FernGully: The Last Rainforest
Updated: Mar 10
To those of you who've tuned into my reviews on The Screened Word, you may recall that Aladdin, The Lion King, and Pokémon, among others, were the staples of my childhood. They were a part of who I've become today, and that they would always have a special place in my heart.
In honor of Earth Day, as well as Arbor Day, I decided to take a look at a particular film that, interestingly enough, was hailed as the staple of many other people's childhoods, specifically from my generation. That movie would be Ferngully: The Last Rainforest.
Released in 1992, this movie, which emphasized environmental concerns, left its mark on many people for its message, its animation, its music, and the overall colorful tapestry that made up FernGully.
The story is about a young fairy named Crysta, and she was fascinated by humans, who used to live in peace and harmony with her kind many years ago. But now, fairies often thought of humans as being extinct, as having become part of just a myth. But that all changed one day, when, in her adventures outside of FernGully, Crysta stumbled into a group of men, one of them a young city boy named Zak, who was encroaching on the forest and cutting down trees and selling them as lumber. In the process, Zak accidentally spray-painted a deadly tree that contained the spirit of an evil being named Hexxus, and the acidic components of the spray-paint, which inadvertently signaled Zak's coworkers to cut that tree down shortly after, allowed Hexxus to break free and wreak havoc on the forest once again. While investigating the humans, Crysta used her magic to shrink Zak into the size of the fairies. From there, Zak and Crysta worked through the ups and downs of their intertwined lifestyles as they got to know each other, while Hexxus, as well as Zak's buddies, continued to cause destruction to the forest.
The first thing I'll say is that I found Crysta to be a pretty fun character. I had a soft spot for her for her rebellion, curiosity, and occasional dreaminess. The thing is, she, along with the rest of the fairies in her clan, were supposed to pick up on the history of FernGully (this was where her fascination with the human race came from) and on its interconnected natural powers in the hopes that one day she would protect it. But, her sense of curiosity led her to take continuous risks, such as when she was willing to go beyond the realms of FernGully to peek at the outside world – and, in so doing, discovered the black smoke emerging from the construction vehicles plowing through FernGully - or when she accidentally shrank Zak into the size of a fairy, even if she did that to save his life. But the problem is, that’s all that was done with Crysta.
She started off with promising qualities that would’ve resulted in a more complex female main lead and role model who was very curious about things that the rest of her society wouldn’t have been so keen on. Take a look at what some of the female leads from Disney did, for example.
Ariel was very curious of the human world, even though her father, Triton, forbade her from exploring it further because of the dangers they posed onto merpeople.
Belle was dismissed by her peers as unnatural because she was a hardcore bookworm, and yet, that didn't bother her since she was hoping to be on an adventure someday anyway.
Jasmine, while not an outcast, was still rebellious because of how she felt so confined by her title as the princess of Agrabah before deciding to sneak out and have her own adventures in town.
I admired them all because of how different they were from each society, and because they were allowed to grow and develop as the situations around them got more chaotic. If the qualities Crysta established were explored more, she would've been as compelling as a character as these ladies. But since she wasn't explored any further than she could've, she was a bit half-done as a character.
Zak, the city boy who became acquainted with Crysta, was sadly less interesting by comparison. He had a charming personality, acting almost like a renegade bad boy who was out to do his job of cutting down trees until he shrank and managed to see FernGully in all its natural glories long enough for that to change his mind about deforestation. But outside of that, he was a pretty shallow character, too. For the most part, he pretty much acted like our eyes and ears for the movie instead of a character we're supposed to identify with.
The chemistry these two shared with each other, though, was cute and nice to see. It even resulted in an interesting series of demonstrations done by and for each other. For example, it was interesting to see Zak react to the magical and natural wonders of FernGully as it was; it gave him a better idea as time went on about why forests like FernGully were so special and how each animal and plant were connected in many ways. The reverse was also interesting to see with regards to Crysta and the fairies learning more about how humans talked the way they did, or how they lived the way they did. It was also interesting to watch the fairies react to something that was absolutely foreign to them but very custom for humans. For instance, Crysta mistook the leveler that was cutting down the trees for a monster, while the fairies inspected Zak's stereo as some magical being that's 'hard as stone, yet hollow'.
But one particular scene involving their demonstrations to each other was so effective, that it could be used as a good demonstration of the beauties and dangers of human development. Zak showed Crysta a speck of fire from a match, and once Crysta saw it, she was spellbound, admiring in all its bright and fluttery beauty. But once she touched it, the fire went out and she winced in pain as everything around them went dark. The atmosphere and tone of the scene was very effective, and while it may be nothing to write home about, this might be my favorite scene from the movie for its poignancy.
The supporting characters in the movie, ranging from the fairies to Zak’s coworkers, they all may have displayed interesting shades of personality to them, but they felt even less developed than either Crysta or Zak. Pipps, who looked like he was a close friend of Crysta, was just a hunky guy who became suspicious over Zak before dismissing him for his associations with the humans. Magi, the elderly woman who knew of the natural powers that can help FernGully, was just a standard wise lady who did her job, and then nothing else. I also wondered about her connection to Crysta; was she her favorite mentor? Were they related? It was hard to tell. And Zak’s coworkers, they were treated like nothing more than oblivious comic reliefs who were clueless and more concerned about their jobs than they were about their friend's disappearance. All in all, the supporting characters felt pretty weak.
Who I did NOT find weak, however, was the lab bat, Batty Koda, whose giddiness and eccentricity figuratively and even literally added a level of electricity to the movie.
