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FernGully: The Last Rainforest (1992)

In lieu of my 2016 Earth Day editorial, I thought it would only be appropriate to dive into one of the best films I discussed. So, for this review, I will be taking a look at an animated gem from my childhood and yours: FernGully: The Last Rainforest. Visually beautiful and emotionally stirring, this film presents a unique perspective on one of the most pristine habitats on Earth, and, while it can be a bit preachy at times, it is definitely worth checking out. Follow me into the depths of the forest, where magic abounds, as I take a look at the top contender on my environmental film list.

Based on the fantasy novel of the same name by Diana Young, FernGully is a magical journey through the ancient forests of Australia and expresses the importance of preserving one of the last, untainted paradises on our planet. Although the movie was not widely accepted by critics, many filmmakers have utilised concepts from this environmental myth in modern blockbusters. One example is James Cameron’s Avatar (2009), a transformative tale about a man who takes on a new body and falls in love with a living planet and its inhabitants. One can argue that Jake Sully shares this similar coming-of-age journey with Zak Young, the human protagonist of FernGully, but I consider this to be an excellent homage to an internationally acclaimed film. It is true that FernGully has left its mark on the world in a beautiful way, and if directors utilise its elements in modern storytelling, I applaud them. There is a reason this movie is treasured by the United Nations, folks.

That is, to say, FernGully is definitely not without its flaws. There are moments where the story lags a bit, distracting the audience with bright visuals instead of compelling moments of drama and action. Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not saying this film is not action-packed or suspenseful. When this film takes a darker turn, it turns into a living nightmare. Scenes of deforestation and the burning fire of suffering trees are enough to chill you to the bone, and I cannot express the horror of the climax, where the pollution spirit Hexxus sheds his skin and becomes a demon of oil and fire. After watching the film in recent years, I can honestly say that it is a very scary movie for younger audiences, but that is why I love it so much. Sure, it had its light moments, but, as a child, I respected the fact that the adult filmmakers and animators challenged younger viewers like me with creepy, terrifying moments, as well.

Speaking of which, the animation in FernGully is very impressive. I would be exaggerating if I said it was at the same level as Disney Renaissance masterpieces like Beauty and the Beast or DreamWorks epic tales like The Prince of Egypt, but our little Earth-friendly cartoon still manages to capture our hearts with a fantastic, unique art style. Overall, most of the characters have simple designs, aside from the diabolical Hexxus, brought to flaming, slimy life by the talented hand of Disney animator Kathy Zielinski. Additionally, the film features some preliminary forms of computer animation that is very impressive for the 1990s; even today, I have to acknowledge that it is very detailed and graceful in motion. While nothing exceptional, the art is still beautiful, a jungle vision one would expect from Claude Monet.

Now, I must bring your attention to a very tricky aspect of the film, an element that either helps or hinders the story: the music. In this argument, my general opinion is split. Some songs like “Life is a Magic Feeling” and “A Dream worth Keeping” (the theme song) are very gorgeous and moving and help to establish the tone of the entire film. However, others are…well... just pointless. I am of course referring to the elephants in the room known as “If I’m Gonna Eat Somebody” and “Batty Rap.” Do we really care if the Tone Loc iguana eats Zak? And why is a bat rapping like MC Hammer? So, for the most part, the songs performed by the characters are virtually pointless.

With the exception of one element: the villain song. “Toxic Love” is not at all necessary, but, good heavens, is it catchy and diabolical. Performed by Tim Curry in his sneering baritone, this number relates Hexxus’ adoration for pollution and destruction and his newfound love for the machine that has “resurrected” him. In fact, the song actually takes a very risqué turn, the dynamic drum beat and droning saxophone notes tantalizing us with spidery seduction. And here’s a piece of trivia. The original version of “Toxic Love” was actually R-rated, and contains explicit sexual language, which I will not relate here. After being reviewed by the film team, the directors considered it too pornographic for an animated feature and cut it from the final draft. Nevertheless, it is one awesome musical number, one that will forever be stuck in my head….even if it is pointless…and creepily flirtatious.

In all honesty, the characters are very tricky to analyze, mostly because we have seen them many times before in other films. Still, that does not mean they are not memorable. I loved them when I was a child and found them funny, beautiful, or even scary. However, now that I am an adult, I can see why many Internet critics have given these characters negative reviews. As with the music, some elements hold up, while others do not.

