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Ferngully - The Last Rainforest

Fox // G // October 18, 2005
List Price: $19.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by David Cornelius | posted March 15, 2006 | E-mail the Author
Right about the time the fairies in "FernGully: The Last Rainforest" had discovered a Walkman and began jamming to a dopey, soulless remake of "Land of 1000 Dances," that's when I realized I really, really wanted to walk out of the theater. I was on a date, though, so skipping off was out of the question: looks like I was stuck for good. Jump ahead some fourteen years, and again, it's that darn scene again, and no, I'm still not allowed to leave the film midway. This time, though, it's because I'm stuck doing a review of the darn thing. Oh, professional obligations, how you love to torment me.

I was hoping that my negative memories of the film had been overstated, as has happened before. (After all, I didn't like "The Lion King" when I first saw it, and I'm not too ashamed to admit I was wrong.) Or, if nothing else, my daughter would get a kick out of it, as she's at that age where she gets a kick out of anything, especially if there are fairies involved. Alas, she was quite bored, enjoying a few moments here and there, but generally tuning out. I know how she feels.

"FernGully," despite being quite lovely in a few brief moments, is generally cloying and preachy, a self-important environmental message piece that only Sting could love. The film ends with a dedication to "our children and our children's children," a comment which reeks of arrogance and leaves us feeling talked down to.

The story involves a lush tropical paradise, watched over by fairies who heal plants through the power of life. The forest is being threatened by intruding humans, our entire species represented by two bumbling New Joisy construction goons and some vapid city boy named Zak who's taken a summer job spray painting trees, marking them for demolition.

Zak (voiced by Jonathan Ward) is saved from being crushed by a tree when Crysta (Samantha Mathis), a fairy princess of sorts (there's no real hierarchy in FernGully, but that's as good a description as any, I suppose), shrinks him down to fairy height; he then learns his human ignorance has prevented him from knowing that the trees are hurting, that the planet is worth saving, that wildlife is better than city life. Meanwhile, a smog monster called Hexxus (Tim Curry) has been freed from his tree prison and has taken over the construction goons' tree-crusher, forcing them to head toward FernGully, the fairies' home.

It is, of course, and understatement to call this heavy-handed. There is no subtlety here, not with Hexxus' destruction, not with Zak's naïve carelessness toward nature, not with the character of Batty Koda, a bat who has escaped a research facility and who has no trust for those nasty humans.

Batty, by the way, is voiced by Robin Williams, his first cartoon role. (This was released months before "Aladdin.") It's typical Williams chaos, but unlike "Aladdin," which found a way to rein Williams in and fit his manic comic style into its story, the Williams of "FernGully" is too out of place, a frenzied performance in a world that's otherwise subdued. He feels dumped in from another movie, added just so we can have an obligatory comic sidekick, never mind if he's actually worth it. Plus, the movie asks him to rap, the results being even more embarrassing than it sounds.

It does not help that the filmmakers insist on making a musical but refuse to hire a single songwriter to provide a common thread to the soundtrack. Thomas Dolby supplies the most tunes, but never in a consistent style: Johnny Clegg performs Dolby's tropical-sounding opening track, Williams does the lame rap, and Curry does a Broadway-esque number. Meanwhile, Tone-Loc pops by to rap a song co-written by Jimmy Buffet (a man who should not be writing rap songs), Sheena Easton gets stick singing the traditional-Disney-sounding love theme, Elton John appears during the closing credits with one of his forgettable Elton John filler tunes, and child-friendly performer Raffi tosses in an annoying ditty about the rain just to round things out. The result of this grab bag is a musical whose music does nothing to help the story or at the very least the tone of the piece; instead, each tune brings the film to a screeching halt.

What's most upsetting about this movie's failure is that it has such potential. The painted backgrounds are quite lush and lovely; if only the character animation, which is weaker and far less impressive, could have been up to the same quality standards. The movie's message is a good one; if only the filmmakers could have scaled it back a bit, taking a more gentle approach with the movie's themes. The fairies-as-defenders-of-nature idea is an interesting one; if only it hadn't been wasted on a story so uninteresting.

Ultimately, "FernGully" is a film that will only impress very young viewers. Those old enough to appreciate the morals of the story are not likely to enjoy the cloying situations and mediocre presentation. It is second-rate, uninspiring, and quite forgettable.

