The Theory of Chaos

Thursday, May 25, 2006

MOVIE REVIEW - Over the Hedge

Full review behind the jump

Over the Hedge
: Tim Johnson and Karey Kirkpatrick
Writers: Characters by Michael Fry and T. Lewis, Screenplay by Len Blum and Lorne Cameron & David Hoselton and Karey Kirkpatrick
Producer: Bonnie Arnold
Featuring the vocal talents of: Bruce Willis, Garry Shandling, Steve Carell, Wanda Sykes, William Shatner, Nick Nolte, Thomas Haden Church, Allison Janney, Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, Avril Lavigne

Simpsons creator Matt Groening has said that one of his rules of thumb for the design of a cartoon character is – would you recognize them by their silhouette? And you could certainly pick Bart Simpson’s grocery bag hairdo or Mr. Burns’ predatory stoop off of lines alone, so let it not be said the man doesn’t practice what he preaches.

I was thinking of this wisdom while watching Over the Hedge – a new comedy from Dreamworks Animation which is charming enough in its own right. But unlike with the inimitably-shaped Shrek, if you were to put its hero in silhouette, I wouldn’t think: “Hey, it’s RJ!” I’d think – “That looks like a cartoon raccoon”. And the turtle looks like a cartoon turtle and the possums look like cartoon possums – although in deference to Le Pew’s Law of Cartoon Mammal Coloring, the skunk can pass for a cat when you cover up its stripe.

I can see broad types in the body shapes and facial expressions of our critter heroes, but I don’t see a high standard of individuality. I don’t see a truly loving level of detail. I don’t see character, and that flaw permeates the whole picture, forcing the other elements to work harder to entertain. A talented voice cast and smartly-timed direction makes this a worthwhile amusement, but it is held back from being more.

The story, too, is an exercise in function over form – it frustrates me when filmmakers treat children like miniature development executives, as if they need to be provided a letter-perfect checklist of emotional character arcs and ticking clock deadlines, pitched at the lowest threshold of comprehension and with all surprise surgically-removed. RJ (Bruce Willis), a resourceful loner of a raccoon, accidentally destroys the hibernation food stash of surly bear Vincent – Nick Nolte voices Vincent and sounds rather marvelously like he’s gargling a mix of molasses and sharp rocks. So RJ has exactly one week to replace Vincent’s food to avoid becoming the replacement himself. While he’s a savvy scavenger with an enlightened understanding of the human animal as a food source, and has trumped Darwin by mastering the use of tools without opposable thumbs, he’s lacking in manpower to get the job done by his deadline.

Enter a little family of “foragers” led by the steady worry-wart turtle Vern (Garry Shandling). While they slept through the winter, their woods were bulldozed in the name of suburban sprawl, and now a tall, intimidating hedge cuts off their tiny green space from a flat expanse of McMansions and SUVs.

Vern sees doom, and wants to ignore it and set to work gathering this year’s store of bark and nuts and berries. RJ sees opportunity, and sells them on the quick-fix pleasures of human-made junk food. Hammy (Steve Carrell), a squirrel already on a perpetual sugar high, is particularly persuaded. Of course, their increasingly-bold expeditions into Yuppie territory attract some unwanted attention, including a pest-control expert with a truck full of lethal gadgets who calls himself The Verminator (Thomas Haden Church).

I could go on about the point where RJ has second thoughts about abusing the help of his new friends, or about Vern’s sense of being supplanted as the parent figure of the group, but you can really sketch it all in for yourselves. The success or failure of Over the Hedge is fixed on the amount of wit and flair can be glopped onto the well-sanded edges of its perfunctory plot. And there’s enough of both to go around, Carrell’s calibrated mix of high-speed shouting and desperate whimpers is a constant source of smiles; and William Shatner, in what amounts to a clever bit of stunt casting, voices a possum who takes the art of playing dead to scenery-chewing extremes.

And there’s jokes a-plenty about the dire chemical contents of our snack staples, and our dependence on sugar and caffeine and our culture of conspicuous consumption. Over the Hedge seems afraid to go the distance, though, and actually say the stuff is bad for us, because we can’t be offending promotional partners, can we? No, nobody ever really sticks up for Vern and his dull old nuts and berries, those cans of potato-product chips are just too addictively-scrumptious!

I don’t want to damn with faint praise, but what else can I do with descriptors like “pleasant” and “likeable”? As contrast, note your emotional reaction to First Flight, an absolutely enchanting short written and directed by Cameron Hood and Kyle Jefferson that’s running in front of the main feature. With no spoken dialogue and animation that’s comfortably removed from the bleeding edge of technology, it tells a brief and simple story about a little bird that brightens the life of a depressed businessman, and shows how effortlessly something with heart and imagination can still summon laughter and tears in mere seconds. Does Over the Hedge do the same at ten times the length? It’ll be fun for the kids and enjoyable enough for the grown-ups, but the answer is no.


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