Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Recent Watches: FernGully: The Last Rainforest (1992)

Back in the early nineties, we went cuckoo for saving the rainforest. T-shirts, bumper stickers, posters, and even an entire restaurant chain were devoted to the ethos of “Save the rainforest!” Why exactly this craze struck at this time, I don’t know. I suspect it had something to do with the collapse of the Soviet Union and sloths being adorable. But that’s besides the point. One such by-product of the pro-rainforest fad was “FernGully: The Last Rainforest.” As one of the few non-Disney or Don Bluth animated features of the nineties (though frequently mistaken for the latter), the movie was overlooked in theaters back in 1992. As it often the case with cartoons like this, it developed a following on video and continues to have a cult fandom among animation dorks and nineties nostaglists.

On the northern coast of Australia, resides a rainforest. Inside the trees lives a society of fairies, magical creatures with an innate connection with nature and the wildlife. The fairies call the rainforest "FernGully." Millennia ago, the fairies trapped Hexxus, the spirit of destruction, inside a tree. Crysta, a young fairy in-training to become the forest’s newest protector, mostly thinks of the destruction of FernGully as an abstract concept. This changes when she meets Zak, a human working for a company clearing the forest. She accidentally shrinks him down to her size, forcing the human to think about what his work is doing. Meanwhile, the tree containing Hexxus is chopped down, freeing the spirit, who bonds with the hellish de-forestation machine. The evil entity turns his sights on FernGully.

Though many bits of children entertainment carried a “save the rainforest” message in the early nineties, few films were as naked in that objective then “FernGully.” The movie concludes with a message, “For our children and our children’s children.” Clearly, the film was designed as basically pro-environmental propaganda for kids, to indoctrinate the youth of the world with a love of the environment. The movie was a passion project for its producer, Wayne Young, who based the film off his wife’s writing. The movie attracted a star-studded cast, all of whom worked for scale, due to the important message. Because the movie builds this message into its very structure, it’s not too distracting. “FernGully’s” pro-environmental moral comes up fairly organically. The movie has enough adventure and humor to prevent it from being preachy. Okay, it’s a little preachy.

Maybe the reason we were so obsessed with the rainforest is because it's really pretty. “FernGully” matches the natural beauty of the rain forest with its gorgeous animation. Clearly, some money went into the film. The animation is crystal clear but full of detail. The colors are bright. The background are lush. The movement is smooth and fast. “FernGully” is visually quite appealing. The movie looks as good as anything Disney was doing at the time. However, the movie has quirks of its own. The character designs are more exaggerated. Zak and his co-workers are almost ape-like. The colors are a little bolder and a little more strongly defined. Though an untrained eye might make the mistake, “FernGully” looks like its own thing, distinct from the works of Disney or Don Bluth.

Though distinct in style and intention from its more popular rivals, “FernGully” does follow Disney’s lead in one way. The output of the Disney Renaissance prominently featured princesses and the heroic men who fall in love with them. “The Last Rainforest” revolves around a love story too. Zak, one of those assholes who spells his name with only a “k,” enters the world of the fairies with little respect for trees or nature. Immediately, he seems smitten with Crysta, the sexy fairy chick who shrinks him. In time, he learns to respect the environment, even being able to feel the pain of the trees the way the fairies can. Crysta may not literally be a princess but her attitude is similar to Ariel and Jasmine. (Crysta’s dad even resembles Jasmine’s dad.) She’s a care-free teenager who wants to live her life, who feels held down by the responsibilities forced on her. Zak and Crysta fall for each other during a montage, when the two go skipping through a cave together, going for a swim in a puddle. Granted, the movie backs off at full-blown romance, keeping the sexual tension between the two of them unresolved. Samantha Mathis’ vocals work well for Crysta while Jonathan Ward has the right meat-head quality for Zak. A few years later, Disney’s “Pocahontas” would follow a similar story line. Maybe “FernGully” was slightly ahead of its time, in that regard anyway.

As I said, “FernGully” has got a pretty loaded voice cast. Christian Slater, still a relevant star in ’92, plays Pips, Zak’s rival for Crysta’s affection. Cheech and Chong were reunited to voice two of the beetle-riding fairy bikers, one of movies’ most likably nutty aspects. Grace Zabriskie is wonderful as Magi, Crysta’s mentor who delivers the movie’s stirring opening monologue. However, two talents dominate the voice cast. Tim Curry as Hexxus, the evil spirit of destruction, bites deeply into every line. During his musical number, he moans and groans in a way that recalls Dr. Frankfurter. The final act, where Hexxus changes into a cloaked skeleton, positively recalls “Fantasia’s” “Night on Bald Mountain.” Curry is so delightfully villainous that he does the movie a disservice: The forest destroying force is actually one of the coolest characters in the film. The movie also had another ace up its sleeve. Robin Williams voices Batty, a regular animal driven kooky by lab experimentation. (The movie doesn’t go much further into the subject of animal test subjects. It’s so under the radar that, as a kid, it went completely over my head.) Williams’ manic style of comedy is well-suited to animation. His fast-paced dialogue and surreal one-liners makes Batty a genuinely funny comic relief character, who even makes himself useful to the plot. Curry and Williams are probably the most responsible for whatever cult following “FernGully” has.

Another way the film blatantly models itself after the other successful theatrical cartoons of the film is that it’s a musical. As with the voice cast, there’s some big names in the music department. Thomas Dolby, a versatile pop musicians who will forever be associated with “She’s Blinding Me with Science,” wrote most of the songs. “Toxic Love,” Hexxus’ theme, is no doubt the stand-out of the film. Partially because of Curry’s cooing, passionate vocals and the creative animation of the sequences. In retrospect, Robin Williams’ rapping during “Batty’s Rap” is fairly embarrassing but I loved it as a kid. Tone Loc has a bit part as a lizard, who sings the funky number, “If I’m Gonna Eat Somebody.” Weirdly, Jimmy Buffet co-wrote that one. Sheena Easton sings the love theme, “A Dream Worth Keeping,” which is pretty. Elton John contributes “Some Other World,” which plays over the end credits. There’s a memorable dance sequence set to a cover of “The Land of a Thousand Dances.” The songs are all pretty catchy, even if none of them are exactly masterpieces.

I have no idea if “FernGully: The Last Rainforest” will appeal to people who didn’t watch it over and over again as kids. The environmental message is fairly dated. The music, fashion, style, and storyline all paint the movie as very much a product of its time. The animation still looks sleek. The music holds up well enough. The storyline, characters, and performances are all reasonable satisfying. If the film turns youngster into future Green Peace members, I don’t know. But the VHS tape got plenty of screen-time in my childhood. [7/10]

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