The DVD

The movie does have its fans, though, as evident by the many positive comments found across the Internet - and as evident by Fox's decision to re-release the film on DVD, this time in a two-disc deluxe version under the studio's "Family Fun Edition" banner. The upgrade is bound to please fans, who were previously stuck with a no-frills edition.

Video

"FernGully" is offered here in both its original 1.85:1 widescreen aspect ratio (with anamorphic enhancement) and a 1.33:1 pan-and-scan chop job. Both versions were available on the previous release, and as such, I believe these are the same transfers as before. (There is nothing on the packaging to indicate otherwise.) I only glanced at the full screen version (because hey, who needs it?), but it looks to be the same quality as the widescreen offering - which is to say, pretty nice. The image has been cleaned up without overdoing it. There's some film grain visible from time to time, but mostly the visuals are clean and enjoyable. In one shot, there's a bit of ghosting, but that looks to be a remnant from the original animation. The colors are a bit more subdued than they should be, but (if memory serves) this, too, is taken from the original source, which was never as bright and colorful as it could (should) have been.

Audio

The 5.1 Dolby Surround track is more serviceable than impressive, although sounds involving thunder and other bass-producing noises are commendably presented. Also included are French (surround) and Spanish (stereo) tracks. Optional English and Spanish subtitles are available.

Extras

Disc One features a commentary track with director Bill Kroyer and art directors Susan Kroyer and Ralph Eggleston, all of whom have fond memories of their project but, thankfully, never resort to gushiness. Their discussion is informative and is sure to please admirers of the film.

A featurette comparing five key scenes to their script and original storyboards. It will be of interest only to serious animation devotees. The optional commentary from screenwriter Jim Cox is a bit dry, but if you're willing to sit through all of this, you might as well get the additional info, if only to help pass the time.

Disc Two begins with a 30-minute making-of, "From Paper To Tree." The feature contains new interviews with the filmmakers, animators, and Samantha Mathis (the only voice actor to show up for a retrospective - Williams, Ward, and co-star Christian Slater are notoriously absent), mixed with archival footage of in-studio shenanigans and vocal recording sessions. While some of the information given here is repeated in the commentary, it's nice to see firsthand some of the animation processes being discussed. (Much is made of the film's early use of computer assistance in the animation process.)

A vintage 1992 EPK featurette is also included. At a brief six minutes, it only has time for publicity filler and has most likely only been included on this disc to please completists.

"Behind the Voice: Toxic Love" is a multi-angle feature that allows the viewer to toggle between the "Toxic Love" scene from the movie, the storyboards, footage from Tim Curry's recording session (just him standing at a microphone, really), and a screen featuring all three images crammed tightly together. It's a curiosity, nothing more, and it's not bound to earn repeat viewings.

Tone-Loc's video for "If I'm Gonna Eat Somebody (It Might As Well Be You)" rounds out the "featurettes" section of the disc. It's such a cheap production that I wonder if even lifelong Tone-Loc fanatics could admire it.

Filling up a solid chunk of disc space is a series of games - the "Family Fun" portion of the evening. There are eight in all: "Creatures of the Rainforest," "Sound Pools," "Save Batty!," "Grow a Tree," "Capture Hexxus," "Sounds of the Rainforest," "Pips' Pan Pipe," and "Out of the Forest." Some are trivia-related, others are educational pieces about the forest, and others still are remote-centric reaction games. All are intended for young children, none are noteworthy.

Finally, we get three trailers (oddly, the first is in anamorphic 2.35:1, the second in non-anamorphic 1.85:1, and the third is in 1.33:1 full screen) and three TV spots. All are soft and grainy, showing their age.

Aside from the trailers, all extras are presented in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio; clips from the movie as seen in the featurettes are in pan-and-scan format.

Final Thoughts

Fans of the movie will appreciate the commentary and the half-hour documentary (although they're likely to ignore the filler), and for you, I'd definitely recommend upgrading to this release. Those unfamiliar with the film, however, are missing nothing by staying away; the weakness of the movie itself combined with the blandness of the fluffier bonus material suggest I say just to skip it. To be fair, I'll compromise, granting this one a Rent It.
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