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'Hedge' covers turf that's all too familiar

What's a child to make of ''Over the Hedge"? Or really: What do you show the kid who, in terms of computer-animated talking-animal cartoons, has seen it all?

The same-old same-old, apparently. ''Over the Hedge" is another movie about scarily expressive animals who are more human than humans. This one is not as loud as ''Madagascar" or as lousy as ''The Wild." There is actually an occasional moment of inspiration, but as an experience, the movie doesn't hog much shelf space in the memory.

The look is sharp, but even that isn't very distinct. These pictures are starting to take on a blinding metallic glaze -- not a bad compliment for a movie whose plot functions as video game with a moral at the end.

Unfolding a story about the ecological evils of urban sprawl, ''Over the Hedge" presents a bunch of hibernating critters waking up to find a massive hedge sprung up in their forest. It's a most alluring green, and stretches on infinitely.

Helpfully, RJ the raccoon (Bruce Willis) arrives to explain that it's the sign of a subdivision. On the other side of that massive hedge is food, glorious food. RJ is a stranger to the close-knit crew, which includes a meek turtle (Garry Shandling); a porcupine family (Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara voice the parents); a squirrel with ADHD (Steve Carell); and, of course, the sassy, unwieldy critter who sounds like a black woman. (In ''Madagascar," Jada Pinkett Smith played a hippo. In ''Ice Age: The Meltdown," Queen Latifah was a mammoth. This time it's Wanda Sykes, playing a skunk.)

Claiming to teach his new buddies to store food faster and more efficiently, RJ enlists their help in sneaking over the hedge to pilfer some goodies. They don't know he's a deceitful glutton. But we do: The raccoon is kind of a skunk.

The movie is based on a comic strip that tried to illustrate human foibles from the point of view of a raccoon and a turtle. The strip's stab at joke-sociology inspires the movie's only true moment of wit. When RJ explains to the gang that humans worship food, the filmmakers come up with a truly brilliant montage that says so. Unfortunately, it lasts about 60 seconds.

Eventually, the critters wind up squaring off against a hideous real-estate obsessive (Allison Janney, in a role uglier than Sykes's) and the pest-control expert (Thomas Haden Church) she hires to annihilate them.

We know where all this is going and how it will end (we've seen ''Toy Story 2" and, my, how sorely its eloquence and soulfulness are missed). The good news is that Carell's over-caffeinated rodent steals the movie (you half expect him to unzip the costume and come out for air). And GPS, an SUV, and video games are put to clever use.

But the last 30 minutes (featuring a by-the-numbers chase sequence) seem to last forever, and the songs by Ben Folds suggest that he's through being crafty and ready to become as easy-listening as Randy Newman has.

Like that ''Ice Age" sequel, which took up the cause of global warming, ''Over the Hedge" is short on outrage. The animals are being encroached upon, but they're rarely up in paws over it. The filmmakers are obviously concerned about the rise of exurbs, but they shrug off the issue and stick to the formula of a talking-critters script instead.

Green space isn't all that's scarce. An exciting way to entertain our kids is on the verge of extinction, too.

Wesley Morris can be reached at

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