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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
May 21, 2006

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Over the Hedge, Gender, Spritzers, and Right-of-Way

Over the Hedge looked like it was going to be charming and funny -- and it delivered.

The odd thing is that I don't really enjoy the comic strip it was based on. I rarely find it amusing. But for an animated feature, the idea of animals forced to deal with suburbia in order to find food is a good one.

Having had raccoons get into my garbage cans, I understand the frustration of getting to pick up your trash because some wild animals were hungry and way too clever with their hands.

And the number of squirrel corpses on the streets of our neighborhood, especially in spring and fall, attest to the not-quite-brightness of the squirrel brain.

The film handled the satire of human impact on nature rather well. Yes, our eating habits are funny compared to the habits of animals (though also remarkably similar, as our bodies, like theirs, work to build up fat during our perpetual "summer" of bounteous harvests) -- but the biggest danger to the raccoon hero is another animal.

And the woman who is the primary human foe of the animals is so exaggeratedly fanatical in her hatred of anything messy and natural that few in the audience will take it personally when she gets her comeuppance. Since the film shows "normal" people rejecting her fanaticism, and we watch her persecuting others for such crimes as letting their lawn grow a half inch too long, she is definitely not one of us.

And I was relieved that for once the ridiculous pantaloon in a suburban satire was not the man of the house. The woman hired an exterminator to come and deal with the "pests."

Funny, though -- you could take the sex-stereotyping two ways. If you want to see the film as anti-male, it would be easy: The only male character is the buffoon, the Verminator -- but he's an outsider, a hired gun, not part of the social system. The suburban neighborhood is weirdly without adult males. We get glimpses, but the people who talk are all women and girls. The main female character is not married and shows no interest in marriage.

On the other hand, the control-freak nightmare character is a woman with neither husband nor children -- so this could be viewed as an anti-feminist tract, despising the powerful woman figure.

In other words, prickly people determined to be offended will find ample grounds for it.

To which the answer is: Come on, we made the main human character a woman because why not? Flip a coin. And we made her an obsessive control freak because there really are people like that and they're funny in a horrible kind of way. And we had her live alone because could you imagine anybody being married to somebody like that? Didn't you see Spanglish?

So forget all that silliness. This is a film about the talking animals -- and about the social dynamics represented by those animals. We have a group headed by a prudent, careful leader who really has the best interests of all his "family" in mind, and a newcomer offering all kinds of cool stuff that seduces the group into great danger. Everybody makes mistakes.

The only thing I actually object to is the downward redefining of the word "family." We saw it in Lilo & Stitch, and we've got it here, too. In a world like ours, where a vast number of kids grow up outside the normal dad-mom-and-kids family, there's a lot of pressure to make them feel better by redefining family to include "everybody you like that you can count on."

But we already had words for that: We call them "friends" and "communities." The word "family" has a very different meaning, with the implication of blood relationship and permanency.

Wouldn't we be better off to keep "family" as a goal to be aspired to, so that (for instance) a teenage girl might aspire to find a man who would help her create a permanent family for her children rather than one that will mate with her and go away? And how many divorced kids really think it's cool to have two "families"? For most of them (and we have the data on this) what they actually experience is one family, and it's broken.

So when a movie like this uses the word "family" to refer to possums, porcupines, a squirrel, a turtle, and a raccoon, when they actually function as a community of friends, I think we're doing ourselves a disservice. Fuzzing the meaning of a word doesn't change the real world, or the genuine hunger people feel to have a real family. It just means we'll need a new word to cover the meaning that "family" used to have.

But let's set that little social trend aside, too -- because, like gender stereotypes, it has almost nothing to do with our experience of the actual movie Over the Hedge. For adults, it's a delightful satire on humans from an animal-like perspective; for kids, it's a cool story about an outsider who joins a group of friends in order to exploit them, but ends up caring about them and being loyal to them. Lots of adventure, lots of funny stuff, with great animation and exquisite timing.

The voice work is terrific. Bruce Willis, Garry Shandling, and Wanda Sykes create wonderful characters -- though they remain recognizable as themselves. Even more impressive are Steve Carell (as the manic squirrel) and William Shatner (as the father possum) -- because we don't recognize them at all. In fact, the voice casting was perfect, right down to Omid Djalili as the hilariously vain Persian cat.

We watched this movie with a group that included stodgy adults (moi), teenagers, preteens, and rugrats, and all of them enjoyed it. You don't have to have children with you to have a great time.

This is easily Dreamworks's best animated film to date. And it's worth staying through the credits -- if you don't have kids who need to get to a bathroom to throw up their popcorn. There are funny bits scattered here and there through the credits. And it's also amusing to see that apparently every single person who worked at Dreamworks during the making of this film, including several Fedex and UPS delivery guys, have their names listed.

The only thing left is to start listing the names of audience members on the opening weekend. And maybe the neighbors of the people who made the movie.

*

Speaking of gender stereotypes, isn't it amusing that before Mother's Day, our local no-gender-stereotype daily newspaper, the Greensboro News & Record, asked people to write in or call with sweet sentimental stories about their beloved mothers; but now, before Father's Day, what they ask people to give them are stories about how their fathers embarrassed them.

Right. Like mothers never embarrass their kids. Like fathers are not worthy of being remembered with love and respect.

It's as if it's now required that we all agree that fatherhood is just a funny, silly thing, and fathers are completely needless and ineffectual.

