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Over the Hedge

RJ (voiced by Bruce Willis) is a savvy raccoon with a seemingly bottomless golf bag full of goodies. He may be a wild critter but he seems to have learned a lot about the materialistic consumerism of humans. As the film opens, he attempts to get junk food from the local park's vending machine. When he fails to satisfy his hunger, he turns to the goodies lying in the cave of a hibernating grizzly. But burly old Vincent (Nick Nolte) wakes just in time to witness the accidental destruction on all his winter goods'as well as his favorite red wagon and blue ice chest. RJ is naturally to blame and Vincent holds the rascally raccoon responsible for restocking the den. This prompts RJ to head towards a new housing complex that's just sprouted up on the edge of a tiny forest. Here RJ finds just the 'foragers' he'll need if he's to fill grizzly's order for junk food within the week timeframe he's been given. But Verne (the cautious turtle voiced by Gary Shandling) is suspicious both of RJ and of the ominous world of suburbia that lies just over the hedge.

The massive hedge (maybe this could replace the border fence?) divides the animals from the suburban neighborhood of neatly identical homes and refrigerators chuck full of food. But as RJ urges the animals to infiltrate the suburbs, suburban values end up invading their little woodland community. The critter kids get obsessed with videogames and everyone discovers the guilty pleasure of junk food. But cultural values are not what's on the table for discussion. Instead, it is a simple story of RJ finding a home and family despite his best efforts to destroy both.

Over the Hedge is co-directed by Tim Johnson and Karey Kirkpatrick. Johnson comes from directing Antz and Sinbad , whereas Kirkpatrick (who also serves as co-writer on Hedge ) previously penned James and the Giant Peach and Chicken Run . They deliver a film that's light and breezy, and boasts state of the art computer animation. Kirkpatrick came to San Diego along with Thomas Haden Church (who voices the pompous pest controller known as the 'Verminator') to promote the film.

In person, the slim Church looks nothing like his chunky animated alter ego the Verminator, which prompted me to ask Kirkpatrick what comes first'the digitally created character or the live actor?

'We design the characters first,' Kirkpatrick says, 'So that we're starting to get the look of our film which helps to dictate tone, and how stylized a character is or isn't. And it helps the actor when they look at it because it's very hard to go into a studio that's very cold and get a feel for what their character might be like. Sometimes we design a character and then go 'What voice would go with that character?' So in the case of the bear, we knew we wanted someone very threatening vocally but someone who wouldn't have to raise his voice sort of like the godfather. If he spoke softly it was more threatening than if he yelled. Nick Nolte instantly came to mind, but we said let's see if this works. So we grabbed a line of Nick's from The Incredible Hulk and then put that voice in with the bear to see if it worked. And then we watched it and it worked.'

Church says he was attracted to the character's 'pomposity, his unmitigated glee in his own superior expertise. He's understated but archly self-promotional.' Church says he also enjoys the freedom an actor can have when he's only responsible for providing the voice of a character.

But Kirkpatrick says although Church was just providing the voice, the actor did adopt a certain swagger each time he came in to record the Verminator's lines.

'The animation changes after an actor comes on board and that character gets physicalized,' says Kirkpatrick, 'You follow the lead of what the voice is giving you. In an animated film the performance is controlled by two people: there's the voice talent and then there's the animator, which is like the physical acting side of it, and they are actors in their own right. But we have cameras recording the voice actors as they do the voice sessions and we tell the animators to check out the camera and see what Thomas did, what was going on with his face.'

Church plays one of the few humans in the film. Most of the characters are animals that have been well matched by their voice actors. Gary Shandling is the anxious and precautious turtle Verne; Bruce Willis is the hip raccoon RJ; Steve Carell is the hyper active Hammy the squirrel; Wanda Sykes is the sassy Skunk Stella; and Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara (who have appeared together in such films as A Mighty Wind and Best in Show ) play a pair of Minnesotan sounding rodent parents.

Kirkpatrick points out that although the characters these actors play are computer generated 'there are still live people at those keyboards. So directing an animated film is still about giving people direction. It's describing the intent of a scene having everybody telling the same story. You end up being a 'tone' sheriff, making sure everyone's on the same page. The main difference between directing live action and animation is that in live action everything is happening simultaneously, and in animation we compartmentalize everything so it's a separate department for the camera, a separate department for the lighting, a separate department for the animation which is the physicalization of what these guys say. The job can be as specific as one day coming in and looking at a picture of something that has two leaves and one says 1.5 inches and the other says 2, and the purpose of the meeting is to decide the sizes of the leaves on the hedge. Then going to another meeting to decide what is it that RJ wants in this movie. So you zoom in and out all day long.'

And Kirkpatrick had to do this for each one of the 1400 shots'he notes that number repeatedly during the interview'that comprise the movie.

'The key word,' he says, 'that everyone is looking for is 'that's finalled.' That means it can move out of one department and into the next department. And when you get to shot 1400 and it's finalled you have a movie.'

Over the Hedge doesn't aspire to a lot'it just wants to be diverting summer comedy. On that simple level it succeeds. There are some delightful moments'as when Hammy's first dose of caffeine makes the rest of the world look like it's moving in slow motion. But there are some other gags that seem set up for bigger payoffs then they receive. Take the fact that the skunk Stella is disguised as a cat in an attempt to woo a snooty foreign cat as part of an elaborate plan to steal food. The set up would seem designed to play off of the classic Looney Tunes romance of Pepe Le Pew, the pompous French skunk who was always after a nervous kitty that he would mistake for one of his own kind. Everything seems set to pay homage to that classic animated duo but the filmmakers don't act as if they are even cognizant of that animation history.

Over the Hedge (rated PG for some rude humor) is a pleasant distraction that makes no attempt to push the envelope in terms of animation storytelling. For a more magical and layered tale of woodland creatures facing encroaching civilization, check out the Studio Ghibli film Pom Poko .

Companion viewing: Pom Poko, Chicken Run , any Looney Tunes Collection featuring Pepe Le Pew -----

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