One of the hazards of maintaining a “to see” list as long as mine is that one often forgets just why a film was put on there to begin with. I’ve been wanting to see FernGully: The Last Rainforest since it came out in 1992, and I’ve long since forgotten the exact reason why. I was certainly never a kid to seek out environmentally-conscious movies — or really, anything which features animated characters sermonizing — and it was pretty clear from the beginning that it would be as ham-fisted as an episode of Captain Planet.
It may have been the fantasy elements that had me interested, but in truth fantasy is the norm in animation. I suspect it was simply the same thing that grants FernGully its primary appeal today: it’s simply rather pretty to look at. At least, the backgrounds are. The characters themselves are well-designed, but their animation doesn’t live up to the scenery.
Can you spot the animation overlay? Actually never mind; if you can’t, you couldn’t read the question.
It’s rather like watching Hanna-Barbera characters painted on top of Fantasia. Looking up the career of director Bill Kroyer, it seems the bulk of his prior work was as a story director on Challenge of the GoBots, so this is apparently a reasonably accurate assessment. It leads to the slightly odd situation where sometimes the film looks like a cheaply-animated television cartoon, and sometimes it looks absolutely stunning.
As for the story, there’s not much to be had in the way of surprises here. It is, as one might gather from the “Last Rainforest” part of the title, a film about the dangers of destroying the environment. It’s not a bad message, per se, it’s just that it’s almost impossible to address the issue in a kids’ cartoon without it having all the subtlety of a two ton anvil. Here, the message runs roughshod over the characters. The fairies are in tune with nature, and regularly spout pseudo-philosophical cliches about the power of life being in every seed. Additional personality traits are limited to curiosity in the case of the lead character Crysta (voiced by Samantha Mathis) and jealousy in her would-be boyfriend Pips (Christian Slater). That jealousy is directed at the rainforest’s newcomer, and the film’s designated lesson-learner, the human Zak (Jonathan Ward). Zak is a well-meaning idiot whose job is marking trees to be cut down, until he learns the error of his ways. In fact, that seems to be the film’s general tone toward people; while many moralizing movies take a “humans are bastards” approach, FernGully appears to be declaring that “humans are well-meaning idiots”.
Humanity has a collective self-esteem problem.
For a fantasy film, it’s a bit light on the sense of wonder; we’re supposed to get the wonder strictly from the rainforest itself, it would seem. Well, it is pretty, as noted. But the film needs a bit more of a life of its own, and most of the action early on is the typical montage of a newcomer goofing around and discovering the local flora and fauna. It’s new to the character but the audience has seen it dozens of times by age 12. Some humor is inserted by adding Robin Williams in bat form; it’s sufficiently obvious that it’s Williams that one wonders if they simply scripted around him and let him improvise. It never quite feels natural within the film, but it does sometimes get some laughs. There are also a lot of songs in the film, to the point where it sometimes feels like a series of musical montages with occasional speaking segments. Most of the songs are entirely forgettable, although both Robin Williams’ rap and Tone Loc’s stint as a lizard are memorable. “Land of a Thousand Dances” sticks out as a bizarre choice to include. The best song, as happens so many times, goes to the villain; as also happens so many times, it’s Tim Curry.
There’s not really a lot of substance in this film, and what there is, is often muddled. It even loses track of its own mythology at one point in its quest to paint humans as a destructive force. Yet for all of its flaws, it’s not without a degree of charm. It has its flashes of humor; childish, true, but it is after all meant for kids. The songs are forgettable but generally decent. There’s the core of an entertaining story here, amidst the sermonizing and the singing. It just never quite manages to gel into something more than a disposable cartoon.
It is pretty, though.