In a weird rap song he sang (I'll elaborate more on that soon), he mentioned that he was subject to animal experimentation by humans before being tossed aside and left to roam the wild with an antenna stuck in his ear. And every time the antenna went off, it triggered a different personality within Batty as he one minute tried to warn the fairies of the human tactics and another minute acted like someone else entirely.
The reason why I think he stood out as much as he did was because his antenna-induced impressions all felt humorous, and not once did they feel out of character. And even then, Batty simply established himself as a lab animal trying to find his place in the world. But it didn’t stop there; the improvisations of his expressions synced very nicely with the performance, provided with adequate finesse by none other than Robin Williams, who, coincidentally enough, would only have gone on to achieve greater luck with animation that same YEAR as the Genie in Aladdin.
Was Williams' performance here as groundbreaking as his performance as the Genie was? Not by a long shot, but he was still eclectic and delightful enough to have left a good impression on the movie.
Another character who was pretty interesting and yet not as interesting at the same time was the villain, Hexxus. According to the prologue, he emerged as part of a volcanic eruption that brought death and destruction to the forest it surrounded as well as to the people who lived there. Then, he was sealed away inside the bark of a tree as a prison. But then, when he was let loose by the construction men, he set out to resume his methods of destruction to the forest around him. This, in turn, made him a pretty standard villain. Was he there just to cause destruction for destruction's sake? And was he hellbent on destroying FernGully just because the inhabitants kept him sealed up for so many years? I don't know, it just felt pretty flimsy. And yet, I also understood that he was a natural being who lived many, many years ago, and that would’ve explained some of his otherwise generic pursuits. Brushing that aside, however, there were two things that made him stand out. One, his design. Lord, was this guy creepy! He had the ability to express himself as a black cloud of smoke with an eerie face, as well as a skeletal figure, and he was animated in ways that would give kids nightmares. At that point, he could easily have fit more in a Don Bluth movie than he would have in a Disney movie. And two, his performance by Tim Curry. He did a nice job in modifying his voice to express Hexxus in all his forms, whether it's high-pitched yet disconcerting, or creepy and sly in baritone.
In fact, the more I thought about it, that’s another quality that helped save the movie. What the movie lacked in terms of compelling characterizations, it made up for with excellent performances. Samantha Mathis nailed down the curious nature and bubbly personality of Crysta, Jonathan Ward made what would have been such an uninteresting character as Zak really likable and infused him with an almost irresistible sense of coolness, and Grace Zabriskie portrayed Magi with dignity and grace, and as a result, she made her feel empathetic and compelling in spite of her character‘s shortcomings.
I found the songs to be almost hit and miss. Some of the songs had merit based on their melodic expressions and performances, while others felt a bit out of place. Batty’s rap about his backstory, while doing a nice job of expressing his story in a more energetic manner, was sung oddly and played oddly. But even then, that’s not as unnatural as the goanna rap, "If I'm Gonna Eat Somebody (It Might As Well Be You)." That song, just like the goanna himself, came right out of nowhere as the goanna kept chasing after Zak, and the song was just weird to see unfurl before us.
The rest of the songs, however, like "Life is a Magic Thing", "Toxic Love", and "A Dream Worth Keeping" all at least dazzled with enough musical energy to at least be hummable, if not memorable. Even "Land of a Thousand Dances", that was a catchy song, and it was neat to watch Zak rock on to the rhythm of the music while inviting the other fairies to join in with what they felt was a strange and boisterous sense of music.
The one aspect about FernGully that I found the most pleasing was the animation. That, as well as the backgrounds, really helped bring the luscious environment of FernGully to life with its vivid colors, exotic styles, and atmospheric movements. And it was nicely balanced out with the dark, dreary moments that heightened the sense of danger lurking in the area, such as with the deforested areas of FernGully and especially with Hexxus whenever he was around or causing destruction to the forest.
I also ought to give the movie credit for bringing up an issue that, to children, might seem very confusing to them. With the fairies protecting the welfare of the forest and their home, and Zak in both his confident yet oblivious sense of destruction to the locales and his willingness to - no pun intended - turn over a new leaf, it helped the movie demonstrate the values of nature, and why it's so important to conserve it. In fact, I also admire how the movie presented its message in a way that would catch the adults’ attention, too.
Something else I should mention while I’m at it, is that I found it interesting that
environmental welfare was one of the most prominent, if not the #1 most famous, topics of discussion during the early 1990s. It's almost like, no matter where you went back then, there would always have been at least one advertisement asking for us to play our parts of either helping to preserve the welfare of the environment or saving the lives of the animals on the planet.
For example, FernGully, when it first opened in theaters, intended to have its proceeds be donated to environmental causes (Brownstein). Even the beginning of the end credits of Free Willy had a disclaimer message sharing the number to dial in order to help with the welfare of whales.
But I'm getting sidetracked. The songs were a mixed bag, most of the characters were pretty underdeveloped and the story was a little generic, but the good stuff – the performances (especially by Robin Williams and Tim Curry), the lively animation, the still-relevant message, and of course, the indirect clash between lifestyles via Crysta and Zak – grew on me, and became more praiseworthy. Personally, though, if you want entertainment that keeps its message on environmental welfare front and center while still delivering on the story and characters in equal measure, I would recommend something like The Lorax, or such movies as Wall-E and Princess Mononoke. But as introductory films go, FernGully is a cute, well-meaning, and slightly daring film, and it deserves to be given credit where credit is due for what it meant to pull off.
My Rating: a strong B-
Brownstein, Bill. “It's Hip, It's Animated, and It's Eco-Friendly.”The Gazette, 16 Apr. 1992, pp. 65.
Free Willy. VHS. Directed by Simon Wincer. Burbank, CA. Warner Home Video, 1993.