It feels like there's a new animated film released every week. Pixar's Cars comes out in June, but for now the best of the year has to be Over The Hedge, DreamWorks' smart and funny look at a band of forest animals who invade a suburb to survive. Co-director Tim Johnson (Antz) was in Toronto recently to promote the film.
The animation field is getting more and more crowded. Is it hard to get a distinctive look and story now? Until this year, there were about 25 computer-animated films. This year alone there are 15. So, 25 in 10 years, 15 in one year. To me, it's all good news. The good stuff is good, and an audience will pay to see it, while the bad stuff will go away quickly. More than anything, you need a good story.
This story is set up quickly, with a goal established and characters who go after it. How'd you come up with it? We looked at a couple of paradigms, and one of them was The Music Man, that musical about the con man who comes to town and tricks the local rubes. It's essential to keep the plot simple and let the characters develop.
There's a great environmental message about suburban sprawl and deforestation. Was that intentional? I grew up in the Chicago suburbs, and when I was six Darien, Illinois, wasn't even considered a suburb. There were cornfields and wildlife. By the time I graduated high school, there were easily 10 more miles of homes, without a cornfield in sight. What's weird is that the animals stayed. The fields were gone, but the raccoons were still in the garbage, the possums were sneaking along the fence, there was a skunk smell in the air every night. We say, "They're in our backyards," but that's not really true. We're in their yard. We took the land.
The casting is inspired, with some names you wouldn't think of, like Garry Shandling. We got our first choices for all the voices. I'm a huge Shandling fan. He understands contemporary smart comedy so well, and I wanted to give something extra to this character of an overprotective, neurotic dad. I had told Bruce Willis that I missed his Moonlighting character, and he agreed, so this is a return to his roots as that huckster. It's hard to tell a story about someone who's selfish, but Bruce is so charming he pulls it off.
Did you have to push Steve Carell (Hammy) to that level of excitement? He uncorked that from his own imagination. We described Hammy for him, and it was like he just hit a switch. He goes from himself to the hyperactive, vulnerable, crazy Hammy in a heartbeat. To this day, I listen to Hammy and can't picture Steve. It's Hammy.
Was there any talk about diagnosing Hammy with ADD? No, I'd hate for him to be on Ritalin.
With Avril Lavigne as one of the voices, did you consider adding her to the soundtrack? The biggest thing for us was using her as an actor. We listened to a lot of voice talent, and everyone sounded like Valley girls. Then we looked outside the acting world. Because Avril's from Canada, she doesn't have that SoCal thing. There's a bit of a lilt that takes you away from the expected.
Is it a coincidence that about half the cast is Canadian? We were huge fans of Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara, and we wanted a sense of connection in this porcupine couple that can only come from two people who've worked together a lot. And when it came to William Shatner, if you want a possum who can do Shakespeare, who else do you go to?
OVER THE HEDGE (Tim Johnson, Karey Kirkpatrick) Rating: NNNN
Over The Hedge is pretty much a perfect spring release. It's about RJ, a wily raccoon (voiced by Bruce Willis) who convinces a band of forest animals to forage through suburbia for food to help him pay back a fresh-from-hibernating bear (Nick Nolte). At first the animals, headed by the nebbishy turtle Verne (Garry Shandling), are reluctant, but the mouth-watering joys of SUV-land - and RJ's slick selling job - entice them. The jokes are so strong you'll have to see it twice, and the casting - Steve Carell as a hyperactive squirrel, William Shatner as an overacting possum - is inspired. The film's only drawback is the songs, mostly penned by Ben Folds. These ditties will date the film faster than its clever theme of suburban sprawl.