Critters Offer Consumer Retorts in 'Over the Hedge'

Heather, a possum (voiced by Avril Lavigne), discovers the wonderful world of molded gelatin desserts in
Heather, a possum (voiced by Avril Lavigne), discovers the wonderful world of molded gelatin desserts in "Over the Hedge." (Courtesy Dreamworks Animation Sk - Courtesy Dreamworks Animation Sk)
By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 19, 2006

In "Over the Hedge," woodland creatures sneak into suburbia like a "Mission: Impossible" team. Why? Their habitat is rapidly losing ground to development. To load up for the winter, they've got no choice but to slip through the big hedge that rings the human world and make for the trash cans.

Bag of half-eaten corn chips -- 12 o'clock!

Welcome to an amusing war between cute critters and crass consumers. On the good side, we have a scheming raccoon named RJ (voice of Bruce Willis), a slow-talking turtle called Verne (Garry Shandling) and Hammy (Steve Carell), the most insanely hyperactive squirrel to flit across a computer-animated screen. And in the villains' corner -- that would be the human race -- we have Gladys (Allison Janney), a homemaker with the soul of Cruella De Vil who dispatches an exterminator to take care of the furry invaders. Her go-to guy? The "Verminator" (Thomas Haden Church), a methodical killer with a comb-over and an arsenal of death-dealing equipment more appropriate for full-scale military invasion than household pest control.

Like another DreamWorks movie, "Shrek 2" -- and more than in the original "Shrek" -- "Hedge" is built for laughter rather than artistry. It doesn't squander a moment to entertain; jokes are packed into every pixel, as if each of the four credited screenwriters were being paid by the giggle. There are timely digs at our gas-guzzling, Twinkie-popping excesses for the adults, and goofier antics for younger viewers.

You can almost check off the various target audiences as the gags come along. When RJ blows the dust off a corn chip, for example, the movie cuts to a satellite view of the United States, in time to see an orange mushroom cloud rise into the air. That one's for the parents. But when wide-eyed Hammy burps his ABCs, the kids will go wild. Sometimes there's a zinger for everyone. When Hammy tries . . . his . . . very . . . best. . . to . . . focus and fails! fails! fails! -- the kids will relate to that. But Hammy's concentration issues are perhaps also a subtle nod to the shortened attention spans of kids -- and the more Ritalin-literate society at large.

RJ's real motivation for organizing these animal raids on humanity is made clear at the beginning. When he accidentally destroys a hibernating bear's junk-food stash, the aroused shaggy beast (Nick Nolte in fine guttural form) threatens to kill the raccoon if he doesn't replace the supplies in time for his wake-up feast. Forced to steal a lot of food in a short time, RJ enlists the aforementioned furries by convincing them of the wisdom of stockpiling. But his intention to make off with the plunder is outweighed by his growing affection for his newfound pals.

Despite the movie's entertaining qualities, there was something a little unsettling, as though I could taste the chemical additives in all that junk food, or more insidiously, the oil in the movie's collective machinery. "Hedge" hums along with such well-greased precision, you can almost hear the industrial cogs and wheels whirring in all their viscous complexity. Virtually every studio's animated movie of late exudes a sense of top-down control that trickles from the head office to the lowest assistant layout artist. But in "Hedge," there's such a knowing swagger about its comedy, there seems to be no innocence in the mix at all.

The movie's certainly funny, and on the money, satirizing humans as boors who practically oink into their cellphones as they drive to the supermarket for more and more soda and Pringles -- or "Spuddies," as they're called here. After all, if the fat cap fits, we all deserve to wear it. But when "Hedge" blithely pokes fun at consumerism, it feels something like hypocrisy. Sure, "Monsters, Inc." and the "Shrek" movies reference the consumer products of modern life, twitting the very consumerism they aid, abet and depend upon. You can trace the beginnings of the trend to Disney's 1961 film "One Hundred and One Dalmatians," in which the spotted pooches watch a TV commercial about dog food.

The difference is, "Hedge" seems to want moral brownie points for holding our culture's crassness up to the light. And yet you'll find that the movie's cross-promotional campaigns are already underway when you dig into Crunch 'n Munch or spoon into Trix yogurt or pick up a Wendy's Kids Meal. The snarky satire has come full circle.

Over the Hedge (87 minutes at area theaters) is rated PG for rude humor.

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