The closest Judge Jonathan Weiss ever got to Ferngully was eating in a Rainforest Café restaurant.
"Just as every seed holds the power and magic of creation, so too do you and every other creature in this world."
Before pixels took over the animation scene, two-dimensional animation, as dominated by the house that Mickey built, was the only game in town. Disney created the modern template for a successful animated feature with The Little Mermaid in 1989. Companies that tried to grab a share of the pie usually found themselves eating crow.
And then in 1992, the same year as Disney's Aladdin, 20th Century Fox released Ferngully: The Last Rainforest. Here was a movie that felt familiar to the Disney formula in many ways—it had fairies, talking animals, a zany sidekick, a wicked villain, and musical interludes—but in another way it felt entirely new. Here was a feature film that didn't try to put a new spin on an old classic. It took place in the here and now and dealt with a subject that's just as relevant today: the environment.
Many people have fond recollections of this movie, its characters, and its environmental message. Now with the release of Ferngully: The Last Rainforest (Family Fun Edition) they can go back and enjoy it all over again. That is unless of course the memories and the goodwill they evoke have grown beyond all expectations.
Facts of the Case
Many eons ago when humans lived peacefully with the fairies of Ferngully a nightmarish creature called Hexxus came into being and threatened the very existence of life itself. Magi, the protector of Ferngully, managed to imprison Hexxus in a tree and save the rainforest, but not before all the humans had fled. As the story begins, the humans have not been seen in the rainforest since, which has led the fairies to believe that all humans are extinct. This belief comes into question when Crysta, a young fairy learning the ways of magic at the knee of Magi, inadvertently shrinks a human down to fairy size and brings him back with her to Ferngully.
Crysta is a sweet natured naïve fairy who is hungry for adventure. Though she is apprenticed to Magi, her mind tends to wander; she doesn't believe there's any reason to be worried about Hexxus, and when she does encounter a human she believes him to be as benevolent as his ancestors—a true friend to nature and the fairy folk. She refuses to believe differently even when she runs into Batty Koda, a neurotic bat who doesn't trust humans—and with good reason; having recently escaped from a biology lab, he still has an electrode implanted into the side of his head.
Even with a scrambled brain, Batty is correct, at least initially, when it comes to the human that Crysta finds. Zak is part of the tree cutting operation that so terrified Crysta. And though he denies it after being shrunk down to fairy size, his job of marking a red X on trees wasn't protecting them but rather it was condemning them to the monstrous mechanical Leveler—an all-in-one trunk cutting, bark-removing, and plank-making machine. Worse, while trying to spray away a bug swirling around his head, Zak inadvertently marks the very same tree that Magi had trapped Hexxus within all those many years ago.
It's not long before Hexxus reforms, with the help of the Leveler's pollutant spewing exhaust, and quickly takes control, resuming his plans to destroy Ferngully. But that's only if Crysta, Zak (who is newly aware of his environmental responsibilities), Batty, and the rest of the fairies let him.
Let's get this out of the way immediately—the animation is lovely. The backgrounds are lush (having a rainforest as the main backdrop doesn't hurt), and the characters are fluid and idealized, designed very much in the school of Don Bluth (Titan A.E., An American Tail, All Dogs Go To Heaven, and The Secret of NIMH). Some of the language is dated (words like "bodacious babe" and "tubular" are actually cringe-worthy, but let's face it, it's our own fault for speaking that way back then to begin with) and seeing a tape-playing Walkman may reveal the film's age (and yours too if you have to explain what it is to your kid). But overall, time has been kind to Ferngully: The Last Rainforest.
If there is one area of this film that people might have forgotten, it's just how frightening one of the story elements in particular really is. Batty, the kooky bat sidekick voiced by Robin Williams (in the same year he voiced the genie from Aladdin by the way) has just recently escaped from a biology lab when we meet him—and he still has an electrode surgically implanted into the side of his head. This electrode snaps and crackles and whenever it is touched Batty's personality changes. His song "Batty Rap," written by (of all people) Jimmy Buffet, is truly horrific in its depiction of just how abused he was at the hands of his human captures.
