Over the Hedge

Year: 2006
Studio: Dreamworks
Director: Tim Johnson/Karey Kirkpatrick
Cast: Bruce Willis, Garry Shandling, Steve Carrell, Wanda Sykes, Avril Lavigne, William Shatner, Nick Nolte, Thomas Haden Church, Allison Janney, Eugene Levy, Catherine O'Hara
What's most incredible about the computer-animated films coming out of Dreamworks, Pixar and their contemporaries is the uncanny casting. Film critic Roger Ebert remarked about Pixar's Cars that the character voiced by Paul Newman actually had nuances on screen that reminded you of him.

In Over The Hedge, Nick Nolte and Steve Carrell play a hyperactive squirrel and a murderous, icicle-cool bear - no prizes for guessing who plays which.

Raccoon RJ (Willis) can't say no, especially when he comes across the stash owned by the fearsome Vincent (Nolte) who's still hibernating. Attempting to lift the loot, he wakes Vincent and loses it over a cliff. Vincent gives him an ultimatum; restock the stash within a week or be lunchmeat.

Desperate, RJ happens across an unlikely brood of squirrels, possums, a skunk and a tortoise just coming out of hibernation themselves, unaware their patch of forest has become hemmed in over the winter by suburban sprawl. RJ does his level best to convince them of the easy pickings to be had on the other side of the massive hedge that separates them from the humans, intending to use them to help him gather his booty and swindle them out of it upon his deadline with Vincent.

In a classic Woody vs Buzz Lightyear template, the flashy newcomer promises unbound delights and shakes the cautious but caring leadership of tortoise Verne (Shandling) and the group starts to rebel.

The stage is set for plenty of hilarious forays into the human's world where the characters and plot are almost enough to make you embarrassed to be one. Much of the humour is bitingly satirical, such as when RJ gives his account of the way humans worship food - storing it everywhere, carrying and delivering it by the ton and then discarding its remains just for the animals. When he's describing the massive SUVs parked outside every home the dumbfounded animals ask him how many humans fit in them. 'Usually,' he says, 'one.'

Many of the new breed of computer animated films are following a formula set down by Toy Story, Shrek and Ice Age. Those films enjoyed the limelight mostly alone when they were released. But Over The Hedge is one of at least three in cinemas in the next little while (along with Cars and Hoodwinked).

So there's a new danger lurking at the movies, and it's not The Omen remake. In realising they're onto a good thing, Hollywood studios tend to hammer us over the head with it until we plead with them to stop by staying away from the box office in droves.

The same family-based themes have been the cornerstone of animated films for over 70 years - they've just become zippier to cater to an increasingly attention-deficit society. CGI and great writing are two tools that can make great movies, but despite big laughs and faultless execution, Over The Hedge the first in this brave new genre that feels a little bit like something you've seen before. It might already be time for Pixar and Dreamworks to raise the bar higher, but Over The Hedge sits comfortably at its current high level.

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