“The grass seems to be greener over here.” So notes the skeptical turtle Verne (voiced by Garry Shandling) when he arrives on the other side of the hedge, mere steps from his cozy-earth-toney abode in the diminishing woods. And indeed, in the precisely rendered, sensationally multicolored, spastically energetic Over the Hedge, Verne is right.
As if to underline, his guide to this other side, RJ the raccoon (Bruce Willis) begins to demonstrate the many advantages of the suburbs, for this is where they’ve landed, along with a pack of other adorable woodsy creatures: RJ even appears to walk on water, as he steps over the decorative tiles in a pool. This is certifiably heaven on earth, the suburbs, where humans spend all their time preparing to consume and consuming and recovering from too much consuming (“These guys love to eat!” notes RJ). Even better, they toss all their abundant leftovers into big shiny barrels, just waiting for little animals to open and explore.
RJ has previously arrived at this discovery by something resembling dire circumstance: he’s been busted trying to steak a red wagon loaded with packaged goodies from a hibernating bear, Vincent (Nick Nolte). When he accidentally awakens the bear, RJ not only loses control of the wagon (it plummets from the cave, down a mountainside into traffic), but winds up with a dire threat: he must replace the goodies or else. Though RJ’s first experience with the newly sprung up burbs is slightly harrowing (between the automatic sprinklers and the ominous stone birdbaths, he’s nearly splatted more than once), he soon discovers the tasty artificially flavored delicacies just waiting to be plucked.
But he’s working under a time constraint, and so RJ needs help. He can’t exactly reveal his motives, and so he lies to his new friends, Verne, as well as Hammy the squirrel (scene-stealing Steve Carell), shy skunk Stella (Wanda Sykes), and Ozzie, a possum who loves over-playing dead (William Shatner, at his splendiferous Kirkiest). Verne has doubts, complaining repeatedly that his “tail is tingling,” a sign in his mind that RJ is not to be trusted. But the raccoon is shrewd, and the scenario he lays out — all food, all the time — is powerfully tempting. So it’s not long before he has everyone scampering over the hedge and into the well-appointed, big-lawned abode of Homeowners’ Association President Gladys (Allison Janney), who appears to have her cell phone attached to her ear.
RJ is aided in his scheme by the sheer brightness and seemingly boundless appeal of the burbs. The previously acorn-munching younger animals (including a teenager possum voiced by Avril Lavigne, who expresses Heather’s exasperation with her dad just so: “You’re all… whatever!”) are instantly seduced by great tastes they’ve been missing: cheese dust, pizza, donuts, and Girl Scout cookies. Though Verne tries to sell them on the safe and familiar pleasures of bark and twigs, they’re predictably suckers for whipped cream in a can and corn flour. “Anything that tastes this good,” they cheer, “has to be good for you!”
While it’s clear that the eventual right path lies somewhere between Verne’s caution and everyone else’s delirium, the film offers a spate of antic diversions along the way. The animals’ several deliberations over how to achieve their (RJ’s) goal reveal little bits of cunning characterization (Verne confesses, “I’m naturally tentative, there are places in my shell I’ve never been”), and on occasion, underscore RJ’s increasing sense of guilt. When his new “family” sets him up as patriarch, complete with easy chair, popcorn, and tv with remote, he’s nearly undone: every show he clicks to involves some liar or cheat or “scoundrel among us”; even Dr. Phil’s show is about “when you feel like you’re a dirt bag.”
Amid the cutesy topical references, the film includes throwback violence (plainly inspired by the work of Warner Bros. and the great Chuck Jones), lunatic and incessant (critter bodies are twisted, flattened, exploded, and sent soaring), as well as pointed selective cultural targeting. Even if the animals don’t precisely mean to cause all the wreckage they do, the film invites you to feel a certain satisfaction when Gladys’s party plans are ruined and her SUV destroyed.
She does, after all, chase the animals with her umbrella and, when that fails, she calls in Dwayne the Verminator (Thomas Haden Church). His arrival in a van full of odious gadgets and traps (with a rooftop advertising ornament shaped like Dwayne hammering a little bunny on the noggin) bodes more ill for him than the animals he means to decimate. You know how these things go, even if he can’t. Still, the Verminator’s deliberate efforts to lay his cruel, spine-smashing and limb-dismembering traps, as well as to impress his wealthy client, set up for a lengthy sequence of hellacious and exuberant payback.
If the digs at the burbs and consumer excesses are too easy, at least Over the Hedge doesn’t presume their okayness, the more usual tack with current movies with tie-in-products. It also offers a nifty homage to Pepe Le Pew (via Stella’s faux-seduction of a Persian “guard cat” [Omid Djalili]), and yet another chance for Willis to make good fun of himself.