Getting Under Over the
by Bruce Peabody
There are several reasons why
you might squirm while watching Over the Hedge (2006).
It might be the cacophony of sound that accompanies the film,
including the grating voices of the animal protagonists, the
shrill replies of their human nemeses, and the constant beeping,
whirring, and grinding of suburban technology run amok. It might
be the five year old next to you, shifting to get a better view,
or noisily playing with the swinging theater seats. Or, perhaps
you might find yourself unsettled by the film's disturbing echo
of cautionary themes first sounded by Jean Jacques Rousseau in
the eighteenth century.
Rousseau's writings celebrated
what he depicted as the simplicity and basic goodness of the
indigenous societies of America and Africa, while lamenting the
corruption and venality of civil society. "Man is born
free," Rousseau famously suggested, and "yet everywhere
he is in chains."
the Hedge portrays
a similarly stark dichotomy between the pastoral existence of
animals - limited in their goals (largely eating and hibernating)
and requiring few means to achieve these ends - and the complex,
frenetic, and vacant lives of the film's human characters. Dividing
these two worlds is "the hedge:" a literal, explicit
barrier between a pre-society "state of nature" and
the contemporary social order.
The hedge is a partition, but
it also represents a choice - an invitation to consider what
way of life, individual character, and personal attributes we
might wish to adopt. And it is here that the comparisons between
Over the Hedge and Rousseau become most interesting.
For both the philosopher and the film that resonates with his
ideas make a somewhat surprising choice: ultimately forsaking
both the perceived excess and immorality of society and the simplicity
and relative isolation of the state of nature. In Rousseau's
case, the law serves as the vital medium for promoting a kind
of "third way," based on articulating and enforcing
the common interest or "general will" of society, in
a manner that allows citizens to be both virtuous and social,
distinctively human yet uncorrupted.
Rousseau, like other thinkers
of his era, invited his readers to imagine a "state of nature"
before society, before culture, before technology or trade.
According to Rousseau, humans in this state, like other animals,
operate "antecedent to reason." They are also isolated
from one another, possess little imagination, have no sense of
property or time.
Although these might not seem
to be most obvious preconditions for enjoying the good life,
to Rousseau these elements served as the foundation for an existence
that was peaceful, free, equal, and decent. A person in the
state of nature "lives within himself" - he or she
is not preoccupied by reputation or the "opinion of others."
Individuals are free and equal prior to society, because they
are physically and psychologically unburdened. Their wants are
few and easily satisfied, and they are largely ignorant of the
existence or fortune of others. When those in the state of nature
do interact, Rousseau tells us, they possess a pre-rational instinct
of "pity" or compassion that induces them to avoid
Over the Hedge begins with a group of animals who
live in a world with many of the characteristics of Rousseau's
natural state. Awakening from their five month hibernation,
the motley group instinctually begins hoarding roots, nuts, and
whatever other morsels they can gather around them. In short
order, they encounter RJ, the raccoon, who urges them to turn
from their simplicity to the wonders that lie over the hedge.
The turtle, Verne, immediately experiences a "tingling"
in his tail, warning him of the dangers associated with both
RJ and his promise of unbounded bounty. But Verne is unable
to articulate his misgivings further, and the other animals are
swayed by RJ's reasoned, honeyed promises.
So, with Verne sputtering and
objecting all the way, the group passes through the once forbidding
and fearful hedge and enters a new housing development on the
other side: El Rancho Camelot Estates. As RJ unctuously puts
it, "what was once mere wilderness is now 54 acres of man
made, manicured, air conditioned paradise. Welcome to suburbia,
the gateway to the good life."
But is it? According to Rousseau,
civilization comes with great costs. Indeed, the cultivation
of reason, language, technology, commerce, and other forms of
"progress" that accompany and usher in society, contribute
to a physical, emotional, and moral degradation of our species.
The "sociable man" lives only "in the opinions
of others" with the result that we become preoccupied with
status, wealth, and property - not for the contentment they produce,
but for how they temporarily quench our "burning desire
to be talked about." In civil society, we overindulge to
demonstrate our wealth and implicit superiority, and, as we become
increasingly dependent upon the specialized skills and services
of others, our bodies and souls turn "feeble, timid, servile
The degenerating effects of
society, observed by Rousseau are rendered vividly in Over
the Hedge. As the animals first step into the sprawling
suburban subdivision, they encounter Gladys, a hideous, gorgon-like
figure who communicates in screeching commands to the cell phone
adhered to her ear. As president of the home owner's association
she is obsessed with the appearance of her compound, and, consequently,
the misdeeds of neighbors who do not follow a strict real estate
code that ensures uniformity of appearance. Gladys is a restless,
despicable figure who conjures forth Rousseau's image of a "civilized"
people who are "endlessly" tormented in their "search
of ever more laborious occupations."
In general, the humans in Over
the Hedge have lost their harmonious connection to nature,
and instead strive to conquer and reshape it. Their homes and
lawns are coarsely landscaped, and full of implements and machines
to keep nature at bay and in submission. Poisons, pesticides,
traps, and bug zappers recur throughout the film, and a professional
exterminator is a major (and villainous) figure. Just as with
Rousseau, these efforts to keep nature at a distance take a toll
on the vigor and health of humans. Consider the following exchange
as RJ acquaints his companions with basic features of their new
RJ: That is an S.U.V; humans
ride in them because they are slowly losing their ability to
Lew the Porcupine: Wow it's
Hammy the Squirrel: How
many people fit in there?
RJ: Usually, one.
