Shell Game 

Over the Hedge wants you to feel bad about what it's selling, which is everything.

At this late date, it's hard to tell one digitally rendered talking animal from another. Madagascar blends into Ice Age looks like A Shark's Tale sounds like Shrek might as well be A Bug's Life turns into Antz feels like Chicken Little could be Over the Hedge, which is really just Madagascar in the suburbs anyway. Animated petting zoos were once glorious places to visit, tended to by masters who turned Walt Disney's childhood fantasies into immortal fairy tales. Lady and the Tramp all by its lonesome is worth a dozen of these meat-grinders — crude commodities, plush toys and product placements in search of a story from which to hang their price tags.

This is old news, of course: Product is what we get especially at this time of year, as parents look for air-conditioned destinations at which to dump vacationing kids entertained by anything bright, loud, and furry. But Over the Hedge, based on something as insubstantial as a daily newspaper comic strip, especially bears the special scent of an unhealthy baked good rolled off the assembly line. It arrives in theaters slathered in more endorsements than a NASCAR driver, with its characters appearing in TV ads for everything from Hanes underwear and baked Cheetos to Hewlett-Packard and Oscar Mayer. And the movie, with its warm 'n' cuddly creatures acting as spokesanimals, is being used to launch Wal-Mart's "Summer Starts Here" campaign. It feels like I've already seen the movie four times, after witnessing the parade of commercials for other junk its characters are pimping.

Perhaps it makes perfect sense (and dollars, for DreamWorks and Paramount): The entire movie is built around a scenario that involves the stealing and hoarding of junk food, with the artificial cheese that covers corn chips acting as the most powerful of all ingestible narcotics. A swindling raccoon named RJ (voice of Bruce Willis) must fill the cave of a grizzly (Nick Nolte, coughing up a hoarse, tired roar) with grocery-store goodies before he devours RJ instead. So he enlists the aid of some naive turtles and squirrels and possums and porcupines and skunks — voiced by the likes of Garry Shandling, Steve Carell, William Shatner, Wanda Sykes, Avril Lavigne, Eugene Levy, and Catherine O'Hara, because these movies are nothing without their famous faces providing familiar voices — to sack the suburbs for some treats. That's the plot, in a chocolate-covered nutshell.

It's been said of Over the Hedge — both the strip (by Michael Fry and T Lewis) and the movie (written by four other writers, because it's just so hard to fill 84 minutes) — that it's intended as satire, a jab at our unhealthy lifestyles of junk-food and TV gorging. It's easy to see how people could confuse a movie like this with satire: It's set in a part of the woods that's been decimated by suburban sprawl, and it's populated by ghastly caricatures (Allison Janney as the neighborhood-watch Nazi, Thomas Haden Church as the dim-bulb exterminator) with bloodlust for the intruders who've actually been intruded upon. And Ben Folds offers a lullaby lite-rock version of the Clash's anticonsumption anthem "Lost in the Supermarket," in which Mick Jones originally sang, I wasn't born so much as I fell out/Nobody seemed to notice me/We had a hedge back home in the suburbs/Over which I never could see. It's easy to mistake intention for execution when it's this on-the-nose. But you can't sincerely say something about the crassness of consumerism at the same time you're trying to unload the store.

Of course, no child will be concerned with the movie's subtext; they just want to giggle, and Over the Hedge has its moments. They're on loan from other, better places — Wanda Sykes' Stella the skunk covers her white stripe to seduce a cat, à la Pepe Le Pew, while the whole animal aggregation looks to be on loan from Bambi — but such is the nature of this animation biz. Shrek and its superior sequel were constructed on the remnants of late-night comics' routines, consisting of little more than pop-culture punch lines covering up a threadbare plotline. Over the Hedge, which aims to be something more traditional and longer-lasting, uses as its templates old Warner Bros. and Disney movies, and so it plays like a mash-up made of things sold off the Wal-Mart shelves.

What really has to stop is the use of A-listers voicing B product: Shandling is here solely because his is the finest of whines, and as the turtle named Verne, he's reduced to a shrill straight man — the voice of reason you can't listen to for more than five minutes. These folks are hired not to stretch, not to care, but to play themselves; there's no effort required of Bruce Willis save for him to play Bruce Willis. The only added benefit for the studio is that this time, they get him to sell chips and TV sets and computer games and stuffed dolls. Like it even matters: My two-year-old son has seen enough Over the Hedge ads (by which I mean Wal-Mart spots) to already proclaim this thing the greatest movie since ... Curious George. Or was that Madagascar? Like he cares, and like I can tell the difference.


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