't get everything exactly right either. But this is his predominant joke and it doesn't quite sustain the character throughout the film.
Part of the problem with "Hedge" is that each character is not funny on their own. The human characters are funny because they provide mirrors of some of the extreme parts of our lifestyle. But only a few of the animals have funny quirks to their persona. The standouts are Steve Carell and William Shatner. Carell provides the voice for Hammy, the hyperactive squirrel. As soon as RJ introduces them to processed junk food, Hammy becomes a different beast altogether. Already hyperactive, the sugar in the food becomes a magic elixir to him and instantly becomes addicted. Just as he is about to open a can of cola for the first time, RJ wisely takes it away from him. "That's the last thing you need, pal." Throughout, every time Hammy spots a cookie, we hear him say "Cookie! Cookie! I like the cookie" or some such statement. It is a funny performance and adds immeasurably to the film.
The other standout among the animals is William Shatner's Ozzie. Whoever came up with the idea of casting Shatner as a possum that plays dead at the drop of a hat deserves a raise, a promotion or some sort of recognition. It is a brilliant piece of casting allowing Shatner to caricature his own persona. Every time he plays dead, Ozzie overacts, much like Shatner in real life. A very funny performance.
The two prominent human characters are also very funny, providing a mirror to our own excessive behavior. As Gladys, Allison Janney perfectly captures the type-A personality, driven woman who is ambitious and feels her role as President of the Homeowner Society is the most important in the world. Thomas Haden Church channels the character Cliff from "Cheers" and his own character from "Wings" into Dwayne, an exterminator who is much too preoccupied with his job. And his comb over.
But to achieve "Shrek" or "Toy Story" status, all of the characters in "Hedge" need to be funny and they aren't. Willis' RJ is the wisecracker, the new leader of the group, all about getting things done and manipulating people. After he finishes his little monologue about humans and food, he is the force behind the operation and his main purpose is to convince the other animals to help him and then to feel guilty. He is a bit like the action hero persona of Bruce Willis; he has a mission to complete and obstacles to overcome. Garry Shandling's Verne is the leader of the group and very cautious. His job is to worry about anything and everything RJ leads them into. Catherine O'Hara and Eugene Levy have done the Midwestern mom and dad thing before, too many times. The key difference here is they are animated porcupines. Avril Lavigne has one funny line as she gives her possum character some decidedly teenage characteristics. If each of these characters had been slightly `off' or in some way unusual, the film would've been truly memorable. As it is now, all of the woodland creatures combined would make one very funny character. Imagine if Donkey from the "Shrek" films had been split into seven different characters, each with a different part of the persona and you get the idea.
"Over the Hedge" is one of the better animated efforts to come along in some time, but it could've been so much better. It lacks the irreverence, sarcasm and continuous wit of a modern classic of animation.