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Earth Day Special (2016): Classic Environmental Films

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.

Surprisingly, for a film about environmentalism, the themes are generally downplayed and mild. This is very unusual for an eco-friendly cartoon, especially one made during the 90s. Its preachiness is kept to a minimum, allowing the story to flow smoothly. And I’ll be the first to say that Hexxus is not only one of the coolest animated monsters ever, but he is also a perfect representation of vileness and decay. He is smooth talking and diabolical (being voiced by Tim Curry certainly helps with that), and his song “Toxic Love” is catchy and impactful. Overall, the film is a gem. It might not be the greatest movie ever, but it is the best environmental animated work on this list.

The Lorax (1972)

You knew this one would appear on the list, and it probably comes as no surprise that I have placed it in the #2 spot. Everyone is familiar with the classic Dr. Seuss story about the friendly little creature called the Lorax, who attempts to stop the greedy Once-Ler from destroying a peaceful forest environment. However, the efforts of the little, mustachioed furball are in vain, and he watches in dismay as the Truffula forest is eradicated and industrial corporations fill the rivers with toxic sludge and poisons. This is some pretty hardcore imagery, even for Dr. Seuss, but it definitely conveys the appropriate message. The idea of “saving the trees” has been around for such a long time that some environmentalists are bored with it, claiming that it is old and worn out.

If this is the case, then why is this story still treasured by adults and children alike? One answer: the characters. Apart from the boisterous Lorax, who openly pronounces that he “speaks for the trees”, the Once-Ler is the character we can relate to the most. Why? Because he feels guilty after destroying the environment. He sees what damage he has done and begs the little boy, whom he meets at the beginning of the film, to fix what has been broken. This shows a light of promise in a decaying world, a perfect tie-in to any environmental film.

And if you are wondering why I didn't mention the 2012 remake, let me leave that one to your imagination.

Wall-E (2008)

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.

One thousand years after an apocalyptic event known as the Seven Days of Fire, a Toxic Jungle has engulfed half the earth and driven the remnants of humanity into small kingdoms, which are gradually being wiped out by clouds of poisonous spores released from the mutated plants and trees. Additionally, humans also have to maintain peace with giant insects and their leaders: monstrous entities known as Ohm, who guard the Toxic Jungle with violent devotion. In the Kingdom of the Valley of the Wind, a young princess named Nausicaä hopes to solve the mystery of this vast forest and bring about a new era for humanity, as well as save her people from impending doom. However, when a warlike nation invades and threatens the stability of the shared peace between the Valley People and the Ohm, Nausicaä must face her greatest fears and plunge into a world of darkness and decay.

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.

At the bottom of the world, a young penguin named Mumble is born with a strange disorder that makes his feet twitch involuntarily (the result of his careless father dropping him in the snow when he was an egg). Eventually, he becomes a skilled tap dancer, but he is shunned by the other penguins. After venturing outside Emperor Land, he meets some colorful characters and has some crazy adventures on his travels. But there is one point when he discovers that there is more occurring beyond the ice than he originally thought. Mankind is exterminating the Antarctic fish population and polluting the water with garbage and oil, causing many species to suffer from disease and starvation. This is a very interesting idea, to be honest. For those of you who grew up watching The Pebble and the Penguin, you will see some very similar elements presented on a grander scale. Penguins suffer at the hands of humans, but what I love about this film is how mankind is portrayed. Through a rather humorous encounter with Antarctic scientists, the penguins somehow manage to tell the humans that their environment is being destroyed, and the humans take necessary action to prevent these beautiful animals from going extinct.

I love environmental films where we humans actually do learn our lesson, FernGully being another good representation. George Miller is certainly no stranger to this debate. He has given us graphic interpretations of a world destroyed by lack of awareness, which he has presented in his violent and exhilarating Mad Max movies. And Happy Feet doesn't fall that far from the formula. It is a moving painting with inspiring visuals and a very well-executed message.

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.

The only adult-oriented film on Miyazaki’s list, Princess Mononoke is bloody and violent, but, surprisingly, all the splattering of crimson gore and black slime actually serve a purpose in the story. This film was obviously created for teens and adults, so its environmental message is definitely going to be more graphic and intense than other films on this list. As we witness tiny nature spirits dissolving in agony as their trees are burnt, as we witness the animal gods boiling from the demonic flames of anger, we are able to grasp the severity of the situation and appreciate the director’s message even more. In some ways, this is what makes Princess Mononoke so effective. Each time I view this movie, I don’t simply see the effects of deforestation, pollution, and hunting. I experience the effects of these terrible crimes and the pain they inflict on the characters. It is a psychological and visionary odyssey into the very souls of humankind, once again masterfully tailored by Hayao Miyazaki.

Bambi (1942)

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!

We all know the story. It is timeless and unforgettable. In a beautiful forest, a doe gives birth to a handsome young fawn named Bambi, who is destined to take his father’s place as the Great Prince of the Forest one day. As the little deer matures, he learns many valuable lessons from his friends Thumper, Flower, and Owl, but he also learns about the dangers of man from his father, who becomes his son’s guardian after the untimely death of the fawn’s mother. While very cutesy at times, I especially love the romance between Bambi and Faline, mostly because it so close to how real children act when one has a crush on the other; and, when they do reach adulthood, their love blossoms into something pure and beautiful.

However, the environmental message in the movie, while downplayed a bit, is still very powerful and focuses on the horrific reality of hunting. If you were never a vegetarian before this movie, then a green salad will look delightful after you have watched Bambi. When killings occur in this film, you feel emotionally scarred and disturbed. Even though you don’t see any blood, you can feel the fear of the animals in their last moments of terror, when the bullets ricochet through the air towards them. Much like Princess Mononoke, Bambi invokes psychological as well as visual horrors, but it does it through poetic grace and visual splendor. Bambi doesn’t just present the horrors of environmental tragedy. It also presents a charming, beautiful story that inspires and educates audiences. That, in my opinion, is what makes this movie a wonderful finale for our Earth Day Special.