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Director: Bill Kroyer
Release Date:  April 10, 1992
Rating: ★★
Review:

FernGully - The Last Rainforest © 20th Century FoxUp until the rise of computer animation in the late 1990s, with powerful players entering the field (first Pixar, then Dreamworks, followed by BlueSky, Sony Animation and Illumination) the Walt Disney studio was the virtual monopolist of the animated feature.

In the 1980s their only challenge had come from former Disney-animator Don Bluth, who made three successful animated features during that decade, before going downhill with ‘All Dogs Go to Heaven’ (1989) and ‘Rock-a-Doodle’ (1991).

All the more surprising to find the young animation studio Kroyer Films (only founded in 1986) to make a brave attempt to beat Disney at its own game with ‘FernGully: The Last Rain Forest’. The film is extraordinarily Disney-like, starring a heroin, with a rather bland male love interest, Disney-like designs and animation, and a plethora of songs, changing the film into one of the obligate musicals, which animated features up to 1996 were expected to be.

What makes the film unique is its Australian setting and its ecological message, which quite fits the time, but which falls into the trap of over-romanticizing nature severely: why did the animators consider it necessary to add elves and an evil spirit? Why couldn’t the forest animals themselves be the heroes, and the humans the only villains? Why showing surprising healing powers at the end of the movie, while its scientifically known that it takes several centuries for primary forest to recover, if ever?

Despite its Australian setting, the film is very American (using voice artists like Robin Williams, Tone Lōc, and Cheech and Chong, and film music by Alan Silvestri for example), and as said, very Disney-like. Unfortunately, the film hardly lives up to its high ambition: the animation never reaches Disney’s height – there’s in fact quite some superfluous movement, revealing the use of rotoscope. Moreover, the designs remain generic to downright ugly. For example, the film’s heroin, Crysta, is not half as appealing as Disney’s Ariel (The Little Mermaid, 1989) or Belle from ‘Beauty and the Beast (1991). Worse, Crysta and Zak are surprisingly devoid of character, and comedy duo Cheech and Chong are wasted on side characters of no interest.

The music is by Alan Silvestri, of ‘Back to the Future’ and ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit‘ fame, but his romantic themes get to the nerves. Besides, there are way too many songs, most of which stop the action, instead of pushing it forward. The best song, sung by rapper Tone Lōc, is also the most superfluous. The character who sings it, a goanna (or monitor lizard, as it is known outside Australia) enters the film to sing this song, only to disappear again.

On the positive side: the opening sequence, done in aboriginal style, is beautiful; Robin Williams does his best as the comic relief Batty Koda, a laboratory bat; the animation on the amorphous villain Hexxus is quite impressive, making him into a remarkably scary character; and the healing sequence is simply beautiful, with its bold Fantasia-like colors and abstract designs.

‘FernGully’ did moderately well at the box office, but remains Kroyer Films’ only feature. Later in the nineties, distributor 20th Century Fox teamed up with Don Bluth to make two more animated features, the successful, and again very Disney-like ‘Anastasia’ (1997), and the flopped science-fiction feature ‘Titan A.E.’ (2000). It was only after 20th Century Fox purchased the animation studio ‘Blue Sky’ (1997) and released ‘Ice Age’ (2002) that the company became a major player in the animation feature field.

In hindsight, ‘FernGully’ is most interesting for being a forerunner of ‘Avatar’ (2009), which features a surprisingly similar tale. Like most of the Don Bluth films, the movie mostly manages to demonstrate how Disney’s ideas on animated features had become the gospel on how to make one. And even though some of these dogmas were to be seriously challenged from 1996 on (the idea that all animated features have to be musicals, for example), most of these unwritten rules remain to this day, making most American animated features, and many of their European imitations, awfully generic.

Watch the trailer for ‘FernGully: The Last Rain Forest’ yourself and tell me what you think:

 

‘FernGully: The Last Rain Forest’ is available on DVD

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