“This ‘weird creature’ is a human!”
FERNGULLY: THE LAST RAINFOREST is a well-meaning but not so great movie that was more successful than most of the non-Disney animated features in this very strange early ‘90s period. It didn’t make a ton of money, but it seemed to capture the imagination of some kids, and even got a DTV sequel in 1998. I would venture to guess it will be the most normal animated feature of summer ’92, but like most of the movies that were trying to compete with Disney without doing something drastically different from them, it feels kinda off and out of touch.
It reunites PUMP UP THE VOLUME couple Christian Slater and Samantha Mathis, this time with Mathis as the lead and Slater as the jealous secondary boy in her life. Mathis (before SUPER MARIO BROS.) plays a hummingbird-sized fairy named Crysta, and Slater is her shirtless male friend Pips. They fly around and can turn into blue and green (respectively) light and they live in a rainforest that’s supposed to be in Australia and has kangaroos and platypuses living in it. Also there are little goblin guys voiced by Cheech and Chong who fly around on large beetles, but I was a little distracted that they sit on top of their wings, so the beetles seem to just magically float.
Crysta takes magic lessons from an old lady named Magi Lune (Grace Zabriskie, BODY ROCK, CHILD’S PLAY 2) but has not yet gotten around to learning about what to do if the evil Hexxus (Tim Curry, LEGEND) ever escapes from the tree she imprisoned him in. Oh well, I’m sure that’s not something she’ll ever have to deal with. She’s more likely to have to use algebra than to have to use that shit.
The adventure begins immediately after a musical number, when Crysta breaks the rule “never, ever go above the canopy” and spots smoke in the distance. Also she meets Batty Koda (Robin Williams in his followup to HOOK), a crazy bat who escaped from a biology lab and has an electrode attached to his head. He does a, uh… kind of a rap song about it.
Then we meet Zak (Jonathan Ward, Charles in Charge, MAC AND ME), a young human working a summer job helping clearcut the rain forest. “He’s a city kid,” they say, and cool because he listens to a Walkman (the yellow kind) and says stuff like, “Don’t have a cow. Sheesh!” His hair is kind of a mullet and, though it’s never specified, I think we can guess that at home he owns a skateboard and a hat that he would only wear backwards or sideways. We later learn he has matches on him, so he must be either a smoker or arsonist. Or at least a s’more enthusiast. Any of those would be pretty cool.
His job is to mark the trees they’re gonna cut with spraypaint while his two older co-workers Ralph (Geoffrey Blake, THE LAST STARFIGHTER) and Tony (Robert Pastorelli, BEVERLY HILLS COP II) sit inside the scary tree chopping vehicle doing nothing. Well, Tony is contantly eating pizza, donuts, cake, popsicles, etc. I don’t know where he gets it all from out here in nature, but I guess maybe it’s a commentary on excessive consumption? Whatever it is, it’s gross. They got slices of pizza and cigarette butts all over the dashboard.
By the way, none of these people have Australian accents.
Crysta flies near Zak and he catches her in his hand and doesn’t see that his guys have chopped down a tree that’s going to fall on top of him. She throws a Hail Mary and does a little rhyming spell she doesn’t know will work that shrinks him down to fairy size so the tree will miss him. Then she still has to save him from a spider web and from getting mulched by the tree chopping machine (Batty helps).
So you can imagine where it goes from there. Zak gets to run around a forest being tiny, almost getting eaten by a lizard with the voice of Tone Loc, sitting on mushrooms, explaining to Crysta the concepts of cities and jobs, and that “cool” means good (“Yeah, you know— bodacious, bad, tubular,” teaching the fairies how to rock out, etc.
Meanwhile, the Hexxus tree gets chopped, so he escapes and he’s like a living oil slick – actually, he’s kind of like Venom! – who commandeers the tree chopping machine. But also other humans are cutting down way more trees than he is, from what I can tell, so I’m not totally clear that he’s a significant threat here. A dramatic turning point is when Crysta realizes humans cut down trees and Zak admits that that was his job. But they work things out, use magic seeds, etc.
