Can suburban wildlife co-exist with humans? Does nacho-cheese flavoring have hypnotic qualities? What happens when a hyperactive squirrel takes caffeine? These and other questions are answered in Over the Hedge, the first DreamWorks animated film to be released under the Paramount banner.
Based on an eleven-year-old comic strip written and drawn by Michael Fry and T. Lewis, Over the Hedge can't quite escape the feeling of sameness caused by the steady output of celebrity-voiced, computer-animated kids' films. Worse, Over the Hedge doesn't have anything particularly distinctive in the way of humor or lessons (don't lie, don't be selfish, and "Families...look after each other"). But the voice work and animation are both a cut above the average, and the film's energy is brisk enough to sustain 96 minutes of satisfying summer diversion for families.
Bruce Willis is terrific as RJ the raccoon, a rascal trying to dig himself out of a hole. After prematurately waking a hibernating bear (Nick Nolte) while stealing his junk-food stash, RJ must restore the swag or face the painful consequences, so he cons a gaggle of wildlife into broaching a suburban hedge to steal trash from humans ("They're just as scared of us as we are of them!").
Garry Shandling barely registers as displaced leader Verne the turtle, but support comes from Steve Carell (hilariously zippy as squirrel Hammy), Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara as porcupines, Wanda Sykes as a skunk, and William Shatner as a possum who's an expert at playing dead (get it?). Apparently Patrick Warburton wasn't available, so Thomas Haden Church plays the low-talking exterminator baddie.
The principal narrative problem in the script—credited to Len Blum and Lorne Cameron & David Hoselton and Karey Kirkpatrick (The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy)—is that the characters emerge in crisis mode before we've had a chance to assimilate them in normal circumstances. The actors and the animation of vigorous facial expression and darting movement keep the story buoyant, as do a batch of cute Ben Folds songs.
Strangely, the joke that scored highest on the kiddie laugh meter at the screening I attended was a Tennessee Williams reference that kids recognize not from its source but constant parodies ("Stellaaaaaaa!"). Second biggest joke? A skunk emission, natch. Over the Hedge may resemble its ever-present junk-food more than nature, but families with hearts set on the multiplex can indulge, just this once.