FernGully: The Last Rainforest (and the weird animation of summer ’92, part 1)

“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.

Yes, there were various toys and shit.

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.


Don Bluth and friends arriving to make sure Weird Summer gets off to a proper start

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.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, May 18th, 2022 at 11:50 am and is filed under Cartoons and Shit, Fantasy/Swords, Musical, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

20 Responses to “FernGully: The Last Rainforest (and the weird animation of summer ’92, part 1)”

  1. Something, something AVATAR.

    This one’s nostalgic bank is odd. I know of not a single person who will go to bat for it but they will still talk about it for fond memory sake. The nicest thing I think I ever read about it was when Fox put a decent special edition DVD, a nerd/reviewer guy said if POCAHANTAS can get a deluxe DVD from Disney, then FERN GULLY deserves one too.

    I got nothing, even when I was young and liked everything I didn’t care for it and all I remembered was Tim Curry controlling a truck.

    As much as people like to bring this movie up to make fun of AVATAR, if not for AVATAR I’m doubtful this movie would be remembered at all.
    And never stop posting that image of the kid (accidentally) checking out the chicken lady from ROCK-A-DOODLE.

  2. Although I was in the right age for it when it came out, I never watched it in full. In school one teacher put the movie on to keep us distracted while he was correcting tests or whatever, but we never made it to the end. The only thing that I remember was that the German voice of the Tone Loc lizard was Frank Zander, a comedian/singer who has one of the coolest voices ever IMO. Not as cool as Tone Loc, but still a good choice. He also sang the German version of the classic NINJA TURTLES cartoon theme.

  3. Man, that is cold blooded for that writer to imply that POCAHONTAS is in the same category as FERNGULLY.

  4. Is that a certain amphibian spy I, er, spy on the horizon?

  5. Franchise Fred

    May 18th, 2022 at 4:45 pm

    I’ve actually never seen Ferngully. I started Googling the Bluth animation of the 90s like Pebble and the Penguin, Swan Princess and was he involved in the animated King and I? Either way there sounds like some interesting animation failures to explore but not sure how invested I am to do it. Most are on Tubi. I could finally throw in Rockadoodle and Rover Dangerfield too.

  6. Fred, I’m afraid Google is lying to you, Bluth had no involvement with either THE SWAN PRINCESS or THE KING & I. SWAN PRINCESS is by Richard Rich, another Disney exile, although unlike Bluth his departure was a push rather than a leap. It has quite an interesting history, including a series of sequels which are running to (more or less) this day. I’ve never seen it (or any of the sequels) though.

    ‘The Swan Princess’ And 25 Years Of Creating A Classic

    Celebrating 25 years of the animated rebel known as The Swan Princess

  7. Oh it’s not Google. I just got the projects confused. Guess he was only on Pebble. But there is something interesting about all those non Disney never were animated movies.

  8. I do remember THE SWAN PRINCESS, but never saw it. I was also under the impression that it was a Don Bluth movie. However reading that linked article really baffled me. Didn’t expect it to have any kind of legacy. Not just a shit ton of sequels (Although I do remember reading about at least one), but actual fans! Makes you wonder if there is also a ROVER DANGERFIELD fandom. Maybe with cosplayers.

  9. I am on the more lax side of the Roverfield faith.

    I agree there is something particularly fascinating about all the non-Disney animated movies from the mid-70s until the late 90s. These days there’s a new animated movie from a different company every month, and even one that’s considered a disaster like WONDER PARK can make a cool $50million or something. But back then everyone who wasn’t Disney, except on two occasions the combined mite of Speilberg and Bluth, and to a lesser extent the Care Bears, hit a very particular commercial ceiling with animated films. But every year there would be at least one major release that tried to break it. Even Spielberg on his own couldn’t manage it! But suddenly in 1998 things changed; RUGRATS MOVIE was a hit, PRINCE OF EGYPT was a hit, and within a few years ICE AGE would have an opening weekend that would have Disney panicking.

  10. Dickcopter glamour shot:

    Rock-A-Doodle - Painted color keys, Sequence 130.

    Description: Painted color keys, some presented with cel overlay, depicting key scenes from Sequence 130 of Rock-A-Doodle. Rock-A-Doodle is a re-imagining of Geoffrey Chaucer's "The Nun's Priest's Tale of the Cock and the Hen, Chauntecleer and Pertelote." Tricked into forgetting to crow at sunrise one morning by the Grand Duke of Owls, the rooster Chanticleer leaves the farm in shame, an event that triggers a perpetual rainstorm. Chanticleer's friends from the farm soon make their way to Las Vegas, in hopes of bringing Chanticleer back to save their home from the coming flood.

