If you go down to the endangered woods today, you're sure of a nice surprise. Why? Because Over The Hedge is a non-Shrek DreamWorks digi-cartoon that's actually more than mediocre. Much more. Bloody good, in fact. Seems the studio's taken heed of the critical brickbats chucked at the fun-but-forgettable Shark Tale and Madagascar. For one thing, the talking critters here are more than the sum of their quirks. For another, co-directors Tim Johnson (Antz) and Karey Kirkpatrick (who scripted Chicken Run) give us a story, rather than a stream of celluloid send-ups (the odd "Stellaaaa!" or "Rosebud" reference notwithstanding).
Okay, so the plot's basically A Bug's Life in the 'burbs: outsider shanghai's tight-knit tribe into helping him sort grub-demanding baddie. But what could have been a stale imitation has turned out as fresh as a newly mown lawn. Take the set-pieces, from Verne the turtle's first shell-shocked encounter with the perils of picket-fence life to the fur-raising chase climax. Not far off Pixar-perfect, the hyper-real compu-visuals are gorgeous.
Still, pen-and-ink or pixellated, any 'tooner stands or falls on its characters, and here they're an endearing, cheering bunch, larynxed with aplomb. There are distinct echoes of Bruce Willis' Moonlighting past in his rascally raccoon RJ, though the most touching turn comes from Garry Shandling, who shades a welcome warmth into Verne's wariness. Meanwhile, if you thought Scrat had 'Funniest Animated Squirrel Of The Year' sewn up, wait till you meet Steve Carrell's turbo-charged Hammy. Needy, nutty, nacho-crazed, he's every bit as cool as Ice Age 2's acorn-chaser.
Add Nick Nolte's growly menace as ursine nasty Vincent and all's rosy in the garden. Yes, there's the inevitable flannel about family values, but the film reaps enough goodwill for viewers to turn a blind eye. What's more, parents fearing an assault on their nerves can rest assured: Over The Hedge won't leave you bushed.
Wilder than Madagascar. Sharper than Shark Tale. At last, DreamWorks shows it can deliver the goods without the big, green ogre.