Our planet is one beautiful place to live, abounding with natural wonders and magnificent creatures. So, for this AFA special edition, let’s celebrate all that Mother Nature has to offer by reviewing some classic animated films with environmental messages. Moving and beautiful in their own rights, these movies all serve the purpose of creating awareness for the preservation of nature, and their stories are timeless.... even if they can get a bit preachy at times. We would love to hear your input in the comments below.
Happy Earth Day, everyone!
FernGully: The Last Rainforest (1992)
Everyone who adores animated films remembers this iconic environmental film, perhaps one of the best-known in the world. Based on the book of the same name by Diana Young, FernGully: The Last Rainforest paints a beautiful picture of the Australian rainforest and takes a very unique message of protecting one of the most crucial habitats our planet has to offer. In this film, a young fairy named Crysta attempts to stop humans from destroying trees and, on the way, befriends a zany bat named Batty and an egocentric human named Zack, who become companions on her quest. Unbeknownst to them, however, the human loggers cut down a cursed tree and accidentally unleash the demonic Hexxus from his eternal slumber. As chaos spreads through the rainforest, Crysta and her friends must fight to save their home and defeat Hexxus once and for all.
The Lorax (1972)
This might sound a bit surprising, given the content in other films on the list, but I believe that Disney/Pixar’s Wall-E provides one of the most sinister environmental messages ever to be put on screen. This is due to the fact that the storyline, when you get down to the gritty details, is very dark and depressing. In the year 2805, the Earth has been abandoned and covered in mountains of garbage and filth, the results of vigorous industrialism and mass consumerism practised by the billion-dollar corporation Buy n’ Large (BnL). The only Earth resident left is a friendly little robot named Wall-E, a cheerful garbage compressor who spends his days wiping the ground free of debris, which does add some humor to the story.
While the vision of a post-apocalyptic planet is disturbing, the true shock factor comes in the form of the human characters. In the future, men and women are obese blobs who are confined to robotic chairs, and babies are brainwashed by computers. Wall-E not only provides us with a parody of greed and selfishness, but it also makes us think deeply about our future. If anything, it shows what could happen to Earth if environmentally friendly habits are no longer practised.
Nausicaä: of the Valley of the Wind (1984)
Much like Wall-E, the post-apocalyptic/science fiction masterpiece Nausicaä: of the Valley of the Wind provides us with a shocking, graphic representation of a dying world ravaged by nuclear fallout and pestilence, but it paints this picture of destruction with poetic perfection and visual brilliance.
Strangely enough, for a movie with such a strong environmental message, it feels very mellow. Director Hayao Miyazaki balances concepts of nature, war, violence, feminism, and spirituality with such perfection that you could imagine you were watching real people instead of cartoons, an experience I have only felt after watching The Iron Giant. The environmental message it does contain, however, is very interesting and gives rise to many questions. Could insects grow to an enormous size? Could plants turn against us? Could we be forced to live in harmony with nature, as a result of our own violence? One of Miyazaki’s most beautiful films, Nausicaä conveys a considerable warning about our future, but the ingenious director still provides us with memorable characters and riveting imagery that makes us wish (to some bizarre degree) that we could somehow witness this world he has created.
Pom Poko (1994)
A Wee Disclaimer: If you are unfamiliar with the story of Tanuki or uncomfortable with genitalia in a children’s film, then you probably will not like Pom Poko. Keep in mind, however, that this is a film that is purely based on Japanese culture, so elements that seem bizarre to foreigners are completely fine for Japanese children. But I'm getting ahead of myself. We have an environmental message to discuss here, don’t we?
I will admit that I am not that familiar with this story, but I will try to shed light on its most important details. Produced by Studio Ghibli and directed by Isao Takahata, Pom Poko is a film that I consider a Japanese interpretation (or perhaps reinterpretation) of Richard Adams’ Watership Down, in that it presents the humorous as well as violent struggles of a community of animals. Instead of rabbits, however, Takahata gives us a group of cuddly Tanuki (also known as raccoon dogs), renowned for their shape-shifting talent and penchant for mischief...and a certain body part that I will not give a lot of attention to. In Pom Poko, the Tanuki’s forest is being destroyed, and they are losing their powers as a result. Gathering together, the clan elders vote to drive away the polluting humans and reclaim their hold over their homeland, resulting in madcap humor and insane fight sequences. While very funny at times, Pom Poko can also get very disturbing, often violent. Thus, the concepts of extinction and deforestation are cemented very strongly in our minds by the time the film ends. While the PSA moment where Ponkichi addresses the audience about showing mercy to the Tanuki feels very forced, I can understand why Takahata inserted this in the conclusion After witnessing what happened to the little creatures, can you really blame them for begging the audience to help save the planet’s species?
