Familiar, once-fertile soil has been tilled a time too often with “Over the Hedge.” Despite a sprinkling of laughs and eye-catching moments, this adaptation of a popular comicstrip reps a middling effort from the house that “Shrek” built, a rather narrowly conceived tale that makes only modest hay from the overworked conflict between wildlife and encroaching humans. Given the B.O. generated by recent mediocrities like “Chicken Little” and “Madagascar,” it’s dangerous to underestimate what even a so-so computer-animated feature might do, so expect brawny returns and solid family support upon the May 19 opening for this first DreamWorks Animation presentation to be released by Paramount.
Punning title refers to the cookie-cutter housing development that assorted critters, awakening from winter slumber, find surrounding their now-meager territory. In fact, the animals would probably ignore the threatening Homo sapiens altogether if it weren’t for the dilemma of mischievous raccoon RJ (voiced by Bruce Willis), who’s angered a giant bear by destroying his (junk) food supply and needs to replace it pronto if he doesn’t want to be plunged into permanent hibernation.
RJ’s quick fix is to relieve the humans of some of their abundant grub. To do so, he tries to enlist the help of some expert scavengers — skeptical turtle Verne (Garry Shandling), frisky skunk Stella (Wanda Sykes), now-you-see-him-now-you-don’t squirrel Hammy (Steve Carell), papa possum Ozzie (William Shatner) and daughter Heather (Avril Lavigne) and a porcupine family headed by Penny (Catherine O’Hara) and Lou (Eugene Levy) — whom he cures of their reluctance by anointing them with the dust of cheese nachos.
Amusing as this is intended to be, it’s also mildly unsettling to see the quintessence of junk food being so successfully employed in the service of psychological persuasion. But so it is, as the gang undertakes a series of stealth garbage raids on the pristine homesteads.
While the set-up is engaging and sympathetic enough, it’s also quite a small conceit, one that feels a bit old-hat. It’s populated by bordering-on-cutesy forest dwellers that could easily have co-starred in a Disney movie of the ’40s or ’50s. True, Uncle Walt didn’t have his fur balls emerge from hibernation and announce how badly they had to go to the bathroom, but the differences on the character side are otherwise rather negligible.
Design-wise, the pic falls a bit short of an A grade as well. Backgrounds are sharp, but the animals, especially the chubby ones, resemble puffy dolls and lack the subtlety of facial expression of the best computer-animated fare. Similarly, the two main humans are one-dimensionally characterized to exhibit a single trait: Evil.
These characters include Gladys (Allison Janney) a hysterical control freak who instigates the campaign against the four-legged interlopers and hires the Verminator (Thomas Haden Church), a high-tech pest eradicator. The Verminator’s battle-plan mentality and elaborate installations stir some late-on fun, but the formulations of the script by Len Blum, Lorne Cameron, David Hoselton and Karey Kirkpatrick, based on characters in the 11-year-old comicstrip by Michael Fry and T. Lewis, are mostly conventional and unsurprising.
Directors Tim Johnson (“Antz,” “Sinbad”) and Kirkpatrick (writer of “Chicken Run”) supply the requisite zip, and thesps’ line readings are energetic, but “Over the Hedge” simply lacks the inventiveness, wit and sense of delight that have distinguished the best of the computer-animated generation of pictures. Three new songs by Ben Folds are vanilla.