When the woodland foragers in Over the Hedge wake up from their long winter’s nap on one particular spring, they discover that they have new neighbors. Essentially overnight, from their point of view, a suburban development has gone up all around them, and their woodland world has been literally hedged in on all sides.
To the wild creatures from beyond the hedge, the suburban world is a strange and intimidating place: a world of gazing balls and plastic flamingos, drivers on cellphones and frisky Rottweilers. Even the humans that live there may occasionally have a tough time negotiating life in the cul-de-sac world, where an extra half-inch of grass beyond the two inches permitted by the homeowners’ agreement or a small knot of neighbors gathering without a permit can become a small crisis.
Under the unassuming, homespun leadership of Verne the turtle (Gary Shandling), the Hedgies, left to their own devices, would probably have continued going about business as usual on the patch of land left to them. That is to say, they would have spent spring, summer and fall foraging and gathering the store of food they would need to get them through next winter, filling the hollow log that is their pantry with nuts, seeds and other foodstuffs.
But the Hedgies have another new neighbor: RJ the raccoon (Bruce Willis), a glib and sophisticated customer wise in the ways of human beings, who proceeds to give his rustic cousins a crash course in suburban life. Take the SUV: “Humans drive around in it because they’re slowly losing the ability to walk,” RJ explains. How many humans does it hold? “Usually… one.”
From the raccoon’s point of view, it’s all about the food. “We eat to live,” RJ says, “they live to eat.” For humans, “enough is never enough,” and in the end the food they can’t eat they put out in metal cans — for RJ and his new friends, of course.
This line of reasoning makes down-to-earth Verne uneasy. He can’t quite put his finger on the problem, but his tail is tingling — a sure warning sign of trouble, which seems to have the same effect on turtle tails as on Spider‑Man’s spider-sense.
Yet, subversively, Verne finds himself wondering how he’s going to keep ’em down in the forest after they’ve seen the ’burbs. Faced with the lure of donuts and pizza and cookies, even Verne struggles gamely to tout the alternative virtues of their traditional rustic diet of bark and such.
What Verne doesn’t know is that RJ has an agenda of his own. Back at the park he calls home is a bullying bear (Nick Nolte) whom the raccoon owes a lot of food. To the woodland creatures, who believe in family and community and can’t quite fathom RJ’s ulterior motives, it may be easier to disregard Verne’s misgivings than to ignore the lure of the easy life. Will Verne step aside as woodland leader? Or will RJ develop a conscience and a heart? Or both?
Adapted from the 11-year-old comic strip by Michael Fry and T. Lewis, Over the Hedge doesn’t seem worried about biting the hand that feeds it. The target audience, families with young children, will quite possibly come to theaters in SUVs, and afterwards return home to suburban subdevelopments in many ways like the one satirized in the film.
But not necessarily. Not all large families live in affluent suburbs, drive SUVs, and pressure each other to mow their lawns once a week to keep up property values — or aspire to, for that matter.
Suburban sprawl and conspicuous consumption may be the favored targets of the liberal left, but — as Crunchy Cons author Rod Dreher, among others, has been telling people recently — not all God-fearing conservative traditionalists fit the mold of the stereotyped rock-ribbed Republican who sees it as his God-given duty to drive the most gas-guzzling vehicle he can afford just because he’s an American and he can.
For many people, the word “counterculture” still has a somewhat disreputable air of 1960s rebellion and moral dissipation about it. Identification with mainstream culture, therefore, is often taken as a way of affirming traditional values, so that eating at McDonald’s, listening to Top 40, watching the latest Hollywood blockbuster at the cineplex, and shopping at the Gap are a banner of red-blooded American values.
But the counterculture dynamic is alive and thriving in conservative circles too. Pro-life circles enthusiastically embrace home births and other alternatives to “traditional” hospital deliveries. Homeschooling parents who prefer home-grown teaching to the education establishment may also prefer home-grown vegetables to supermarket fare. Over the Hedge may satirize suburban foibles, but that doesn’t mean family audiences need to see themselves as the target. Who really likes plastic flamingos, anyway?
If the humans in Over the Hedge appear in a rather jaundiced light, that makes a certain amount of sense in a story told from the perspective of their animal neighbors. The human propensity to engage in more constructive behavior than driving SUVs to our suburban subdevelopments and trying to exterminate animals — to make comic strips and movies, for instance, or to care about the welfare of other species who generally take little interest in each other’s welfare — is not showcased here. But what would that have to do with RJ or Verne?
It’s different in a film like Hoot, another problematic eco-sensitive family film currently in theaters, when the human protagonist suggests in a climactic line that “all we do” — we human beings — “is make noise.” Noise pollution — among other kinds — is what defines us as a species? As a member of the species in question, he should know better.
Despite its subversive theme and a prestigious cast including Willis, Shandling, Nolte, William Shatner, Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara, Over the Hedge is pretty middle-of-the-road entertainment — until the final third, when it kicks into high gear and goes out on a high note. But whose idea was it to score the end credits with a sanitized remix of Ben Folds’ abrasive “Rockin’ the Suburbs,” with such lyrics as “In a house built safe and sound on Indian burial ground”? (Googling the song, I find a line about Dad thinking “I might have the homo gene” — is that in the end credits?!)
P.S. At critics’ screenings, Over the Hedge was preceded by DreamWorks’ first short feature, “First Flight.” However, as far as I can tell, the theatrical release of the film does not currently include the short. (Product Note: It doesn’t seem to be an extra on the DVD either.)
With wordless computerized visuals and a stab at simple, parable-like storytelling, “First Flight” is clearly an attempt to follow in the footsteps of Pixar mini-classics like “Geri’s Game” and “For the Birds,” but whatever the secret of the Pixar elixir, DreamWorks hasn’t yet discovered it.
A bit thin and overlong, “First Flight” isn’t without charm — though buried in it is what looks like an incredibly crude sight gag that will mercifully go over kids’ heads, but may leave adults rubbing their eyes wondering if they just saw what they thought they saw. Could it be that the short was pulled at the last minute, perhaps because of this over-the-top “What were they thinking?” moment?
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.