Hedge Over Heels
Director Tim Johnson and Comedienne Wanda Sykes discuss their latest project

Celebrity scoop by Joel Fowler

Four years…

It’s a time period generally associated with presidential terms and Olympic layovers. For some bottles of wine or wheels of cheese, four years is the necessary amount of months to correctly age, picking up subtle enrichment along the way. But in today’s slapdash Hollywood assembly line, four years is generally not the span of time we think it takes to make a ninety minute film.
Over the Hedge star Wanda Sykes
and director Tim Johnson
Wanda Sykes & Tim Johnson

Yet, that’s exactly how long director Tim Johnson has been working on his latest project, the DreamWorks family extravaganza Over the Hedge. From first developing a script based on Michael Fry and T. Lewis’s comic scrip to the final computer animation finishing touches, it’s obviously been a work of love for Johnson, a self-admitted funny pages fan.

“The strip that most influenced my work, not only on this film, but all my works, is Pogo by the great Walt Kelly, who was also an animator who worked on Dumbo. My dad was a Kelly nut, so much so that he assigned my sister, my mother, and me parts, and we would all read the comics out loud, sort of making it a play.”

It’s a story that deeply touches Wanda Sykes, one of Tim’s stars in Over the Hedge as she tilts her head and gives an emotive nod.

“Oh… that’s great Tim. See, my dad used to beat us with the funny pages. ‘Oh no, here comes Dagwood!’ [making the motion of a rolled up newspaper clinched in her fist]… It’s an amazing coincidence, isn’t it?”

Sykes, a regional legend who fought her way through the Washington D.C. comic circuit into sitcom and movie stardom, is the type of person that is as funny off-screen as she is on-screen. You get the feeling that she’s always ‘on’, that her humor has no ‘off’ switch. When asked why she would make a kids’ movie, her comeback is as quick and cunningly delightful as an interviewer could ever expect…

“I don’t know, because I can’t stand kids!”

To which she shrugs off, sweeping the laughs away so the truth can come out.

“No, really, it’s fun to be a part of something the whole family can enjoy. But, also, this is a film that works on so many levels. It’ll make kids think about things like ‘why do we throw things away?’ and ‘we actually live in the squirrel’s backyard instead of them living in our backyards.’… I’ve been very fortunate in my career. Stand-up has allowed me to earn a good enough living that I generally can now pick only the roles that matter to me, and Over the Hedge was one of those roles,” said the Gambles, Maryland native.

When asked to elaborate on why she took on this part of Stella, the animated skunk, Sykes seems absolutely genuine in her commitment to this film.

“As soon as they first approached me, I just thought it was a great idea for me to play this part. See, skunks… they were dealt a bad hand in life. They’re cute, but they get profiled. I could relate.”
DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg
Jeffrey Katzenberg

As an African American?

“Well, as a black person, sure, but more as a woman. Our culture is so beauty driven, and if you don’t fit the mold, you’re out! Stella’s also very vulnerable and she also, deep down, wants to be loved, but is frustrated in not finding it. So, I got all of it. It’s the first character that I’ve played that actually had an arc to them.”

As for Johnson, it’s obvious that the story of a sneaky raccoon (played by Bruce Willis) infiltrating a mixed family of woodland creatures (featuring Garry Shandling, William Shatner, and Steve Carell) and introducing them to the human world pleases this filmmaker’s social commentary side, just like his first DreamWorks project, 1998’s Antz, did.

“I don’t want to get on a soap box, but hopefully Over the Hedge will remind us humans how good we’ve got it. While this film is wildly entertaining, it also has something to say. Cartoons teach kids the tools they need for life. Storytelling has always served that purpose. This is a chance to make a very positive statement to the culture, ideas such as ‘how to be a part of a family’, and ‘that families don’t necessarily mean everybody has to be related by blood,’ and ‘how telling one lie by the main character can have such adverse effects on so many people.’ I hope we weren’t preachy within the film, but hopefully children will talk to their parents about what they just saw.”

“And there are fart jokes!” Wanda adds.

Photography credit: Thomas Huff
©2006 Thomas Huff and Joel Fowler,

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