The latest computer-generated DreamWorks cartoon, “Over the Hedge,” throws around some interesting ideas before it succumbs to terminal cuteness. The plot was inspired by the encroaching nature of modern suburbia, which threatens to flush out wildlife in the woods that surround manicured lawns, barbecues and swimming pools.
The central characters are R.J., a roguish, fast-talking raccoon (voice by Bruce Willis) who owes a pile of junk food to an angry grizzly bear (Nick Nolte), and Verne, a self-described “tentative” turtle (Garry Shandling) who shies away from adventure.
Also providing animal voices are Steve Carrell as the energetic squirrel, Hammy; William Shatner as Ozzie, a possum who’s a genius at playing dead; Omid Djalili as the sadomasochistic house cat, Tiger; Wanda Sykes as a pushy skunk named Stella; and Catherine O’Hara and Eugene Levy (the “Mighty Wind” duo) as the sensitive porcupines, Penny and Lou.
Spring has arrived, the hibernating animals are just waking up, and they’re discovering that an upscale development has taken over what used to be “their” territory. The young ones especially are hungry, and R.J. knows just where to find the food: in silver-plated garbage cans that clearly must have been designed with foraging forest animals in mind.
The humans, of course, see things differently, especially when the cans are overturned and litter the previously squeaky-clean streets. Gladys (Allison Janney), the snotty president of the local homeowners’ association, calls in a “verminator” (Thomas Haden Church) to get rid of the visitors as “humanely” as possible.
It isn’t much of a plot, so the filmmakers fill the time with disposable songs, trumped-up conflicts between the animals, and an overcooked message about the importance of sticking together and becoming a family. The most inspired episode involves an all-out satirical assault on consumerism, including a scene in which a food-obsessed suburban family worships at the altar of the dinner table.
For a few seconds, you might wonder if you’re watching a cartoon treatment of “American Beauty,” which DreamWorks also produced. But “Over the Hedge” is based on a comic strip by Michael Fry and T Lewis, and it soon reverts to comic-strip form.
The script is the work of Len Blum (“The Pink Panther”), Karey Kirkpatrick (“Chicken Run”) and the team of David Hoselton and Lorne Cameron (“Brother Bear”). Kirkpatrick and Tim Johnson (“Antz”) are the co-directors.
As usual with DreamWorks cartoons, there are plenty of Disney references. The angry bear resembles the determined bully Brer Bear of “Song of the South,” and there’s a bit of Brer Rabbit in R.J. The point of view, always suggesting how the animals see domesticated humans as amusing aliens, is reminiscent of “Lady and the Tramp.”
For adults with long memories, there are labored quotations from “Citizen Kane” (yes, “Rosebud” is cited), “A Streetcar Named Desire” (yes, “Stella!” is shouted) and “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (the earth stops spinning for one entire cosmic episode). Feature-length cartoons now require these kinds of self-conscious pop-culture acknowledgements, but they’re looking more and more like they’re filling out a checklist.