I don’t love (or hate) the character designs, which are pretty typical for this era when most artists working on animated features had either worked for Disney or were inspired by them or thought they had to to try to look like them. But on a technical level it’s pretty high quality animation, especially in the execution of camera moves following them flying through the forest. I believe there are some shots of trees and machinery that use computer animation to mimic drawings but in three dimensions – something Disney was also starting to do in those years. I did laugh at some distorted looking frames in an ambitious 360-degree rotation around Crysta and Zak, but I don’t think most people would notice it. And though I think this is kind of cliche and annoying now, you can tell the animators put alot of work into the musical number where Hexxus dances around dripping and morphing into different shapes and stuff. Also he turns into a scary, fiery skeleton guy a couple times, following a great tradition of children’s fantasy animation (see also THE BLACK CAULDRON).
Okay, there are a couple things I do hate about this style. One is Zak’s enormous, bulbous feet. The rest of him mimics fairly realistic human proportions, but then he has these moon boot sized faux Chuck Taylors. He looks like he’s walking around on bread loaves.
The other thing is these types of poses and expressions they give Zak and Pips, with crossed arms and/or slanted eyebrows. I know it’s cartoonist short hand for “this guy has an attitude!” but they look like such smug assholes. I think the idea is for you to think they’re cool, not want to punch them. It doesn’t work for me.
One way that FERNGULLY has lived on in the collective imagination is that people use it to make fun of AVATAR. It actually is true that there are many story similarities. Both are about a human man coming into a forest world and being transformed to the size of the creatures who live there, spending time with a sort of princess, learning her one-with-nature ways and then trying to stop his more technologically advanced and less caring people from destroying the place. This also has some luminescent stuff in the forest and a large, important tree that could be compared to Hometree. (But it’s the tree that Hexxus is trapped in.) It’s such a dumb argument against AVATAR, though, because you could say “ha ha, there’s another movie that’s kind of similar but bad” about almost any movie.
You could also say this was like Michael Jackson’s “Earth Song” video because there’s an apocalyptic stretch of clearcut forest land that magically grows back.
Which reminds me to mention how usesless Hexxus is to the story. They follow all the formulas of what a villain is supposed to be like in an off-brand Disney movie, but they don’t make it clear why it’s different for a magic oil monster (or, as Wikipedia puts it, “a malevolent pollution entity”) to cut down some of the trees instead of the humans just doing it on their own. Unless it’s to make humans think, “Wow, I cut down trees and I’m not even controlled by a malevolent pollution entity. What is wrong with me?”
Curry had shifted to mainly being a voice actor at this point. Though It and THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER were only a couple years earlier, most of his work around then was on cartoons; he did voices on Fantastic Max, Paddington Bear, Wake Rattle & Roll, Gravedale High, Tiny Toon Adventures, The Marzipan Pig, TaleSpin, Peter Pan and the Pirates, Timeless Tales from Hallmark, Capitol Critters, Defenders of Dynatron City, Fish Police, Batman: The Animated Series, Darkwing Duck, Steadfast Tin Soldier, and The Adventures of Don Coyote and Sancho Panda all between 1990 and 1992! With that in mind it doesn’t seem like that much of a coup to get him for the villain in this, but obviously he’s good for the character. Too good for the character. Pretty much all there is to the character. I like that in one of the musical numbers they’re clearly working off of his performance as Dr. Frank N. Furter.
Some of the songs are written by Thomas Dolby, so they at least have a unique sound for animated musicals. The Tone Loc one, “If I’m Gonna Eat Somebody (It Might As Well Be You)” is credited to Jimmy Buffet & Mike Utley, though it’s a cheesy new jack swing type beat. There’s also a Raffi song (“Raining Like Magic”) and an Elton John one on the end credits (“Some Other World”). They all feel more like attempts to do what they think they’re supposed to do in an animated musical than actual songs for the story.
Tone Loc doing a voice was the main thing I remembered about this movie. I didn’t remember he only had one scene. Williams was supposed to have a small role too but recorded 14 hours of improv so they gave him more scenes. He signed on to this before ALADDIN, and then Jeffrey Katzenberg tried to get him to pull out and did various shitty things to try to interfere with the production, including buying out their studio spaces and forcing them to move. Seems like kind of a dick!
