I first saw 1992 animated feature FernGully: The Last Rainforest about 5 years ago. I realise I was a little late on the bandwagon, but hey, I wasn’t born until 1996. Seemingly too, most people who weren’t alive around the time the film was released have no knowledge of it, as it doesn’t appear to have been talked about much by the masses, despite having a very impressive line-up of vocal talent (especially impressive considering hiring star talent for animation voices, and advertising on the strength of the casting was not deemed normal or important at the time), nice-looking animation, and the fact that it is one of the very first animated films to focus entirely on an environmental message, a great cause which has unfortunately become a bit too common-place, and therefore tiresome, in recent years. The film was considered so important it was in fact that it was shown at the United Nations General Assembly on Earth Day, April 22, 1992, the first film to be so. It is also speculated, by those who remember it, that many elements of FernGully were borrowed for the 2009 blockbuster, and highest-grossing film of all time, Avatar. Other films that appear to have borrowed plot ideas from FernGully include Pocahontas and The Ant Bully. The comparisons are definitely there, however for me, there is a big difference between the two – I hated Avatar, I liked FernGully. And yes, that is true, I like FernGully. Quite a lot, actually. I feel it is probably relatively underrated in the grand scheme of things. I liked the film when I was younger, and still do. Yes, I notice some little problems, like a slightly thin story and slow pacing, but it has much less than Avatar, and quite a few other animated films honestly, and it is very easy to appreciate the work that went into it.
FernGully, an Australian production so of course set in Australia, does somewhat hammer in its message, and is slightly dark and demented in places, with a plot revolving around fairies that inhabit an Australian rainforest. Humans are thought to be extinct after fighting with an evil demonic slime creature Hexxus (voiced by Tim Curry), who was imprisoned for what was intended to be all eternity in a tree by the fairies, one of whom, a curious young female Crysta (voiced by Samantha Mathis) journeys beyond FernGully, after meeting bonkers Batty Koda (voiced by the late, great Robin Williams), who has been experimented on by humans and has an electric antenna in his head. Crysta discovers humans still exist, and are destroying the rainforest. Shrinking a human, Zak (voiced by now-non-existent actor Jonathan Ward – apparently he retired and now owns a car repair shop somewhere in California), to their size to show him the beauty of the nature, convinces him to stop the human lumberjacks he was helping to cut down the forest. But it may already be too late, as the logging team also manage through their destructive endeavors to release Hexxus, allowing him to take control of the human bulldozer machine on his quest to avenge his entrapment by destroying FernGully. With no other place to go, and their only chance being to stop Hexxus and save the rainforest, Crysta and Zak must work together, alongside the other fairies and Batty Koda, to stop Hexxus and the humans, while feelings for each other flourish, much to the envy of Crysta’s boyfriend Pips (voiced by Christian Slater), and Zak must decide whether he really does want to return to his normal size and life.
The film does show wild imagination to convey its message, and that is one of its strengths. Although it does feel a little preachy, it is actually entertaining and original while conveying its lesson, and the Australian rainforest itself is rendered beautifully. Many ideas come to play throughout the film’s short and sweet 70-minute running time, and although it can feel like it is squeezing too much in to allow for actual character development, it is still great to have a film packed with so many new, creative and inventive concepts.
But on the characters, they’re not bad. They aren’t refined incredibly well, but they all serve a purpose and are brought to life entertainingly. The character animation on screen is very well drawn and performed, particularly the character of Batty Koda, who is the most animal-like design therefore the most potential for fun visuals. Although some of the characters aren’t very well dived into, like Pips never being particularly explained if he is Crysta’s boyfriend or perhaps her brother, they are breathed life into by a splendidly-picked voice cast, the standout as always being Robin Williams, who provides Batty Koda with the same maniac energy of his other roles, as well as an awesome rap number Batty Rap, where he tells of how the humans tortured him in their labs. Other songs throughout the film are also good. It must be said though that sadly Williams’ role in this film was largely overshadowed by his other 1992 animated performance as the Genie in Disney’s Aladdin. Truth be told however, his performance in Aladdin simply is too good for the slightly confined vocal acting of Batty Koda, and perhaps the restricted screen time of the character, to compete, and he has more chemistry with his fellow Disney performers. Perhaps if this film was released in 1991 as it was supposed to be (the release date was altered from Christmas of that year to avoid competition with Beauty and the Beast, and instead competed with Don Bluth’s Rock-a-doodle in Easter 1992), the dominating of Aladdin would have been avoided, and Williams may have received more long-term recognition for his amusing performance in this.
Effectively telling a message about eco-friendliness, and also slipping in a moral about animal cruelty, represented through the mentally-unstable Batty Koda, FernGully is an immensely enjoyable movie. Reminiscent of some of the Disney classics (Zak somehow reminds me of the character of Aladdin, who of course weirdly made his screen debut later in the same year as FernGully), it is an especially good and original tale, handled effectively, with great voicework, music and animation. Just a shame about how many folks these days don’t know about it. If your idea of a good time is a good ol’ cartoon, check it out.