MOVIE REVIEW- RJ's eleven: Furry friends take on suburbia

In The Wild a lot of familiar ingredients appeared to have lost their flavor, but master chefs have mixed them to the best effect yet in Over the Hedge, an early frontrunner for the year's best animated feature.

Yet another group of cute talking animals (Madagascar, Chicken Little, The Wild), including one with the voice of a sassy black woman (Wanda Sykes in the Whoopi Goldberg/Queen Latifah/Jada Pinkett Smith role) and a hypercaffeinated squirrel (Ice Age), interact with humans (Curious George) to songs by a culty singer-songwriter (Ben Folds in place of Jack Johnson).

The story, propelled by the appearance of an outsider with his own agenda, is about an elective family of foraging animals who spend the winter in hibernation. Led by Verne the Turtle (voiced by Garry Shandling), they include Hammy the Squirrel (Steve Carell), Stella the Skunk (Sykes spouting Sykesisms like "I'm gonna gas you so hard your grandchildren'll stink!"), Ozzie the Possum (William Shatner) and his daughter, Heather (Avril Lavigne); and the porcupine family, Penny (Catherine O'Hara), Lou (Eugene Levy), and their triplets.

They awaken, with 264 days left until the next winter, to find the size of their forest reduced. A giant hedge separates them from a new subdivision, El Rancho Camelot Estates, on 54 acres where they used to find food.

In the meantime RJ (Bruce Willis), a greedy, hungry raccoon has gotten himself into trouble raiding the cave of Vincent the Bear (Nick Nolte). Caught stealing Vincent's stash– not only food, but a blue cooler and red wagon as well– which is demolished by a passing truck, RJ is given a week to replace it all or die a painful death.

When RJ discovers the new subdivision, he sees it as a source of the items he needs, and the other animals a source of cheap labor that can be scammed into gathering stuff for him, thinking they're stealing it for themselves.

At the first sign of four-footed creatures, Gladys (Allison Janney, although the character looks like Rachel Griffiths), president of the homeowners association, calls Dwayne (Thomas Haden Church), "The Verminator" (much like John Goodman in Arachnophobia), to protect the neighborhood.

This turns foraging into a mission: impossible, but RJ's Eleven (more or less) are up to the task. Their caper hinges on Stella, after a makeover, being able to charm Tiger (Omid Djalili), Gladys' house cat.

Having been welcomed into the family, RJ must eventually choose between saving his own butt or everyone else's. The longtime loner actually develops guilt feelings.

You'll probably have to wait for the DVD to enjoy all the jokes during the closing credits without people standing in front of you and talking loudly, but Over the Hedge still provides an abundance of humor for all ages. The kids can enjoy the action and body-function humor (with the skunk's odor a metaphor for farts) while adults pick up on jokes about SUVs and cell phones and references to Citizen Kane and A Streetcar Named Desire.

While serving as stand-ins for some human foibles, the animals also comment on others:"We eat to live, these guys live to eat.... For humans enough is never enough."

Based on a comic strip by Michael Fry and T Lewis, Over the Hedge has a terrific script by four writers, including co-director Karey Kirkpatrick. The other director, Tim Johnson, was responsible for Antz, one of the first features to challenge Disney's domination of the world of animated features. Hedge continues that assault.