  11. I gotta admit, when people say this film’s name and the AVATAR thing, I always think they’re talking about BATTLE FOR TERRA instead.

  12. Grimgrinningchris

    May 21st, 2022 at 9:23 am

    My fiancé was Samantha Mathis‘s assistant all weekend at our original American pension this past February so I got to hang out with her a good bit. Absolutely lovely woman, super sweet and she tipped my fiancé a whole Lotta money at the end of the weekend as well. Outside of pump up the volume, Ferngully was her number two most requested things people wanted signed. Her convention agent, Dominic, said he had never even heard of the movie which is why he didn’t have more merchandise printed up for it, tons of people brought their own- and there were even two girls that were cosplaying as her character in the movie.

    Also, something that I did not know previously, though I had known that they had dated, was that Samantha was holding River Phoenix’s hand when he died. Tragic.

  13. Grimgrinningchris

    May 21st, 2022 at 9:27 am

    Original American pension? No, regional nerd convention. Sometimes I really hate talk to text.

  14. Grimgrinningchris, regional nerd conventions probably ARE an American pension for actors who are out of work but had a cult success years earlier.

  15. Grimgrinningchris

    May 26th, 2022 at 8:42 am

    Ha ha. I feel you. But Samantha still works regularly. She was a main character on Guillermo Del Toro‘s TV show The Strain most recently. Her booth neighbor at the con was JOHN ROSS BOWIE, probably most famous for being Kripke on the Big Bang Theory, but he’s had two successful sitcom runs since then. And actually turns out that he’s a punk and I own some records from his old band and he actually on the record that I put out years ago… He even wrote a stage play and directed and produced it, about the Ramones. Turned out we knew a whole bunch of the same people so had lots to talk about.

  16. Grimngrinningchris

    May 26th, 2022 at 8:51 am

    And our regional con, which I often work for, might be small beans compared to Dragon con or Wizard World or actual San Diego… but our biggies this year were Richard Dreyfuss, Giancarlo Esposito and George Takei, which I thought was pretty impressive for an area this size. And I got to have dinner with Judge Reinhold, David Koechner and Alex Winter… Which was of course, an absolute thrill for me.

  17. One of our biggest convention gives “celebrity duty” always to the people who’ve been working with them for a long time, which is pretty understandable, since every ass would sign up as a volunteer, just to hang out with the stars for a bit. One day I wanna do this though, even if I heard from several people that it really is way more hard work than actual fun, which also makes sense. What really keeps me from doing it, is that I don’t wanna have to handle people. Don’t get me wrong, that particular con is known for its easygoing and really excitable crowd, but it also has a bunch of K’rons. (That’s a klingon Karen.)

    The next one is actually this weekend and they managed to snatch Simon Pegg and Christopher Ecclestone for each one day, so that would be cool, if I still wouldn’t avoid big crowds because of Covid.

  18. Kangaroos don’t typically live in tropical rainforests, they prefer sparse woodlands or open plains. Otherwise, highly accurate portrayal of the Australian natural environment, especially the abundance of goblins, fairies and blonde mullets.

  19. Grimgrinningchris

    May 27th, 2022 at 10:43 am

    Yeah, this was actually my girls first year volunteering. But I think they gave her a pretty prime person considering my connections to the people that run the con. And prime for me too, considering that PUMP UP THE VOLUME was such a formative movie for me and she was my biggest crush back then besides Winona Ryder.She could’ve gotten stuck with like a washed up 80s wrestler or like a one time Jason Voorhees or something like that but Samantha was great and so was John. And their manager/agent for cons, Dominic, was on site the whole time and he absolutely loved my fiancé and said that he wanted her back with one of his clients next year and he’s got some people as big as Dylan McDermott who was actually just across from us he was awesome too. He even tipped her out at the end of the weekend on top of the tip out that she got from Samantha.

  20. This movie looked really good on the big screen. I saw it twice at the cinema. It’s crazy how Kroyer just kinda disappeared from the scene. I wanted to grow up to be a 2D animator and was really into this kinda shit back then. I remember this being so much more fluid than the Don Bluth stuff but the only other notable thing I think Kroyer did was that Pitfall revival video game from the mid 90s while Bluth kept keeping on till the end of the decade. It was weird that that Tone LOC song used to get actual play on BLS AND Hot 97 too. You’d be hearing like a hit squad song or something and then this track from a cartoon comes on right after. They really did try to cross this one over.

Leave a Reply

XHTML: You can use: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>