Last month at Sprockets, a lively children’s-film festival mounted annually under the aegis of the Toronto Film Festival, my 8-year-old and I got a sneak peek at Over the Hedge, an environmentally correct PG charmer presumably conceived as a great white hope for DreamWorks, and now a great white hope for the distributor’s new minder, Paramount. To judge by the rapturous response from a theater full of unstereotypically amped Canadian kids, it’ll be a hope fulfilled, and then some. Like the movie’s personable co-director Tim Johnson, who connected with his preteen audience so well that the post-screening Q&A proved unstoppable, Over the Hedge is deftly held together by bags of good humor and zany action sequences, tethered to a heartfelt conviction that green is good and family is better.
It doesn’t hurt that the characters — lovable multiculti creatures with astonishingly movable fur who emerge from winter hibernation to confront a wall-high hedge that divides them from a spanking-new suburban hell — are lifted from a popular long-running comic strip by Michael Fry and T. Lewis. Sucked into the pleasures of processed foods, video games and other treasures of the consumer society by a smooth-talking raccoon (Bruce Willis) with his own secret agenda, the animals take to raiding the human goodies, opposed on their own side by a cautious turtle (Garry Shandling) with a built-in bullshit detector, and on the other by a shrieking, power-suited community macher (Allison Janney) and her exterminator sidekick (Thomas Haden Church). Inevitably the critters learn better, but not before a nasty brush with those twin scourges of 21st-century childhood: truncated attention spans and junk-food-inspired obesity.
With its clever script smartly tailored to fit all ages, Over the Hedge kept me nicely fed and watered too. But given the movie’s unimpeachable message that slow is better and we should eat to live not live to eat, should I be disgusted or amused that the clear audience favorite among the characters was Hammy (Steve Carell), a hyperactive squirrel who’s clearly off his meds? Or that DreamWorks, which is working hand in glove with the dread McDonald’s to promote next year’s Shrek 3, is currently knee-deep in soul-searching about whether its jolly green giant (no sylph to start with) should be seen scarfing down Big Macs or those wan little salads the food chain sells to all of 100 kids a year? I suppose we ought to be grateful for any signs of industry ambivalence toward the junk purveyors who prop it up via product placement and tie-ins, especially now that movies like Over the Hedge are turning out to be more reliable cash cows than your average Tom Cruise actioner. Like Ice Age: The Meltdown, whose stout legs at home and abroad surprised even its distributor, Fox, Over the Hedge is stuffed with the de rigueur features that have enabled studios to cobble together a new mass audience in an age ruled by niche marketing: cute, cutting-edge CGI animals, voiced by A-list stars who can be easily replaced worldwide by local actors; cozy family values; worthy PSAs for the planet; and hip jokes for older teens and adults. Whether this is just another swing of the box-office pendulum or an enduring wave of the future is fodder for the usual breathy trend forecasting, and not just in the trades. Just days after Variety suggested that, with 14 CGI-animated movies either in theaters or scheduled for release in 2006, the market might be reaching saturation — even though “neither Pixar nor DreamWorks Animation has had a CG toon that grossed less than $360 million in worldwide B.O.” — the Los Angeles Times ran a piece confidently predicting bigger profits from animated family films to come.
That’s not a terrible thing. Over the four or five years that my mini-critic and I have been faithfully attending studio children’s movies, some of the best and/or most successful have been CGI or part-CGI animated, including Finding Nemo, Toy Story, The Incredibles, The Iron Giant (inexplicably, a flop), Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron (a huge hit with both sexes at my daughter’s preschool), Howl’s Moving Castle and that other Miyazaki gem Spirited Away, The Chronicles of Narnia, Wallace & Gromit, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and, of course, the Harry Potter franchise. Mind you, we’ve also waded miserably through acres of lazy and derivative (though still lucrative) chaff — Chicken Little, Shark Tale, Robots, Madagascar and its even cheesier knockoff, The Wild — to get to the wheat. But at their imaginative best, CGI-animated movies have gone a long way toward rescuing children’s storytelling from the rut of drearily responsible “relevance” (kids learning the hard way how to face life with dead or deadbeat parents, or schoolyard bullies, or poverty) in which it’s been stuck. Children will always love fantasy, and I’m sure that this is why, despite a marketing blitz from Starbucks and a vivacious performance from its young star, Akeelah and the Bee bombed, and why movies as sharply divergent as Narnia and Freaky Friday bloomed into international hits.
