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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

Director: Chris Wedge
Release Date: March 11, 2005
Rating: ★★½
Review:

Robots © Blue Sky2005 was to be the first weak year in the history of computer animated features. This was a year in which no films were made that felt as if they were better than the last ones.

In fact, both Blue Sky’s ‘Robots’ and Dreamworks’s ‘Madagascar’ are mediocre in the whole catalog of computer animation. Surprisingly, the two most interesting features of 2005 were stop motion films: Aardman’s ‘Wallace and Gromit and the Curse of the Were-Rabbit‘ and Warner Brothers’ ‘Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride‘. This age-old technique defeated the modernity of computer animation, as both films topped the computer animated features in originality and consistency of story and design.

‘Robots’ is unfortunately typical for the regression in the computer animated field. First the animation: the robots are a good excuse for rather jerky motions, and its colorful setting never feels real. This setting is similar to that of ‘Monsters, Inc.‘ (2001): a totally different world, this time inhabited with robots, which at the same time is an exact copy of our own modern urban world. Also, main protagonist Rodney’s arrival in Robot City is very reminiscent of a similar scene in ‘A Bug’s Life’ (1998), and the all too obligatory ‘follow your dream’ story line had already become stale by 2005, too. In all, the film’s story is much more standard than its exotic setting would suggest.

Blue Sky’s storytelling is also very inconsistent and has many flaws in its timing. For example, the big finale never pays off and his topped by a very cloying ending. Worse, Rodney has no less than two love interests, one of which is suddenly dropped, while the love between him and Cappy, the other, is hardly shown. In effect it seems non-existent. Then there are way too many side characters, none of which is well-developed. Most of them are wise-crackers, who place their one-liners in a nasty, unpleasant way. Robin Williams’s character Fender is as tiresome as his genie was delightful in ‘Aladdin’ (1992). Even Rodney’s hero Bigwald is unappealing in his first scene. And it remains unclear why he has retreated in the first place.

All these flaws are such a pity, for one can feel the great joy in the making of ‘Robots’, especially in the transport sequence, where Rodney and Fender are travelling in a giant Rube Goldberg machine. This scene, although unimportant to the story, is the highlight of this otherwise very disappointing film.

Unfortunately, 2006 would be hardly better, with Blue Sky’s weak  ‘Ice Age 2: The Meltdown’, and the entertaining, but a little too routine films ‘Over The Hedge‘, ‘Flushed Away’ (Dreamworks) and ‘Open Season‘ (Sony’s debut in the field). Even Pixar would release its then weakest picture with ‘Cars’…

Watch the trailer for ‘Robots’ yourself and tell me what you think:

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