Movies based on comic strips have a spotty history -- surely "Garfield" still haunts the dreams of many parents, as it does mine -- but "Over the Hedge" is a buoyant and funny animated lark in its own right, regardless of its funny-pages origins.
Based on a comic strip that is widely syndicated but far from household-name status, the film begins as spring dawns on an idyllic wooded area in middle America. Here lives a group of peaceful creatures, just emerging from their winter nap: Verne (voice of Garry Shandling), a turtle, is their methodical de facto leader; and Stella (Wanda Sykes) is a rather butch, tough-talking lady skunk; Hammy (Steve Carell) is a dim-witted and guileless squirrel ("Wanna help me find my nuts?!" he asks without any trace of self-awareness).
Rounding out the group is a father and daughter family of possums (William Shatner and Avril Lavigne) and a traditional porcupine household consisting of a mom and dad who sound like they're from Wisconsin (Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara) and three rambunctious little boys.
Now that spring has arrived, they have exactly 273 days to store up enough food for NEXT winter, but they are immediately stymied by something that happened while they were asleep: a wall-like hedge now runs through their forest. On the other side of it is a brand-new subdivision of identical tract homes with identical lawns.
The animals have no prior experience with humans, but a newcomer, a fast-talking raccoon named R.J. (Bruce Willis), fills them in. This is a good thing, he says. Humans' lives revolve around food, most of which they throw away and all of which tastes better than the roots and bark the animals are used to.
How much do people love food? Just look at the Girl Scouts, R.J. says: "Cookies so valuable they're hand-delivered by uniformed officers."
R.J. teaches his new friends how to plunder human backyards and garbage cans, steering clear of the homeowners' association president (Allison Janney), who is eager to have all the vermin exterminated.
What R.J. doesn't tell them is that he has ulterior motives for helping them gather so much food so fast. Verne is wary of the cosmopolitan newcomer, but the others are thrilled by his tales of adventure and his knowledge of human behavior.
Where films like "Robots" and "Madagascar" have existed, it seems, for the sole purpose of spitting out pop-cultural references, "Over the Hedge," written by a four-man team and keeping the spirit of Michael Fry and T. Lewis' comic, is refreshingly free of them. Instead, it focuses on story and character, letting the comedy emerge naturally from those elements.
In that way, it approximates the spirit of the Pixar films, with their sweet, unironic storytelling, sly jokes, and subtle commentary on deep themes. "Over the Hedge" addresses matters no less weighty than suburban sprawl, environmentalism, America's obsession with junk food, and makeshift family units.
The plot is Pixarian, too. The morally strong group leader who fears being replaced by an exciting newcomer is pure Woody and Buzz; Verne the cautious turtle is a spiritual brother to the worried father in "Finding Nemo"; the happy dog whose overexcited dialogue consists only of "Play? Play?" recalls "Nemo's" seagulls ("Mine! Mine! Mine!").
It culminates in a truly hilarious finale in which the hyperactive Hammy ingests a highly caffeinated soda to give him the burst of energy he needs to accomplish an important task. The situation quickly elevates to absurdity of stratospheric proportions, making yet another film where a Steve Carell character has stolen the show.
(The voice talent is well-cast all around, though. Who better to play a possum who loves improvising elaborate, melodramatic death scenes than the elaborate, melodramatic Bill Shatner? And it's always nice to hear Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara play a couple, as in "Best in Show" and "A Mighty Wind.")
I'm sorry to report the movie (directed by "Antz's" Tim Johnson and new director Karey Kirkpatrick) sags a bit in the middle, after the dual conflicts of R.J.'s deception and the threat of extermination have been established, but before anything is done about them. But I like how all of the animals prove valuable to the problems' solutions, with no extraneous characters floating around. You have to stick together in times like these, a point that "Over the Hedge" makes quite charmingly.