And speaking of horror—the songs themselves are pretty darn scary too. They seem to be included because, well, Disney always has songs so every animated movie should have them too. Tone Loc shows up (remember him?) as a Goanna to sing a little ditty…and that's all that he does—sing a short little ditty—making his character completely negligible. (Maybe "Funky Cold Medina" was a bigger hit in 1992 than we remember.) Other songs include. well, they're not even worth mentioning. Let's put it this way: there's that song Batty sings that introduces him and gives him his back story, there's a song when Zak begins to appreciate nature and has his change of heart; there's a song written by Thomas Dolby that Hexxus sings when he reforms after being released from his tree prison, and there's another song that breaks the ice between Zak and the fairies (this time it's the classic "Land of a Thousand Dances" that blares out of his nutty machine that people used to have before MP3 players)—in other words, at any juncture where you would expect a song, well, there's a song. Nobody said it had to be a good one.
Thankfully the characters and story fare a lot better. Of the characters, Crysta the fairy, Zak, the human surfer-like dude, and Batty are the most realized. Batty deserves extra mention simply because he is voiced by Robin Williams in his very first animated role. Though Aladdin came out the same year, he did Ferngully first and it's very interesting to compare the two performances. Here it feels like he's just starting to get his acting chops when it comes to voice work. Sure he's crazy and whacky and probably improvised up a storm, but in other ways it's a performance that feels a bit restrained, as if he wasn't sure how far he could push it.
Runners up in the personality department include Magi, the protector of Ferngully, and of course the villainous Hexxus (voiced by Tim Curry)—who gets a bit of a build up on the outset but when he's finally released goes straight into one-dimensional revenge mode. Other characters that pop up are Crysta's father, Pip (voiced by Christian Slater), and the Beatle Boys (a kind of Ferngully gang voiced by Cheech Marin, Tommy Chong, and the late Robert Pastorelli). But there is very little time for us to actually get to know them. Ferngully: The Last Rainforest isn't a long movie and chugs along at a pretty quick clip, but even so, it would have been nice if they could have found a way (or the time) to include a little more character development.
The story, on the other hand, is as strong as ever and is also where this picture diverges from the traditional animated path. Ferngully: The Last Rainforest is a message movie. And a pretty obvious message it is too. Instead of wrapping itself up in an old folk tale, Ferngully tackles the subject of respecting, protecting, and nurturing the environment head on and it hits the nail pretty squarely too. Maybe that's why Hexxus isn't as scary a villain as he was intended. He may be a slimy and incredibly dirty creature, and he may have all the qualities that a boogieman should have, but the real villain of this piece is man. And what makes that truly scary is that, unlike an animated super-villain, man continues to do what's best for man to this day—the earth and every other living thing on it be damned.
Okay—enough of this bummer talk. As stated in the opening paragraph, this is one good-looking movie. Yet there are still times when flecks of dust are noticeable. Luckily it's never to an extent where it takes enjoyment away from watching. The sound design is excellent, as you are literally surrounded by the sounds of the rainforest. It is so enchanting that you wish you could experience it first hand—unless, of course you're afraid a kangaroo or gecko might break into song. And that would be bad. Or at least completely forgettable.
There's a reason this release is called Family Fun Edition and that reason is two discs crammed with extras. The second disc includes four featurettes. You can skip the Tone Loc video and go straight to the making-of video that is very informative and gives you a good look behind the scenes. There are also eight set top games for the kiddies, and who knows, the kids might actually like them. The toughest and most entertaining game of the bunch lets you help Batty escape the Bio Lab using the remote control—but again, its very premise is just downright eerie.
The commentary over the main feature on disc one though is the star of the show. It's particularly interesting because it's basically a historic record of what it was like making one of the last completely hand-drawn animated features. Just think: by the end of production an estimated 32,000 pounds of art was created using 4 tonnes of cel paint—the mind boggles. Other interesting tidbits include these: Ferngully was the first film to ever be shown on the floor of the United Nations, premiering on Earth Day 1992; the insertion of the musical numbers was mandated by the investors (knew it!), and it took two years to the day from start to finish to create this film—an incredibly fast time frame considering that Disney takes two years just to develop a story. Considering the time and budget restraints faced by everyone involved, Ferngully: The Last Rainforest is even more of a marvel.
In a time when every animated feature is preceded by an entire toy line (that should never—heaven forbid—ever be removed from their original packaging if you want them to remain collectible) it's incredibly refreshing to get lost in an old fashioned hand drawn story that leaves you with a greater appreciation for the world in which we live.
Not guilty. Now go plant a tree or something.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Director Bill Kroyer, Coordinating Art Director Susan Kroyer, Art Director Ralph Eggleston
Review content copyright © 2006 Jonathan Weiss; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.