Back in the days when I would have been enraptured by any feature length animated movie that came down the pike, the sad truth was that every feature length animated movie that came down the pike, from The Rescuers to The Fox and the Hound, was of dubious quality at best. It wasn't until Disney redeemed themselves with The Little Mermaid, when I was well into high school, that the state of the genre reattained the heights once achieved with Snow White and the Seven Dwarves or, my personal favorite, Cinderella. I may have been nearly an adult, but I was finally a fan.
Then, while I was in college, Pixar raised the bar several notches higher with Toy Story. I've been a slavish devotee of CGI animation ever since, and would have declared not too terribly long ago that there was no such thing as a bad CG film.
Then I had kids, and flat couldn't wait to take them to the movies.
Then came Robots, The Wild, Monster House, Chicken Little and similar dreck, and I have to admit, I've been seriously worried.
Not Buddy. Not only has he been enraptured by all of these films, but he stops strangers in the streets and quotes lines from Monster House to them on a regular basis (I really do wish I was kidding about that). And, being four, he insists on watching anything I rent at least twice a day until Blockbuster starts sending nasty postcards.
So it was with dire trepidation that I rented Dreamworks' Over the Hedge. While Shrek was pretty damn good, I put the blame for the decline of the genre squarely on their shoulders, pointing to Shark Tale and Shrek II as Exhibits A and B (Pixar has yet to fuck up in this vein, God bless 'em, and the less said about the work of upstarts, such as Ice Age and whatever the bandwagon-jumpers at Mattel are churning out the better). So my expectations for Over the Hedge were minimal at best.
I was more than pleasantly surprised. The story is charming, well up to the beating it must take chez Mean Teacher of multiple viewings (the instant death of Chicken Little, which was clearly written by a committee). The voice work is dead-on (a real surprise, since it was the "all-star" casts of Shark Tale and Madagascar that weakened those films -- some actors look a lot prettier than they sound, like the conundrum of the transition to "talkies" back in the '40s, only the other way 'round). Garry Shandling is a particular knockout as Vern, the cautious paterfamilias box turtle, and Nick Nolte turns in his best performance in decades as the bad news bear.
But the real winner here is the animation itself. The texture people at Dreamworks have achieved new miracles with fur and foliage. Like Finding Nemo, there are nonstop roller-coaster action sequences which manage to be both breathtaking and enduringly funny. Best of all is the character control: keeping in mind that CGI is more puppetry and mime than classic animation, the facial expressions of the animals are not just engaging, they're addictive. I keep finding myself stopping in the midst of chores or reading specifically to watch Vern deadpan wearily or R.J., Bruce Willis' trickster raccoon, cock a sly eyebrow. There's real acting going on here, and the Orwellian threat that CGI will eliminate the need for SAG members to show up for work for once seems like an actual possibility.
The DVD has worthwhile extras, including the highly amusing short Hammy's Boomerang Adventure and the first informative behind-the-scenes documentary I've yet seen on a Dreamworks' Animation DVD. Also included, however, are teasers for Bee Movie and Shrek III.
They look like they're going to be awful. Absolutely awful. I'm sure I'll be in a position to let you know soon enough.