It reminds me of a few months ago in a Sunday school class, where some people were wrestling with the moral implications of a particular point of doctrine, and one woman raised her hand and said, "We've heard a lot of the male point of view. Isn't it about time we heard from women?"

Now, leaving aside the fact that several women had already spoken in the discussion, I immediately imagined what outrage would have ensued if I, as a male, had raised my hand in the midst of a discussion in which women had been quite vocal (and there's no shortage of those) and said, "We've heard a lot of the female point of view. Isn't it about time we heard from men?"

I would have been met with stony silence or worse, and people would have shunned me for weeks, if not forever. Yet when a woman said exactly the same thing, but disdaining men instead of women, not only did nobody bat an eye (except me), they acted as if the men had done something wrong by speaking up on an issue they cared about; as if we men all agreed we should have been more sensitive and not spoken until women had their say.

And yet the woman who said this is a dear friend who is not hostile to men and who has a good marriage in which they both speak their mind freely. In other words, she was not a male-hating feminist. Yet it seemed to her and almost everyone else in that group -- a quite conservative group! -- perfectly acceptable to speak disdainfully of men and to elevate women above them.

It's the victory of Oprah-speak in our culture.

Well I remember as I was growing up all the stupid jokes about women -- mothers-in-law, women drivers, dumb blondes -- and all the casual condescension and contempt men openly expressed toward women. I remember resenting such things because I knew they were false and unfair to my mother, grandmothers, and sisters.

Now such talk has been mostly extinguished -- completely so in the circles I move in. I never hear males say disparaging words about women or complain about their wives, even when we are in all-male groups. (I realize such things still probably get said -- but not by men I actually know and like, and never in front of me.)

Yet I am assured by many women of my acquaintance that husband-bashing and male-bashing are common sports in all-female gatherings.

Here's the thing: We men extinguished the anti-female stuff using normal social pressures -- when someone said something out of line, somebody answered, either sternly or with a mild reminder, and the group made it clear such disparagement was not appreciated.

Women could extinguish male-bashing, too, if they wanted to. They could even stop and think, before saying something disparaging about men, "Would I admire someone for saying the thing I'm about to say, if they said it about women instead of men?" If the answer is no, then don't say it.

To women who constantly snipe at their husbands behind their backs and make snide comments about men: Your daughters hear you. They bring those attitudes into their own marriages. Worse, they bring that attitude to their search for a husband. Your sons hear you, too; don't be surprised if they live down to your contemptuous expectations.

Isn't it time we recognize and celebrate the differences between the sexes? Isn't it time we respect a man for being a good man, instead of despising him for being an inadequate woman?

And wouldn't it be nice of the instruments of popular culture -- like the local paper -- didn't build in a male-despising bias in their treatment of Mother's Day and Father's Day?

*

I have long enjoyed juices made by the R.W. Knudsen Family brand. Their pineapple-coconut juice is, to my view, the nectar of the gods -- besides being the only way I know of to get delicious coconut flavor without the nasty mouth-feel of shredded coconut (a good way to ruin a donut or a cake, in my opinion).

Well, the Kundsens have a new product that I absolutely love: Spritzers! Essentially, these are carbonated juice drinks that actually have flavor. Plus, the carbonation is fairly light.

I don't know about you, but I can't drink carbonated drinks like Coke or Pepsi straight out of the can. The carbonation is too strong -- the proportion of gas to liquid is so high that it's actually uncomfortable to swallow. But the Knudsen spritzers are lightly carbonated and easily drinkable.

They come in a great variety of flavors, all delicious -- though the local Earth Fare carries only a few of them. I love the Mango Fandango, Tangerine, and Mandarin Lime. I haven't had a chance to sample the diet versions -- "spritzer light," to use the company's term for them -- but since these drinks pack a nice dose of calories, a lite version is a good idea.

The Knudsen website shows several local stores that carry their juices. I'm going to prowl a few of them and report back if one of them carries a really good selection.

*

I'm about to arm myself with a good pair of pruning shears and head out to assert the common-law right-of-way.

I'm tired of having tree branches that overhang sidewalks so that a 6'-2" guy like me has to bend almost double or step out into the street. People who own property that fronts on a public thoroughfare -- which includes sidewalks -- have a legal obligation to keep those thoroughfares free of obstructions.

And if they don't, passersby have a right to unblock the sidewalk.

Of course, my pruning shears won't help me with such anti-pedestrian practices as building traffic islands that actually block pedestrian traffic.

For instance, Koury Corporation has installed just such a road block at the entrance to their new town-center development on Pisgah Church Rd. You're pushing a stroller or wheelchair along the sidewalk, easily going up and down the corner ramps that the law requires them to install -- but when you cross their driveway, you find your way blocked by their steep traffic island. You are forced to turn out and go through the gutter or out into traffic.

Same thing at the intersection of North Elm and Corporate Center -- the sidewalks are just fine for wheelchairs and strollers, but then there's a median that blocks the crosswalk.

Since I don't own the tools to knock these illegal obstructions out of the way, I can only ask, Where is our government? They're right there to tell you what you can and can't do on your own property -- but don't they have anybody whose job it is to make sure big corporations don't build structures that block the public right of way?

I guess it's just part of the local government's insistence that if you aren't in a car, they don't have to care about your comfort or safety.


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