Society's inversion of what
Rousseau called the healthful, "simple
way of life that nature ordained for us" is perhaps seen
most consistently in Over the Hedge's satirical depiction
of food and its consumption. Rousseau marveled at the degree
to which pre-social humans could readily satisfy their hunger
and other appetites in a manner compatible with their fitness
and vitality. In contrast, Rousseau observed his contemporaries
indulging in "over-elaborate foods
which inflame and
overwhelm them with indigestion."
These dynamics are neatly captured
in Over the Hedge by the sly raccoon, who observes that
while the animals "eat to live" the humans "live
to eat!" Humans, RJ explains, spend an enormous amount
of energy procuring, transporting, processing, preparing, and
throwing away food. Gesturing, respectively, to an antacid tablet
and a treadmill he remarks:
"That's what they eat
when they've eaten too much food
[and] that gets rid of
the guilt so they can eat more food. So, you think they have
enough? Well, they don't. For humans, enough is never enough!
And what do they do with the stuff they don't eat? They put it
in gleaming silver cans, just for us!"
The animals of Over the
Hedge are not themselves immune from the polluting effects
of civilization. As noted, RJ is conniving, false, and selfish
in his efforts to save himself. Hammy, the hyperkinetic squirrel,
and the others are smitten by the taste of donuts, Girl Scout
cookies, cheese dust, and other admitted "junk." And
in the context of society, even Verne, dismayed by RJ's charisma
and influence over the group, becomes jealous, and dismisses
his friends as being "too stupid and naïve" to
see through the raccoon's designs.
To this point, both Rousseau
and Over the Hedge seem inclined to the following conclusion:
while there exists a clear dividing line between nature and society,
our traditional understanding of which order is more moral and
"civilized" is simply wrong. The invited implication
seems to be that we ought retreat to a simpler, less ordered
existence, purged of the taint of human culture.
But Over the Hedge follows
this path only to a point. Upon uncovering RJ's deceit, the
other animals do not abandon him to the wrong side of the hedge
(and certain annihilation). Instead, they decide to protect
and save him, in part by utilizing some of the very technologies
(sophisticated animal traps, the exterminator's van, and even
caffeinated soda) and distinctive traits (rationality) associated
with civilization. The animals survive by pluck, planning, and
co-opting society's conditions and creations - not by atavism.
By the film's conclusion, the
animals retreat back to the state of nature, but they are changed.
Their family (albeit an unconventional one based on affection
and choice not biology) remains the basis for a grounded moral
order, but now it includes RJ, a figure inextricably linked with
the world of humans and the creations and institutions of society.
Indeed, the very last scene of the film depicts RJ teaching
his children how to raid food from a candy dispensing machine
- perpetuating his reliance on the manufactures of civilization,
but at least within the safe confines of his expanded family
Rousseau, on the other hand,
calls for us to erect an entirely new community in which "the
advantages of a state of nature would be combined with the advantages
of social life." He believes that it is possible to refine
and use the characteristics, talents, and tools that make us
distinctively human - reason, speech, agriculture, morality,
self-consciousness, enduring relationships - without losing our
But how do we steer a middle
course? Rousseau's answer is construct a social and political
order based on what he calls the "general will" - the
genuinely common interests of the citizens. For Rousseau, the
best form of government is one that passes laws that are recognized
by the people as being freely chosen and of their own authorship.
And this will only occur if the law actually embodies the general
will - as opposed to representing the mere aggregation of different
and divided individual interests, passions, and factions (what
Rousseau calls "the will of all"). By adhering to
and recognizing law based on the general will, we can be "forced
to be free:" free because we are no longer enslaved by the
artificial wants of others; forced because our own, private,
narrow interest incline us to want a different, particularized
set of policies that favor us.
But the general will can only
be discovered when a nation sets aside its petty and disparate
interests, deliberates, and comes to recognize and experience
collective needs. In Rousseau's account, it is law that serves
as the essential conduit, expression, and enforcer of the general
So what are we to make of all
this? To some degree we recognize the potential social ills
posed by Rousseau and Over the Hedge, and we embrace their
respective "solutions:" attempting to delineate a general
good through our politics and law, and identifying the family
as a special forum for cultivating virtue and decency.
But like the hedge itself,
these solutions are both partly separated from and integrated
into society - and they are consequently fraught with problems
and tensions. The family is hardly insulated from the consumerism,
jealousies, and insecurities that course through the civilization
around it; and we don't really have the option of retreating
to a natural sanctuary in same way as the Hedge animals. And
if Rousseau's vision of a political and legal system based on
the general will strikes you as more than a little vague, romantic,
and even dangerous, you aren't alone. Rousseau has been frequently
criticized as anything ranging from an ungrounded idealist to
an apologist for totalitarianism.
Americans seem to have adopted
their own distinctive solutions to the problems identified by
Rousseau, based on inducing or creating virtue through contrivance
and structure. Through the separation of powers, a complex representation
scheme, and a system of ambitious leaders countervailing one
another, we give rise to a political and legal system in which
even the most selfish must justify their actions in terms of
the common interest. And through the large scale or scope of
our nation we supplement these institutional checks with a diverse
and divided nation that is intended to only come to agreement
on measures consistent with, as The Federalist Papers put it,
"justice and the general good."
Has it worked? Again, the narrative
of Over the Hedge gives us reason to pause. While the
animals retreat back to their natural existence, largely unsullied
and undamaged, the humans are left behind, frayed, flummoxed,
and wounded by their own technology and anxieties. The lingering
smiles and laughter of the animals - and of the children leaving
the movie - are not our own.
Posted August 9, 2006