Every once in a while there are still surprises left in the Hollywood jack-in-the-box. A fatherly obligation-type outing with my daughters to see Over the Hedge, the new animated comedy from Dreamworks, had a most unexpected result-- almost complete delight on my part. Based on the preview and the general tone of some fairly dismissive reviews, I went into expecting not much more than a headache, much like the ones I got out of taking them to see Chicken Little and Robots. But Over the Hedge is different-- while not exactly suffused with poetry, there are images here that popped in my head and made me gasp with happiness.
Based on a comic strip with which I'm not familiar, the movie tells the story of a rummaging squirrel (Bruce Willis) who ends up in debt to a very grumpy bear (Nick Nolte) and must make restitution in the form of as much processed junk food as he, and the various woodland creatures he cons into helping him, can pilfer from a nearby suburban housing project located, yes, over a imposingly tall hedge. The voice work from Willis, Nolte and others like Steve Carell, Garry Shandling, Eugene Levy, Catherine O'Hara, William Shatner, Alison Janney and Thomas Haden Church is among the wittiest of any of the post-Pixar computer-animated movies, and Over the Hedge, unsullied by the increasingly lame pop culture raiding that characterize Shrek and so many other sub-par efforts in this genre, can stand beside the best Pixar has to offer (which is just about their whole output, isn't it?) Hedge has an appealing, manic energy, best exemplified by Carell's characterization of an overstimulated squirrel, whose encounter with a can of super-caffeinated energy drink is probably the funniest sequence I've seen all year, but it has pleasing variances in that pace and tone as well-- it's not a marathon of in-your-face slapstick and incessant screaming on the order of Chicken Little.
And though it's not exactly on the order of incisive satire, the degree to which the movie does engage with the idea of holding a mirror up to our consumer culture and impulsive consumption of junk food should probably be commended, particularly considering the movie's core demographic. (Reconciling that thematic notion with the appearance of Over the Hedge Pez dispensers at my local supermarket was, however, slightly more difficult and troubling.) Over the Hedge has a sharpness that I think the likes of Chuck Jones and Friz Freleng would have approved of, and it reminded me a lot of what those great Warner Brothers animators' work would look like if they were alive and working in pixels instead of with pens and paints. Over the Hedge might just be as much of a happy surprise to anyone else who holds their legacy of fiercely intelligent, playful and bright cartoons with love and admiration as it was to me.