Friday, 19 May 2006

Over the Hedge (2006)

Creeping suburbanisation is bad, mmm'kay?

In an animation film, when suburbia encroaches on the forest, a struggle begins between the ruthless, out-of-control consumerist values of humanity and the holistic philosophy of nature. Caught in the middle, the cast of characters try to achieve a delicate balance between their home and the alien habitat over the hedge, to find a way to adapt to the inevitable, irresistible, and permanent change in their environment. This would normally be Hayao Miyazaki territory (witness Pom Poko, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, replete with satire, drama, and a bludgeoning environmental consciousness. Dreamworks, however, takes a lighter tack and brings audiences a winsome comedy fit for the entire family.

Over The Hedge is a CGI animation featuring cute, cuddly creatures making various jokes that will amuse its audience, along with dizzying non-stop action sequences that have animated characters careening from one end of the screen to the other. Yes, there are the requisite bodily function jokes (two in total) that are perfect for the kiddies, but there is also clever wordplay from Gary Shandling and Bruce Willis for sophisticated comic strip readers, and an extended Pepe Le Pew send-up by Wanda Sykes, perfect for older audiences weaned on Merrie Melodies reruns. If you can see beyond the CGI, you’ll notice that the cast of characters, the clean dialogue, and their pleasant interaction is a return to old-school Disney animal cartoons, and a rejection of the pop-culture laden taken by Shark Tale.

Over The Hedge is also an intelligent spoof of summer action product placement movies. This movie features an unimaginable amount of generic junk food – to the same degree that humans collect pokemons, the critters in Over The Hedge collect junk food. The running joke is this cartoon looks a well-disguised 96-minute commercial, featuring delicacies like hamburgers, nachos, potato chips, soft drinks and Sony PSP-like devices, while the 3D characters resemble those plastic figurines that come with the Happy Meals sold at fast food joints. Kids will get the joke after a while, and I am impressed with how the writing team has managed to insert their criticisms of rampant consumerism in such a palatable and non-preachy manner.

You get the feeling that the cartoon celebrates, even exults in the junk food it is supposed to critique, that life in the suburbs is portrayed by the animators as far more interesting and manic than life in the great outdoors. Perhaps that is a result of the writers’ deliberate toning down of the edgier satire and alternative feel of the comic strip, but the movie manages to stand on its own terms. At least we get to hear 3 pieces from the subversive and profane Ben Fold, who does a more than competent impression of Phil Collins.

To adapt a disjointed and impressionistic comic strip to film, the writing team has created a smart and somewhat original (for a cartoon) storyline. RJ (voiced by Bruce Willis) the crafty racoon has disturbed the hibernation of the mafia-like Vincent the bear (Nick Nolte), in a failed attempt to steal his food supplies. Vincent gives RJ two weeks to replace all the missing food, but with time running out RJ spots a forest “developed” into a sprawling suburbia and a park, and seizes on a winning idea. What better way to replenish Vincent’s food supply than to raid a suburban neighbourhood, with the help of the encroached scavenger animals?

Adult audiences will pleased with the similarities to other heist movies, while their children squeal in laughter at the sight gags and manic sequences. Because of this, families are advised to flock to Over The Hedge this month since there is no middle ground between the adult-themed MI:3 and the adult-rated Da Vinci Code.

First published at incinemas on 19 May 2006

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