Thursday, February 5, 2015

Blast from the Past Movie Review: Fern Gully (1992)

For my friend Nick's podcast Myopia: Defend Your Childhood, we watched the 1992 environmental film Ferngully - The Last Rainforest. Here's the individual podcast. Let the games begin...

The Plot

Young fairy Crysta is not interested in the lessons her mentor-figure Magi is trying to teach her. Instead, she's more interested in learning more about humans, whom the fairy population of the Australian rain forest near Mount Warning think have been extinct for thousands of years, ever since a volcanic eruption unleashed the demonic Hexxus. Some mysterious smoke on the horizon and the arrival of a mentally ill, traumatized bat signal the return of humans, who are logging the nearby forests with a gigantic scary logging machine. Crysta uses magic to shrink logger Zach to save him from being accidentally killed by said machine, which soon frees Hexxus from his tree prison. Trouble ensues...

The Good

*The background animation was quite often beautiful and well-done. I prefer 2D old-fashioned animation to the 3D Pixar-style stuff that's more popular these days, so it's always good to go back to a time when that animation ruled. And it's always good to see something not done by Disney.

*There are some good symbolic bits like when Crysta touches an "X" marked on a tree to be logged and her hand comes away covered in what looks like blood. It's red paint, but the effect is what's important.

*Robin Williams, who plays the experimented-on escaped lab bat Batty Koda, did a very good job voice-acting. I liked how the character despised humans and even tried to get Zach killed early on, which given his back-story makes a lot of sense.

*Although my fellow podcasters didn't seem to agree with me, I liked the "Batty Rap," in which Williams raps about being experimented on by humans. According to some of the material I've read about the movie, the song had to be toned down due to how dark it gets when you listen to the lyrics. Another good song is "Toxic Love," sung by none other than Tim Curry. Finally, I liked the rap number by Tone-Loc in which he voices a goanna lizard that tries to eat Zach.

*The jerkish fairy Pips has a character arc. Although he's hostile toward Zach--whom he recognizes as a rival for Crysta's affection--he does save him from falling to his death and helps him get into the logging machine to deactivate it. Considering how downright nasty his facial expressions get in the scene where Zach uses his fallen Walkman to lead the other fairies in a musical number, there's definitely some bad emotions to overcome. And Batty overcomes his prejudices against humans, at least as far as Zach is concerned.

*Although Hexxus looks a lot like a smoky version of Oogie Boogie from The Nightmare Before Christmasfor most of the film, his final appearance as a skeletal monstrosity breathing fire and wearing a cloak of tar is quite impressive. Very reminiscent of the "Nightmare on Bald Mountain" sequence from Fantasia.

*Although it's an environmentalist film, humans are not depicted as destroying the environment for no reason. Instead humans make poor decisions based on lack of respect for something they don't really understand and short-sightedness. It's the demonic Hexxus who spurs the loggers on toward deliberate destruction (to take revenge for the fairies imprisoning him), something they don't really question because it means overtime.

The Bad

*The movie kind of dragged in many places. The romantic song between Zach and Crysta in which they romp through the rain forest was a particularly bad offender. Considering how the movie isn't even an hour and a half long, the fact that it's dull in any places at all is particularly damning.

*The dialogue was very late 1980s/early 1990s, with such wonders as "tubular" and "bodacious babe." It was like watching Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles again, but not in a good way.

*Hexxus has been imprisoned in the tree since the Stone Age, but in "Toxic Love," he references diesel fuel, acid rain, and egg chow mein, things he should have no idea about. As TVTropes put it, does he have cable in his tree?

*And speaking of the Stone Age, the fairies call Mount Warning by its Western name rather than its Aboriginal one (Wallumbin). Since their last contact with humans was with Australian Aborigines (see my bit about the opening later), this would make more sense. I can understand concerns the producers might have that the viewers wouldn't know the Aboriginal name, but Crysta could refer to the mountain as Wallumbin and Zach doesn't initially recognize it, then snaps his fingers to say "Mount Warning."

*The environmental message was kind of heavy-handed and there was some serious anarcho-primitivist stuff going on. When Zach asks Crysta what she does for a job, she doesn't seem to know what a "job" actually is. And of course capitalism (fallen trees transform into coins in "Toxic Love") and machines (Crysta thinks the logging machine is a monster) are destroying the pure, natural environment where nobody is in danger of starving and the endemic predation is only vaguely touched on. It wasn't as obnoxious and heavy-handed as I remember Captain Planet being, but that's a pretty low bar to jump. I have no objection to films teaching environmental lessons, but subtlety can be a good thing.

*The opening artwork is done in the style of Australian aboriginal art, but the opening music gives off a very Caribbean steel-drums vibe. Since this was a joint Australian-American co-production and Mount Warning is a real mountain, why not have at least some Australian Aboriginal music? Bringing in some didgeridoos would have been cool.

*The movie takes place in Australia, but nobody has an Australian accent. Even if having a largely American cast was necessary to get the movie funded, they could at least try to do the accent. And they could have at least employed Australians for some of the characters. Thanks to the Crocodile Dundee films, Paul Hogan was big at this point. He'd sound too old to do Zach or Pips, but maybe Krista's dad or one of the older guys driving the logging machine?

*The animation quality was often inconsistent. In the scene where Crysta approaches the mysterious source of smoke, the smoke moves against a background that looks like a still painting. Toward the end when Zach is climbing down from the scary logging machine, the whole scene looks washed out.

*The sound mixing needed work. Seriously, sometimes things get LOUD out of nowhere.

*"Magi" is both the character's name and job description. Come on. They could have been more creative than that.

The Verdict

See it once, maybe. 5 out of 10.

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