Thursday, November 17, 2011

Raising The Next Generation Of Environmentalists Well: Fern Gully: The Last Rainforest.

The Good: Good voicework, DVD bonus features, Message, Generally the animation
The Bad: Dumbed down for kids, Music
The Basics: A fun, smart film, Fern Gully: The Last Rainforest is a socially-conscious movie that passes on the value of environmental protection to young people.

Lately, it seems like I am seeing fewer films on my television that I want to see and my partner is overwhelming me with her favorites. Honestly, that's not much of a complaint, but I do find myself sometimes wishing for more hours in the day to do my thing and still have a partner at the end of it! Last weekend, she forced me to take a day off, eat junkfood and watch DVDs with her. In addition to watching a slew of Friends (reviewed here!) episodes, she eagerly introduced me to Fern Gully: The Last Rainforest.

I was aware of Fern Gully: The Last Rainforest though I had never seen it before. Here my partner and I squirm over our age difference; she fell in love with the film when she was four, I avoided the movie because I was in high school and no longer interested in animated movies for kids. Sigh. However, viewing Fern Gully: The Last Rainforest and evaluating it by the same critical standards I view other movies . . . this film scored remarkably high. In fact, the only real drawback of this movie is how it conforms more to a kid's movie and reinforces some very old and lame roles as opposed to being truly audacious.

By that, I mean that there are conventions of children's movies which become tiresome in this film, not the least of which is the inclusion of often-annoying comic relief, musical numbers (accompanied by dance) and even more problematic reinforcement of gender roles. I can live with the cliche comic relief - I like Robin Williams and his character, Batty, makes some wonderful and appropriate points on animal testing - and even the musical number which provides movement and music to keep kids glued to the television, but the gender role reinforcement is not only passe, but it is disappointing. After a whole movie where a female protagonist is the smartest, most powerful character in the film, it falls to a man to solve the ultimate problem and dispose of the villain. This is hugely disappointing on many levels and it reinforces the idea that women still need men to solve the big problems . . . even the ones only men are shown creating.

Crysta is a happy and productive fairy living in Fern Gully where she is trying to learn magic from Magi Lune and have fun with her friend, Pips. Magi Lune tells her the story of the evil Hexxus and how it was imprisoned within a tree and while Crysta's instinct is to be afraid, Magi informs her that Hexxus is safely trapped within a warped and evil tree. As Crysta avoids Pip's advances, she soars above the forest's canopy and discovers dark clouds on the horizon.

Soon, the rainforest of Fern Gully is being invaded by a massive logging machine that is tearing out the trees and devouring the resources of the rainforest. Confused, Crysta rescues one of the workers, a young man named Zak, who she inadvertently shrinks to fairy size. Over the course of a night, Crysta reveals the magic of the rainforest to Zak and convinces him his industrialist ways are wrong. Unfortunately for Crysta, Magi, Pip and all the other residents of Fern Gully - including a bat who has escaped an animal testing lab - Zak's team has unwittingly released Hexxus from his tree prison and the malevolent force is now in control of the loggers and sending them toward the heart of Fern Gully.

Some people might want to resist the idea that gender issues come into Fern Gully: The Last Rainforest at all, but considering how the whole point of the film is to make statements on capitalism and the environment, it is difficult to argue that no attention was paid to the gender issues. Largely, though, men in the movie are strong and smart (or strong and lazy behind very powerful machines) and women are fun, emotive and magical. There are pretty obvious roles as Crysta is an apprentice to Magi Lune and Zak is mostly a slacker who is ignorant of the work he is doing.

The point of Fern Gully: The Last Rainforest is to educate viewers to the effect of the destruction of the rainforest and this is done pretty explicitly by Crysta through her encounter with Zak. Unfortunately, the most explicit the film ever gets is that cutting down the rainforest is likely to release the evil entrapped there and/or destroy the natural habitat of fairies, but the film works wonderful as a metaphor. Of course Hexxus represents the unrestrained greed and destructive nature of true free-market capitalism. To that end, Zak is merely a tool and Fern Gully: The Last Rainforest teaches people of all ages that they have the power to resist being a cog in a machine.

Similarly, Batty sings songs and illustrates the unfortunate aspects of animal testing without ever stepping over the line of good taste. Unfortunately, for a film that has the potential to be scary - Hexxus is gross and animated in a way where it is powerful and terrifying - writers Jim Cox and Diana Young fall short of truly exposing the evils they only allude to. We never see a pile of dead bats discarded from the animal testing laboratory, only a strangely witless one who managed to escape. Similarly, outside showing a deforested area and acknowledging how the beauty of the area has been robbed, the true magnitude of the effects of deforestation are not explored. We do not see the animals overcrowded into the last remnants of Fern Gully going feral on one another, for example.

Still, the animation is remarkably good (there are a few frames where the movement is clunky) and the characters are generally well-drawn. Crysta is a fun protagonist and she is well-presented as a big-eyed fairy flittering around the whole movie. Similarly, Zak is realistically shocked to find himself only a few inches tall and he and Crysta play off one another well. Batty becomes a fun sidekick to Crysta and makes the comments she is too innocent to in order to put Zak in his place and the dynamic between the three is a good one. The main vocal talents in the film are Samantha Mathis, Jonathan Ward, and Robin Williams, with Tim Curry coming in late to the film as Hexxus. All do an excellent job of emoting and presenting their characters.

Fern Gully: The Last Rainforest is a brightly colored, energetic film that looks great on DVD. The two-disc special edition my partner picked up is loaded with games, a commentary track, and featurettes on the importance of the movie and its relevance both for kids and as a social statement. There are trailers - it's actually neat to see how the studio tried to sell the movie to audiences there - and a somewhat disturbing music video by Tone Loc for his song from the movie "If I'm Gonna Eat Somebody (It Might As Well Be You)." The games especially will keep kids entertained for quite some time and they are fully family friendly.

All in all, Fern Gully: The Last Rainforest is a worthwhile movie that does teach a valuable lesson and it is a shame it did not have the commercial success that would have raised an army of environmentalists into the current generation. Still, because it endures on DVD perhaps there is still a chance . . .

For other movies for young people or animated films, please check out my reviews of:
Happy Feet
Hookwinked Too! Hood Vs. Evil


For other film reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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