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Still, aside from a few indelible examples — The Incredibles, perhaps, and the Miyazaki oeuvre — that connect with fundamental human concerns instead of merely currying favor with audiences, most contemporary computer-animated movies are too well-adjusted and benign to be more than ephemeral blips in the history of children’s cinema. What I worry about is that the vast majority of children see little but whiz-bang CGI movies these days, and that it’s destroying their taste for anything else, even were it available. It’s dispiriting to contemplate the niggardly box-office returns for the few beautiful old-fashioned live-action family movies that the studios release from time to time — the magical ?A Little Princess, a critical favorite and a flop both times it was released; the entire Carroll Ballard oeuvre, from The Black Stallion through Fly Away Home to last year’s Duma (out on DVD this week, and not to be missed). We’ll see how British director’s Charles Sturridge’s lovely Lassie, which opened Sprockets to muffled weeping from many parents in the audience (me included, though wilted by a venomous stare from my deeply embarrassed child), will fare when it opens here. Some children’s films have an afterlife on DVD, but not for long unless you actually buy them, for outside of specialty video stores like Santa Monica’s Vidiots, you’d be hard-pressed to find a decent selection of vintage kids’ movies beyond Mary Poppins or The Sound of Music.
As for subtitles, forget it. It’s galling that children are trusted with a green ogre who enunciates in broad Glasgow guttural, but not with a foreign film. While most cities in Europe (where arts sponsorship is still, quaintly, considered a government responsibility) mount annual children’s-film festivals made up of indigenous or non-Hollywood fare, even reputable local events like AFI Fest (which contents itself with putting out an under-18 guide to its regular festival schedule) and the Los Angeles Film Festival (which shows old chestnuts like Yellow Submarine on family day) show little interest in children’s cinema. The UCLA Film & Television Archive’s occasional Kids’ Flicks series bravely screens Charlie Chaplin shorts and early Dickens adaptations. But aside from the Giffoni Hollywood Film Festival, an Italian-inspired event that gestures at foreign fare for older kids, no one wants to touch subtitled movies for children. Art-house exhibitors grumble that young people, from the cradle through college, won’t tolerate foreign-language films. They might if they’d been raised on them, and you have to start them young. Small children are endlessly receptive to art in all its forms: They’ll prick up their eyes and ears for Mozart or Fantasia or, as my daughter did at Sprockets, a gorgeous little Dutch-language film (the subtitles were read aloud by a festival worker) called Winky’s Horse, about a lonely Chinese immigrant girl who bonds with an equine friend. A pack of raucous teens from a local high school fidgeted restlessly through the early scenes of a terrific Japanese movie called Hinokio, about a traumatized, wheelchair-bound adolescent whose father invents a robot to go to school for him; by the end, you could have heard a pin drop. And against all expectations, my kid was as enchanted as I was by The Dog, the General and the Birds, an exquisite hand-drawn French fantasy, inspired by Chagall, about the torment and redemption of a Russian general who had cruelly set birds on fire as a ploy to drive Napoleon from Moscow.
The chances of any of these wonderful movies ever making it to an American theater or festival are slender to nil. Without them, though, kids will come to expect nothing more from a trip to the theater than a good time, and that will be a loss. We all have childhood movies that remain ingrained in memory years after we saw them, whether because they fired our imaginations or spoke to emotional struggles we were going through at the time. In all my years as a film critic, I have never experienced horror as immediate or palpable as the words “Bambi! Get up!” (call me a wuss at your peril — years ago Quentin Tarantino told me that when he was a tot, that scene caused him to be carried shrieking from the theater) or the branches that reached out to grab Snow White in that dark forest. I can still call up the final moments in Old Yeller that evoked so movingly the painful coexistence of unconditional love and necessary loss. And the Oscar-winning French classic The Red Balloon, in which a wordless child chases a flirty balloon through Paris streets (I can still hear the satisfying clatter of the kid’s feet over the cobblestones), still speaks to me of loneliness, yearning and the euphoria of being carried away. Eagerly but way too late, I sat down to watch a hard-to-find tape of the movie with my daughter. She was bored stiff, and tactfully but firmly suggested a switch to Lilo & Stitch. A respectable trade, I suppose. But 30 years from now, will she leap up and say, “Lilo & Stitch — it changed my life”?
OVER THE HEDGE | Directed by TIM JOHNSON and KAREY KIRKPATRICK | Written by LEN BLUM, LORNE CAMERON, DAVID HOSELTON and KIRKPATRICK, based on the comic strip by MICHAEL FRY and T. LEWIS | Produced by BONNIE ARNOLD | Released by DreamWorks | Citywide