There is no way to say this and make it appropriate, and I did not pick up on any build up to it, but at the very end of the movie, after Zak has returned to the world of humans, I swear to God Crysta gives Pips a certain type of look and then flies off and he’s like “Oh shit, she wants me to follow her” and he does. Then Batty comes over and asks, “Hey! Where are you going?” and flies after them. I truly believe this is a joke about how now that the human is finally gone the two fairies are gonna go into the trees and get it on, but their new bat friend doesn’t get it and is gonna cluelessly cockblock. This annoying bat is totally gonna ruin their fairy free love lifestyle. I respect the MPAA for understanding that no kid is gonna get that, and allowing it to stay in a G-rated movie just so the parents who had to sit through this thing can get one small chuckle out of it before they go home and begin their news lives dedicated to protecting the rainforests of Australia.
As corny as it is, FERNGULLY does seem to have been a sincere attempt at conveying an environmental message, not just following the trend of Captain Planet and Toxic Crusaders and shit. It’s credited as an adaptation of stories by Diana Young, whose once-husband Wayne Young is the producer, and they spent years trying to get it made, truly believing it was important.
Screenwriter Jim Cox came from Disney, where he helped develop BEAUTY AND THE BEAST and write OLIVER & COMPANY and THE RESCUERS DOWN UNDER. This is the only feature directed by Bill Kroyer. He had done a short and an unused Mattel-toys-tie-in pilot (Computer Warriors), was involved in planning TRON, animating ANIMALYMPICS and STARCHASER: THE LEGEND OF ORIN, and storyboarding A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET and HEATHCLIFF: THE MOVIE. His production company specialized in combining computer animation with hand drawn, and they worked on title animation for TROOP BEVERLY HILLS, HONEY I SHRUNK THE KIDS and Bobby’s World. I’m sure that’s a cool job and then good for him getting to do a full movie this one time. I didn’t particularly like it but I’m sure I’m not his intended audience of Tone Loc fans ages 5-8.
We’ll be discussing a few more 1992 animated movies during this series, but a couple of the strangest ones I’ve already written thorough reviews of in recent years. I don’t want to re-review them but I do think they’re important to the Weird Summer theme, so I’ll talk a little about them in the other reviews and then send you to the original reviews.
When FERNGULLY came along another animated movie had come out a week earlier and had already dropped completely off the box office charts. Don Bluth’s ROCK-A-DOODLE opened on April 3, 1992, debuting in 10th place. Unlike FERNGULLY it came from an established filmmaker – in fact, the most successful American creator of family animated features outside of Disney. His first film THE SECRET OF NIMH (1982) had been only a moderate hit due to a limited release, but is deservingly well regarded, and he followed it with the hits AN AMERICAN TALE (1986) and THE LAND BEFORE TIME (1988). ALL DOGS GO TO HEAVEN (1989) came out against THE LITTLE MERMAID and just did okay. But all of those movies were well known to children of the era, all had at least one sequel, all but SECRET OF NIMH also spawned a TV series.
ROCK-A-DOODLE was the crazy-ass movie that knocked Bluth out of the Animated Family Movie Second Place throne. Loosely based on the 1910 play Chantecler, it’s the story of a little live action boy named Edmond whose bed time story is interrupted by a flood, so he calls for the help of the rooster from his story, but instead an evil owl shows up and he’s transformed into an animated kitten and sent to a world where there are no humans and the city of Las Vegas is inhabited by talking, clothes-wearing animals. But also some animals live on farms. The hero, Chanticleer, is an Elvis-like rooster who is very successful, rich, famous and in love in Las Vegas, and the moral of the story is that he should abandon that life to return to the farm where his friends once humiliated him so harshly that he immediately left and started his new, way better and happier life doing what he loves for people who appreciate him more and are smart enough to live in homes instead of barns.
Also he flies around in a dickcopter.
One particularly befuddling choice is that they cast a kid to play Edmond who could not pronounce the name Chanticleer, and then they called upon him to say it over and over again throughout the (mercifully short) movie.
Anyway at the end he seems to die and they gather around his cartoon kitten corpse to mourn him but he turns back into the live action kid and then dances around not quite in sync with his cartoon friends. I think it would be fair to call this a terrible movie, but it moves so quickly between such a wide variety of off the wall choices that it’s a little more fun than your average shitty cartoon. Also Glen Campbell was pretty inspired casting for the voice of Chanticleer.
Check out MY ROCK-A-DOODLE REVIEW FROM LAST YEAR for more details and illustrations.