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Family Room

Karey Kirkpatrick has penned screenplays for family films such as Chicken Run, James and the Giant Peach and the live-action remake of Charlotte's Web. But the project closest to his heart when we caught up with him in early 2007 was Over the Hedge. In addition to writing DreamWorks' animated tale of forest creatures who come face-to-face with encroaching suburbia, it also marked his directorial debut.

Why do you think we're seeing so many computer-animated films about animals, and relatively few that focus on human characters?
The first question you have to ask when you have a script is, "What can animation do that live action can't?" That line is blurry now. But even well-trained animals are hard to control, so that's why people tend to animate stories about talking animals—with a sort of pushed reality—to tell some sort of parable. We do that in our story. Essentially, they're just people in animal suits taking on some animal characteristics. But I think what's going to happen is you'll saturate the marketplace with talking animals. It will become saturated this year.

One subplot in Over the Hedge finds an adolescent possum embarrassed by her father, but she learns to appreciate him later on. Talk about that and why you chose pop singer Avril Lavigne to voice that character.
We all tend to embarrass our children, especially the older they get. We realized that the possum's defense mechanism is to die, so we felt it natural that the dad [played with melodramatic zeal by William Shatner] would have a daughter who finds that mortifying. Yet at a critical moment she's feeling the steel of the dad and launches into her father's speech as she pretends to die. It touches me every time when she tells him, "I learned from the best." She embraces the family business, so to speak. As for casting that part, we were looking for a voice and discussed the normal names you might think of, but wanted something a little left of center. Then we saw some interviews Avril had done on various talk shows, and her natural Canadian accent just had a warmth and sweetness to it that really appealed to us. What makes any comedy good is the strength of its supporting characters.

When it comes to courting family audiences, DreamWorks typically has created PG films with edgier material than Pixar—mild language, bathroom humor or a little wink-wink innuendo. Why is that?
Commerce is a huge part of it, and sometimes people feel that a G rating is a stigma to commerce. It becomes associated with Care Bears. When [DreamWorks studio head] Jeffrey Katzenberg was at Disney, their philosophy was "We make movies for the child in every adult." After leaving, Jeffrey said, "I'm going to compete with Disney. I think I need to go make movies for the adult in every child." With Shrek and Antz he was going after a demographic that didn't necessarily go to animated movies. It's a little bit edgier, but it's not a conscious decision to get 4-year-olds to say "butt." There's some places where I can't mask my inner 9-year-old and my mischievous side, and I will go for certain jokes because they're fun to go for. But we have kids, too. We'll put jokes through our own filter and say, "I don't think that's something I want my kids to hear."

What's the best way for parents to speak up and impact the content coming out of Hollywood?
The more parents rise up, send letters and say "I'm not coming to this," it sends a message that if you're going to aim for all audiences, you need to do it smartly and not take the cheap way out. Vote with your dollars.

Published April 2007