June 20, 2012 by abbyo
My memories of “FernGully: The Last Rainforest” are few and far between. I vaguely recall watching the movie, and roughly remember enjoying it. I do remember the basic environmental lesson the movie was trying to teach, and that it made me care more about the rainforest. What I really remember is the short movie-themed PSA that aired during Saturday morning cartoons for a few years afterward, where a gravelly-voiced announcer told you that trees produce oxygen, and that by the end of the commercial, several acres of trees will have been clear-cut, thus killing cute animals and depleting our air supply. But I had all but forgotten about the movie until very recently, when I noticed it in my housemate’s DVD collection, and she mentioned that “FernGully” had gotten weirder with age. Since one of the goals of this feature is to rediscover forgotten childhood movies, I figured it was a good candidate.
It was. It turns out there’s a reason that “FernGully” stands on the outer rim of 90s children’s films, why it’s fondly remembered but not widely beloved by those who watched it as kids. The reason is this: “FernGully” is really, really weird. Even by the standards of a decade that gave us “Space Jam” and “Small Soldiers,” it’s pretty fringe. The movie is a 90-minute attempt to indoctrinate kids with hippie rhetoric and environmental concerns. It’s like Al Gore teamed up with PETA, and hired a troupe of Don Bluth groupies to direct the resulting script. It’s not that telling kids about deforestation, animal cruelty and endangered species isn’t important (it is), or that I disagree with the message (I don’t). But “FernGully” tries way too hard to make that message hip and cute. Those attempts, at the cost of telling a good story, are what make it such a strange movie to revisit.
The story is this: An adorable (and, let’s face it, scantily-clad) fairy named Crysta lives with her community of similarly button-cute and troublingly-unclothed sprites in a lush rainforest that’s chockablock with diverse animal and plant life. But unbeknownst to this idyllic little enclave, a logging company is inching ever closer to their home, leaving a path of destruction in its wake, and unintentionally freeing the movie’s other villain, a nasty spirit called Hexxus. When Crysta discovers the logging crew, she runs into the youngest, best-looking logger of the bunch, Zak, and accidentally shrinks him down to fairy size. During the quest to present Zak to the fairy matriarch and restore him to normality, Zak comes to appreciate the natural beauty of the rainforest, and recognizes the destructive evil of humanity, while he and Crysta also fight off Hexxus.
That plot in itself isn’t so bad. The writers manage to find a way to work rainforest conservation into a fairy tale that naturally appeals to any child familiar with Cinderella or Beauty and the Beast. But that basic outline is pretty much where the good ideas in “FernGully” stop. Everything after that—dialogue, characters and songs—just goes further and further into the deep end. Take, for example, the introduction of Batty, the movie’s wacky animal sidekick. He’s voiced by Robin Williams, which already means you’re experiencing the equivalent of a joke book in a tornado. But the movie explains Batty’s nutty behavior by making him the victim of animal testing, as told in this little ditty:
(note: this is an extended version of the song, where you can get the full force of William’s weird improvisation)
Now, I usually think it’s poor judgment for an animated kid’s film to include rapping of any kind. It always rings false, and it usually just sounds terrible. But this song goes beyond that. The backbeat, of course, sounds terrible. The lyrics, when you can understand them, are dark and creepy but come so fast that they’d fly right over the heads of most viewers. Kids, in particular, wouldn’t know what Williams is going on about unless they understand what animal testing is, which they probably don’t.
Williams isn’t the only weird appearance FernGully has up its sleeve. Somehow, the movie managed to wrangle performances from Christian Slater–during a time when he was still relevant–, Cheech and Chong and Tim Curry (I’ll admit that last one isn’t so bizarre, that dude will do anything for a paycheck). The soundtrack includes songs from Sheena Easton, Raffi (RAFFI!) and, my personal favorite, Tone-Loc. That’s right, the guy who gave us “Funky Cold Medina” and “Wild Thing.” Check it out:
Hearing Tone-Loc say “Any friend of a fairy is a friend of mine” is one of those things that will never, ever get old for me.
There are other parts of this movie that don’t come across so well, (Tim Curry singing a song where he rhymes “acid rain” with “egg chow mein,” for one, gross overuse of the term “magical powers of nature” for another) but these are the worst offenders. There’s also a weird sexual streak running through the movie that makes “FernGully” seem a lot like the naïve hippie chick from your freshman year at college. You remember, the one who never wore a bra, smelled like patchouli and loved to belly dance, but couldn’t figure out why so many guys wanted her.
When you put it all together, it isn’t surprising that “FernGully” is more of a distant nostalgic piece than an enduring classic we watch over and over. Unlike movies like “The Lion King” or “Pocahontas,” which have a commitment to quality that stands the test of time, “FernGully” is a movie that tries so hard to be “in the moment,” it forgets the importance of its cinematic legacy. Those of us who watched it as kids watch it now and frown in confusion. How could we ever have liked this? At least it got us worried about the real-life fate of rainforests, tropical bats and scantily-clad fairies.
-For all you trivia-hounds out there: this was Robin Williams’ first appearance in an animated film. Now you know!
-As bizarre as this movie is, the outline at least as proved fairly influential. If you see shades of “Avatar” here, I’m sure James Cameron would like you think it’s a coincidence.
-I realize that there are people out there who remain avid “FernGully” fans. I know this because, in the image search I did for this post, I came across a weird amount of fan art for this movie, and a kind of disturbing number of cosplay photos. There were lots of people dressing up like Crysta and Zak. Not a lot of people dressed up as Batty, though. Go figure.