Happy Feet (2006)
Who would've thought that a movie about tap-dancing penguins in Antarctica could possibly give us an environmental message? Well, director George Miller (creator of the Mad Max franchise) succeeded with his animated masterpiece Happy Feet, a plucky and groovy visual wonder that takes us on a grand journey of dance, danger, and determination.
Once Upon a Forest (1993)
Many people remember this film as a box office failure, and I would be lying if I said there were no valid reasons for this view. Out of all the movies on this list, Once Upon a Forest is certainly not the strongest in terms of character development and artwork, although we have to remember that 1993 was a major breaking point for animation. And many studios didn't have the big budget of Walt Disney Animation.
So, with this in mind, why did I bother to put it on this list of classics? Mostly because of the impact it left on me as a child. I was very young when I watched the VHS copy of Once Upon a Forest, and I remember feeling very disturbed and upset by what I witnessed. Seeing cute and cuddly animals suffering from poison, predators, and deforestation certainly can really give a good case of whiplash to a child’s sense of reality. When we see animals being destroyed, it does affect us. When we see baby animals suffering from near-death experiences? Well, let’s just say it hurts us a lot more. It intended to shake younger audiences, and it worked, for me at least.
Taking place in a beautiful forest called Dapplewood (bonus point for a creative name), Once Upon a Forest tells the story of three animal children named Abigail, Edgar, and Russell and their wise teacher Cornelius (voiced by Broadway legend Michael Crawford), who educates the trio in the ways of the woodland. One day, however, their world is shattered when a tanker truck crashes and spews toxic poison across the landscape, destroying plants and killing the animal residents. One of the victims is Cornelius’ niece Michelle, who inhaled the toxin after attempting to save her parents. If a movie could portray how people in Nausicaä suffered from the effects of the poison spores, I would give the award to Once Upon a Forest. We actually do see dead bodies in the film, and, to be fair, these deaths are treated with great importance. When I was a kid, seeing the corpses of Michelle’s parents disturbed me, as it disturbed many kids who viewed this film.
Like Pom Poko, this movie demonstrates the destruction of an ecosystem, but it places too much emphasis on the “evils of man”. I can understand how the animals could view us this way, but the problem is that the evils are never truly resolved. A human man does help Edgar the mole by setting him free from a trap, but that’s basically all the kindness from humans we see. However, I do give this film a point for being so moving. Watching the death scenes and the moments with a comatose Michelle left a huge impact on me as a kid, and they still do to this day.
Princess Mononoke (1997)
While Pom Poko presented a more muted depiction of violence and death, the epic fantasy/drama masterpiece Princess Mononoke weaves a shocking and brutal message of environmentalism into a rich tapestry of Japanese folklore and mythology, further accentuated by breathtaking visuals and fascinating characters. For this reason alone, I consider this film to be one of Hayao Miyazaki’s crowning achievements, as well as one of the most beautiful odes to Mother Earth I have ever witnessed.
In the Muromachi Era, when the last of the great forests stretched across Japan, an Emishi Prince named Ahistaka is inflicted with a deadly curse after preventing a monstrous demon from attacking his secluded mountain village, and, as a result of his violent affliction, he is cast out of his homeland forever. A recluse and a fugitive, Ahistaka journeys to a land in the West to find a potential cure for his curse and discover the reason for the demon’s appearance. But he could never have predicted what dangerous and fascinating adventures awaited him. In the shadows of an ancient mountain, a violent battle between the forces of nature and the armies of mankind is brewing, and the fate of the world hangs in the balance. Mustering his courage, Ahistaka forms a friendship with the beautiful and vicious Princess San, adopted daughter of the wolf goddess Moro, and attempts to prevent the Lady Eboshi, ruler of Iron Town, from destroying the Spirit of an ancient forest altogether.
Last but certainly not least on our list is Bambi, one of Walt Disney’s most touching animated films. A coming-of-age classic, this film captures the very essence of childhood innocence but also provides a darker view into the perils of maturation. In life, we often have to face tragedy and defeat, but this helps us grow into stronger, more disciplined people. While many of Walt Disney’s films were dark, however, Bambi takes a different turn by creating graphic presentations of death and violence. Some of these moments actually left children mentally scarred, one instance being the infamous death of Bambi’s mother, which has been parodied so many times that it has unfortunately begun to lose its quality. I'm looking at you, Slappy Squirrel!