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(2006) (voices of Bruce Willis, Garry Shandling) (PG)

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Animated Comedy: A rascally raccoon cons a group of animals to help him collect human snack food that he needs to repay to a bear from which he earlier stole the same.
It's springtime and an eclectic animal family of foragers has awoken from their winter hibernation. Led by Verne (voice of GARRY SHANDLING), a cautious and low-key turtle, the group consists of a hyperactive squirrel, Hammy (voice of STEVE CARELL), sassy skunk Stella (voice of WANDA SYKES), possum Ozzie (voice of WILLIAM SHATNER) and his daughter Heather (voice of AVRIL LAVIGNE), as well as porcupines Lou (voice of EUGENE LEVY), Penny (voice of CATHERINE O'HARA) and their kids. With Verne worried that winter is just around the corner, the group sets out to forage for food, but are horrified by an enormous wall that's cut them off -- as far as the eye can see -- from the rest of their forest.

Fortunately for them, rascally raccoon RJ (voice of BRUCE WILLIS) has happened upon the scene and informs the befuddled group that the wall is actually a hedge, and that on the other side is nirvana in the form of bountiful human food. Verne is skeptical, but once RJ introduces the others to both fresh and thrown out junk food, they're hooked and agree to help him collect as much as possible.

Of course, little do they realize he has ulterior motives. Having been caught stealing a cartful of the same from gruff bear Vincent (voice of NICK NOLTE) and then losing it to a run-in with a passing truck, RJ has just a week to replace the goodies lest the bear end his life. Realizing he has the others hooked, RJ thinks his task will be a piece of cake.

Yet, when human HOA president Gladys (voice of ALLISON JANNEY) spots the animals, she calls in professional pest exterminator Dwayne "The Verminator" (voice of THOMAS HADEN CHURCH) to get rid of them. With time running out, RJ and the others try to collect as much food as possible, all while contending not only with him and Gladys' pompous Persian cat, Tiger (voice of OMID DJALILI), but also all of the unusual hazards of suburbia.

OUR TAKE: 7.5 out of 10
Throughout time, people have marveled over the immense structures that other humans have constructed, resulting in them feeling like ants in comparison to the pyramids and Great Wall of China to the enormous skyscrapers, sports stadiums, shopping malls and such that now dominate our land and skylines.

Of course, nothing manmade can compete with what nature offers. That is, except when you're a small animal and a regular wall looks like the Rockies to you. The titular object in "Over the Hedge" might not be of such grand proportions to the turtle, squirrel, skunk, possums and porcupines that have suddenly come across it. Yet, it's nevertheless quite daunting to them in this latest -- and quite delightful -- animated comedy from the folks at DreamWorks who likely have another surefire computer-generated hit on their hands.

Working from a script by Len Blum and Lorne Cameron & David Hoselton and Karey Kirkpatrick, co-directors Tim Johnson and newbie Karey Kirkpatrick have fashioned a winning story about consumerism, family, and the environment. It's thankfully short on peachiness, but long on plenty of family-friendly, highly entertaining elements that should make this a winner in the eyes of both kids and adults alike.

While not quite up to par with the eye-popping visuals of the Pixar films (although it's still quite good and certainly light years ahead of some of this year's other animated offerings) and not really containing anything resembling a complex story (this one's geared for a slightly younger crowd than played to the likes of "Shrek" or "The Incredibles"), the film more than makes up for such shortcomings with its copious, fine details.

Like the best animated offerings, this one has a noticeable degree of satire running through it, mostly focused on human consumerism and the literal and figurative trappings of suburbia. There's a fun little montage about humans living to eat (as compared to the animals eating to live), including most every funny observation one can imagine about people and their relation to food, as well as jabs about humans' reactions to encountering any sort of wildlife in their midst.

As much fun as all of that turns out to be, I heartily enjoyed the fact that the filmmakers obviously have a knowledge and/or love of their predecessors' work in the animated field. Among the various bits of offered homage, the best has to be a slight twist and role reversal of the old Looney Tunes cartoons featuring Pepe Le Pew and the unwitting cat that drew the attention of the amorous skunk with the inevitable accidental stripe of white paint down its back.

Here, the skunk's an American girl -- delightfully voiced by Wanda Sykes -- who gets a makeover in order to distract a pompous Persian cat who ends up falling for her. Although that doesn't amount to a great deal of screen-time, the filmmakers and vocal talent (with Omid Djalili perfectly voicing the feline) get a lot of mileage out of the setup.

But the best part of the film -- some of which involves those characters -- is all of the fine visual details, both in the foreground and background of most every shot. And much of that involves the various animals' facial expressions. As they say, the eyes are the windows to the soul, and the visual effects teams have nailed those and most every other aspect above the neck. Not only does that create some hilarious visuals, but it also allows the characters to engage us -- on a subconscious level -- far more than the witty dialogue and character portrayals are able to do on their own.

Best among them is Hammy, the hyperactive squirrel voiced by Steve Carell. Once again proving that such bushy-tailed rodents have become the de facto standard of funny animal sidekicks (see also "Hoodwinked" and the two "Ice Age" films), this little guy is nothing short of a delight to watch and the best moment comes when he ingests some caffeine (yes, "Hoodwinked" did the same, but nowhere to the extent of hilarity that ensues here).

He, Sykes and William Shatner (gamely playing up his stereotypical, melodramatic delivery -- especially from his Capt. Kirk days -- as a possum of all things) certainly overshadow the main characters voiced by Bruce Willis and Garry Shandling. Both are fine in their roles, but their characters are mostly the straight men in relation to all of the hilarity around them.

Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara are paired up again but don't really get the opportunity to shine (unlike in their live action roles working for Christopher Guest), while Nick Nolte, Allison Janney and Thomas Hayden Church are decent in their respective roles. Pop star Avril Lavigne voices a young possum, but is otherwise unremarkable in her portrayal (mainly due to lack of much material with which to work).

But none of that really matters since the film works so well on various levels, including as a silly screwball comedy. Plenty of amusing, action sequences are present, along with some material that's simply zany any way you look at it (including the characters' introduction to nacho cheese flavored chips that's literally and figuratively a blast to behold).

As is much of the film. While it might not seem like much from the previews or from a plot standpoint when viewed in hindsight, it's a highly entertaining bit of silliness where one never knows what unexpected bits of hilarity lie in wait from this towering bit of family film fun. "Over the Hedge" rates as a 7.5 out of 10.

Reviewed May 10, 2006 / Posted May 19, 2006

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