Those who know me know that I absolutely adore Over the Hedge, but what is it that draws me to this movie? Perhaps there’s a sentimental attachment since it was the movie my wife and I saw on our very first date. Maybe it’s the fact that I’m obsessed with animation, or that the movie is colorful, fun, and full of appealing characters. Or maybe… it’s just a good movie. I was excited when I was asked to do this review because it would give me a chance to dig deeper and really think about it. So, let’s take a look at Over the Hedge.
Before looking at the film, it’s important to note that the movie was based on a comic strip. The strip, which debuted in 1995, was written and drawn by Michael Fry and T. Lewis. The premise of the comic was simply this: A raccoon, turtle, a squirrel, and their friends have to come to terms with their woodlands being taken over by suburbia, and are trying to survive the increasing flow of humanity and technology while becoming enticed by it at the same time. For those of you that are familiar with the film version, you’ll know that the filmmakers didn’t stray too far from this original premise. The strip offered a clever and comedic look at suburbia, so it was important to the filmmakers that they stay true to the unique wit and charm found in the comic.
Now let’s take a look at the film adaptation. The film debuted in May 2006 and, for its time, was quite the technical achievement. It’s important to keep in mind while watching movies from over a decade ago, that technology wasn’t quite on the level that it is today, and filmmakers were still experimenting with what they could and couldn’t do on a computer. To help put things in perspective, it was just two years prior in 2004 that Pixar would give us our first look at realistic human skin in The Incredibles using a process called ‘Sub Surface Scattering.’ And in June 2006, just one month after the release of Over the Hedge, we’d get our first look at realistic reflective surfaces in Cars using a process called ‘Ray Tracing.’ As you can see, there were important advancements still being made.
What was it, exactly, that made Over the Hedge so demanding technically? Kathy Altieri, a Production Designer on the film, said that she had no idea if they’d actually be able to make the movie they’d envisioned in their heads because of how advanced it was going to be technically. All the elements they wanted – such as fur, backlighting of fur, and a forest full of foliage – did not come easy and was a lot to ask for at the time.
Craig Ring, a Visual Effects Supervisor, said that they wanted to push fur further than they’d ever done previously. And, boy, did they. Not only did this film have a ton of furry animals, but it had a ton of furry animals hugging, which is even more difficult to do on a computer. This was something that made technical supervisors wince every time they were made aware of another “hugging” scene. Even though they were faced with a difficult task, the challenge, in my opinion, succeeded, and adds a level of quality that had yet to be seen in a computer animated film until then.
As the movie opens, we’re immediately introduced to our main character, a raccoon named RJ, a self-professed “Family of One,” and he’s found himself in quite the predicament: he’s been foiled in his attempts to acquire a bag of nacho cheese flavored chips from a vending machine. After using every trick in his bag of goodies and still failing, he’s tempted to do the next best thing – steal some food from an acquaintance of his, a bear named Vincent. He eventually decides to pillage Vincent’s entire stash, and when he notices a final can of Spuddies, a type of off-brand Pringles, he just can’t help himself. Attempting to retrieve the can wakes Vincent and results in the entire stash of food, resting on a red wagon, rolling out of the cave, down the mountain, and onto the road where it gets destroyed by a semi. Hoping to escape Vincent’s “death grip,” RJ vows to return the entire stash to him. Vincent accepts RJ’s offer, but gives him just one week to make good on his promise. What is RJ to do?
As he begins his mission to replace Vincent’s stash, he luckily stumbles upon a group of woodland creatures who have just awakened from their winter hibernation only to find that a huge hedge has appeared near their home. What is it? What’s on the other side? How will they ever manage to collect enough food for next year’s hibernation? These are answers RJ is more than happy to give them, on one condition: That they help him gather all the items on his list. Through some exaggerating and some minor persuasion, he manages to get them on board with his scheme and his plan has succeeded… or has it? Let’s just say that the woodland creatures find themselves in some hilarious situations when confronted with suburbia and all that comes with it.
Where the movie really shines, though, is in the writing. Unlike some other DreamWorks animated films, this movie doesn’t rely on pop culture references or potty humor in order to formulate jokes or to evoke laughs. No, this film approaches things from a more clever angle by taking a comedic look at consumerism, food consumption, and modern day technology. By taking this approach and building situations around these themes, it manages to deliver a much more unique brand of comedy.
In one scene in particular, RJ introduces his new-found friends to their first bag of chips. When asked what they are, RJ responds with this:
“That, my friend, is a magical combination of corn flour, dehydrated cheese solids, BHA, BHT, and good old MSG – AKA – ‘The Chip’, Nacho Cheese Flavor.”
