Over the Hedge

There’s a point at which “cute” ceases to be enough. Over the Hedge is cute enough, I guess, but for a huge, expensive production voiced by A-list stars and given the sort of marketing blitz usually reserved for Tom Cruise movies and major wars, it seems desperate and unimaginative. I can digest a certain amount of importance-of-family sap, but I expect something in return — more, in any event, than the sort of rudimentary, self-conscious social commentary this movie offers. Kids might like it, but there are better alternatives for them and for their parents, starting with Dreamworks Animation’s previous megaton CGI creation, Madagascar.

Dreamworks has more or less pioneered the strategy of regular name-above-the-title casting for animated features (though Disney experimented with it as early as Alladin), which has been a detriment to their films, though probably a boon to their profits. Leaving aside the fact that voice work should go to voice actors — geniuses like Billy West and Tress MacNeille — this philosophy, indiscriminately deployed, prevents big movies from having actual characters: important parts become bland, post-movie conversations start referencing “Eddie Murphy” instead of “Donkey,” and so on.

Over the Hedge isn’t an egregious offender in this regard, but, featuring the likes of Bruce Willis, Gary Shandling, Thomas Haden Church and, so help me, Avril Lavigne, it misses the opportunity to inject the labored proceedings with some personality. Willis is perfectly serviceable as RJ, the greedy, scheming hedgehog who enlists a group of forest creatures to unwittingly help him collect food for a bear who’s threatened to kill him; Shandling is sympathetic as Verne, the good-hearted turtle who leads the group RJ tries to infiltrate. But they never even try to sell us on the notion that they’re playing anything other than characters they ordinarily play; that RJ and Verne inhabit a world other than ours. In fact, they don’t even seem to be trying.

The film surrounds them with supporting characters that each amount to one joke, and usually a lame one: the presence of Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara in the cast may be a hopeful sign, but alas they play a pair of hedgehogs who get to do nothing but be midwestern. Wanda Sykes, who has only one joke anyway, plays an uncouth skunk known for her ability to “clear a room.” Sooner or later, all of them have to realize that they’ve been betrayed by RJ, which they signify by being extremely sad. It’s very, very difficult to care.

On the comedy front, Over the Hedge comes up with a couple of decent non sequiturs — I like that the animals decide to address the mysterious green wall that suddenly separates their woodland haven from the new prefab McMansion development next door as “Steve” — but focuses most of its efforts on its satire of suburban consumption. “For humans, enough is never enough,” we are told, and the villain is a deranged homeowners’ association president (Allison Janney) who wages a campaign to eliminate the “vermin” from the development’s perfectly trimmed lawns (the length of the grass is regulated to within an inch) and gleaming silver garbage cans. “This is an SUV,” RJ explains; when Levy’s midwestern hedgehog #1 asks how many humans fit in an SUV, RJ smirks and replies “usually, one.”

Some of that stuff is actually pretty funny, but the “family” message that dominates the last act then seems tacked on and RJ’s crisis of conscience is long and boring. All attempts at pathos fall flat because the movie doesn’t earn them: it just lays out the old kiddie movie emotional hooks and hopes for the best. We’re watching caricatures in formulas.

Will kids like it? Again, probably. They’ll forget it pretty quickly, too. I’m not a kid, but I still pop in my Monsters, Inc., Antz and The Emperor’s New Groove DVD’s on a regular basis. Over the Hedge is simply not operating on that level.

 

Seeking in movies meaning and reflection in real-time. On the look out for biography, thriller & drama best pieces.

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