As much as I hate to admit this, I must state that Crysta (voiced by Samantha Mathis), while energetic and fun, is not a very interesting protagonist. A combination of Tinker Bell from Peter Pan and Jubilee from X-Men (a bizarre comparison, no doubt), Crysta is a spunky fairy who is training to become the next protector of the rain forest, but she would much rather have fun flitting through the trees with the rest of her fairy friends. Although she tries to learn nature magic to the best of her abilities, Crysta often allows her curiosity to get the better of her. While she is not an annoying character, she doesn’t do anything interesting, at least not until the closing of the third act. However, her strongest aspects are her courage and her independence. Crysta might be a recycled version of the “Disney Princess” formula, but she still manages to keep our attention throughout the movie.

Zak Young (voiced by Johnathon Ward) is not very memorable or unique. Unlike Crysta, he does not possess any redeemable qualities that make him relatable, and he is in no way a pure-hearted individual. In my Earth Day review, I stressed the importance of creating characters that learn from their mistakes (e.g. polluting the Earth), and Zak does not do this whatsoever. Overall, he is an arrogant and selfish young man who is thrust into a world of fairies and must learn the ways of the forest to combat the growing threat to this magical habitat. Now I understand that he learns his lesson in a split second at the end, but his utterance of the one phrase, “Guys, things have gotta change” is a poor representation of the film’s message. I will credit Zak with providing funny quips and snarky dialogue here and there, but that is not enough to drive a character or a story-line, for that matter.

Pips (voiced by Christian Slater), on the other hand, is a much stronger character than Zak. Crysta’s possible boyfriend or brother (we never know), this spunky young man is an energetic fairy who is rebellious, adventurous, and sarcastic; but he is very protective of his forest home, as well. My one complaint is that we never see him that often in the film, which is quite unfortunate. Pips is a fun character and seems to be a very intelligent one, at that. As a fan of Christian Slater, I found him to be very entertaining. I especially love this one line he states after he sees Zak for the first time: “He’s kinda small, ain’t he?”. It’s too bad this guy wasn’t in the movie more often, because I think he would have strengthened the plot.

Batty is another one of my favorite characters from the film, and I would have preferred if he had been a primary protagonist next to Crysta. Apart from his unique visual design and his humorous expressions, Batty is a quirky and energetic character brought to life by the recently deceased comic legend Robin Williams, who you can tell put so much effort into his first cinematic voice acting role. An escapee from a biology lab, Batty is a near-sighted, near-schizoid fruit bat who serves as the comic foil of the film, but I must say that even he can be a bit tedious at times. However, he is a ton of fun to watch, thanks to Williams’ skillful ability to dish out snappy dialogue. There is no doubt that Batty is one of the most memorable characters in FernGully, even if he crashes into trees more than George of the Jungle.

For me, however, the greatest character in this film is the villain. A god of destruction, Hexxus is a menacing baddie with a penchant for pollution and slime and a sly, serpentine voice, lent by the always entertaining Tim Curry. While the other characters can drag the plot at a slow pace, Hexxus completely steals the spotlight and entertains us with all of his gruesome glory. He can be charming and egotistical, and pretty terrifying, as well. After being released from his tree prison, he swears revenge on the fairies and seeks to destroy all of FernGully and, as I have often assumed, the world. While the magic of the forest does stop him for a few, long moments, he eventually breaks free and transforms into a horrifying demon of oil, lava, and fire, looking for the world like a polluted version of the entity from John Carpenter’s The Thing. Disturbing and entertaining, Hexxus is a perfect embodiment of destruction and perversion.

As for the supporting characters, they are not very memorable but still contribute to the story. Magi Lune, the wise protector of FernGully, serves as a mother figure for her student Crysta, and she proves to be a quite a powerful force, having sealed Hexxus in his tree prison many eons ago. Crysta’s father is a wise old elf who sounds for the world like the Sultan from Aladdin, and the Beetle Boys (with voices by Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong) manage to get some laughs. As I said before, the rapping goanna doesn’t really serve any purpose, but I will admit that Tone Loc always makes a movie fun. Ace Ventura anyone?

As a whole, FernGully does hold up, despite its flaws. Its environmental message is truly not that preachy and overblown, and the conclusion is very satisfying, even if it is thrown in at the last minute. Whether the humans actually learn from the destruction of the forest is unknown, but I always feel happy as I watch the gorgeous transformation of the trees and flowers, brought back to life by the magic of the fairies. Although it is nowhere near as memorable as The Brave Little Toaster or Beauty and the Beast, FernGully brings back so many nostalgic memories for me. It is a bit of a guilty pleasure cartoon, but I do not mind. Sometimes we simply need to wander through the forest and take a break from the world.

FernGully: The Last Rainforest is available on Blu-ray and DVD