In another scene shortly after, RJ is taking the woodland creatures on a tour of suburbia for the first time and explaining to them how, with humans, everything revolves around food. His explanations are backed up with visuals, reinforcing his “wisdom,” and resulting in one of the funniest sequences of the movie. These are just a couple examples – of many – found sprinkled throughout the movie, and for me, it was much more refreshing than the pop culture references studios tend to rely on time and time again, which are mostly bland and overdone.
Another thing that DreamWorks got right with this movie was the casting of the voice talent. In the past, DreamWorks has taken a lot of flak for mostly hiring “big name” talent so that they could name-drop in their marketing materials. Perhaps that was their plan on this movie too, but it doesn’t come across that way. Each of the actors completely embody their character and deliver and fantastic performance. First and foremost, there’s Bruce Willis, who gives a convincing performance as RJ, a con artist raccoon who’s completely content to lie, cheat, and steal to get whatever he wants or needs.
While we’re discussing voice talent, let’s talk about some of the other supporting characters that also deliver top-notch performances. The first of the supporting characters would be Vern, an uptight, paranoid turtle voiced by the late Garry Shandling. Vern is untrusting of newcomers and only relies on his makeshift family of woodland creatures. Next you’ve got Hammy, a hyper-active squirrel voiced by Steve Carell. If you didn’t know it was Steve Carell voicing Hammy, then you’d never guess it was him. He completely disguises his voice and delivers a totally unexpected, almost unrecognizable performance. There’s also skunk named Stella voiced by Wanda Sykes, and a porcupine couple voiced by Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara.
One of the funniest casting choices, however, would be the casting of William Shatner as an overly dramatic opossum named Ozzie who, rather than facing a dangerous situation, would rather roll over and play dead. If you didn’t know any better, you could say that William Shatner is actually parodying himself. Avril Lavigne also has a minor role as Ozzie’s daughter, Heather. If you could accuse DreamWorks of hiring someone with the intent to name-drop, this would be the only case. Although she did an okay job, it was nothing spectacular when compared to the rest of the characters.
Rounding out the cast are the two main human characters Dwayne, an overenthusiastic Exterminator, and Gladys, the uptight head of the Homeowners Association, voiced by Thomas Haden Church and Allison Janney, respectively.
Also of note is the film’s soundtrack. The movie contains several songs written and performed by Ben Folds. Instead of just shoehorning in pre-written “pop” songs, these songs were written for the movie and, because of this, move the plot along rather nicely without yanking you out of the moment.
The first song, “Family of Me,” is sort of an explanation of RJ’s character. This song is played over opening credits and while watching RJ begin his quest to replace Vincent’s food. Another song, “Heist,” is played over a montage scene of the woodland animals crossing through the hedge and entering suburbia in order to steal food and other suburbian “treasures.” The songs contains lyrics that also play heavily into the parody of suburbia. These lyrics include lines like:
“Follow me into the great unknown where pink flamingos grow, diet soda flows, and what you take magically regenerates on supermarket shelves, the ovens clean themselves…”
There is also a lovely ballad entitled, “Still,” that plays when RJ realizes that even though he’s conning these poor creatures, maybe he’s becoming attached to them and wants something a little more than his “Family of One.” It’s refreshing to see a studio commit to original music that’s written with the intent to forward the plot, and not just to sell a hit soundtrack. Score another point for DreamWorks on that decision.
So to answer my question: Why am I drawn to this movie? Well, I think the answer is… all of the above. Yes, maybe there is some sentimental attachment to it, and yes, it has all the other qualities I mentioned, but I found there’s much more to it than that. In my opinion, DreamWorks really nailed this one. It has all the elements that not only make a great animated movie, but a great movie in general. It has a great story, clever writing, appealing characters, and an original soundtrack.
Adding to the authenticity of this movie is that you get to witness actual character growth from the main characters. RJ, who in the beginning was content being a family of one, realized that there was something more that he was missing. He allowed himself to open up, let others in, and in the end finally became part of a family. Vern, who was uptight and untrusting, learned that he could relax a bit, have some fun, and actually trust others beyond his small circle of friends. Whenever you get to see great character development and growth, there’s always an emotional connection to be made and a sense of fulfillment after having viewed the film. In my opinion, Over the Hedge nails every single aspect that makes a movie worthwhile.
I highly encourage you to watch this movie if you’ve never seen it, or to give it another shot if it’s been a while. You might just find that it has more to offer than first meets the eye.
Edited by: Kajsa Rain Forden