Dirs: Tim Johnson, KareyKirkpatrick. US. 2006. 87mins.
Cute animals and energetic slapstick make up for anoverly generic storyline in Over The Hedge, DreamWorks Animation's entry in this year'scrowded field of computer-animated family movies. Younger kids should certainlyrespond to the impressively realised creatures and the rambunctious physicalcomedy, but teens and parents (even those familiar with the long-running USnewspaper comic strip on which the film is based) could be harder to attract.As a result, this lightweight summer offering seems destined to perform morelike DreamWorks' solid autumn 2004 CG animal hit Shark Tale than the company's summer 2005 smash Madagascar.
In the US - where the filmrecently premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival inadvance of a May 19 wide release - DreamWorks will be hoping that Over The Hedge can grab a big enoughearly summer audience to set up a profitable run and make up for the relativebox-office disappointment of the Wallace& Gromit movie Stateside. The challenge forthe company's new domestic distributor Paramount will lie not just in followingIce Age 2 and The Wild into the marketplace (not to mention competing head onwith live-action thriller The Da Vinci Code) but also in preceding Pixar/Disney's CG offering Cars by a mere three weeks.
In international markets,where UIP distributes, the film will benefit from an out-of-competition Cannesscreening and a particularly big audience appetite (demonstrated recently byboth Madagascar and Ice Age 2) for CG animal stories.Braving competition from the World Cup and rolling out mostly in June and July,Over The Hedgewill have a bit more time to find its audience internationally since Cars is not due in most territoriesuntil after the football tournament.
Written by Len Blum (The Pink Panther), the Brother Bear team of Lorne Cameron andDavid Hoselton, and Chicken Run writer Karey Kirkpatrick (whoalso co-directs with Antz'sTim Johnson), the film is a kind of back story to thesatirical comic strip about woodland creatures and their suburbanite humanneighbours.
Practical turtle Verne(voiced by Garry Shandling) is the leader of awoodland 'family' that also includes hyperactive squirrel Hammy (Carell), sassy skunk Stella (Sykes), a possum (Shatner) and his teen daughter, and a family of porcupines.
When roguish raccoon RJ (Willis)arrives in the wood he shows the animals how to raid the homes and gardens ofencroaching suburbia for food. But RJ's motives are not what they seem and hispresence soon disrupts the family.
The woodland creatures makea refreshing change from animated lions, elephants and fish and they arebrought to life with the sort of skill and flair that's now expected fromDreamWorks artists. RJ and Verne are the leads, but incidental characters likeHammy and Stella are the most fun. A human villain - an unpleasantly zealousexterminator - is introduced late in the action but doesn't add much to thefilm.
The animals' characters,however, are not so original, and neither is the plot, with its echoes of Toy Story, Chicken Run and Madagascarand its themes of courage versus caution and family versus self-sufficiency.
The slapstick is neatlystaged but the more adult humour is limited to a few pop culture jokes and somedigs at suburban mores and over-consumption.
The voice performances aresolid if not particularly distinctive, with Willis bringing his familiarwisecracking drawl and Shandling lending warmth toVerne.
Three songs from jazz-rockartist Ben Folds punctuate the action, but none is particularly memorable andtheir inclusion (backing plot-turn montages) feels somewhat forced.
Lorne Cameron & David Hoselton
John K Carr
Main cast (voices)