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Looking Back: Ferngully- The Last Rainforest (1992)

Bill Kroyer’s 1992 animated feature, “Ferngully: The Last Rainforest,” feels like a direct response to the horrific 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. This occurrence, in which 10.8 million gallons of oil was spilled into Alaskan wild life, stands as one of the greatest environmental disasters on record. Images of surviving wild life drenched in black goo or the wild life that didn’t survive, haunted newscasts for months. While the origins of “Ferngully” dated back over a decade earlier, the film’s visuals and themes tie in directly to the impact of the Valdez disaster. While movies with environmental messages, overt or on-the-nose, weren’t unusual in 1992, this was the first time I encountered a children’s film so earnest and out-in-the-open with its environmental message. While dated and best suited for children, there is much here that is noteworthy and admirable.

Opening the same season as the live action, Sean Connery-starring Disney rain forest adventure “Medicine Man,” Samantha Mathis stars, voicing Crysta, a tiny forest fairy who flies around Ferngully and seeks to protect and enhance her environment. The arrival of a construction crew leads to the dopey Zak (voiced by Jonathan Ward) being shrunk and exposed to Crysta’s magic and hidden world. Zak’s nonchalant views toward his job changes once Crysta teaches him that the forest is alive (she has him feel a tree and asks him, “Can you feel its pain?”). Meanwhile, an ancient evil, named Hexus and manifested in the form of Valdez-like black goo, slithers free and attacks Crysta’s world.

Oddly enough, Christian Slater’s engaging Pips isn’t the male love interest but Ward’s lame brained Zak, who calls Crysta a “bodacious babe.” Ward was the engaging star of unjustly forgotten “The New Adventres of Beans Baxter,” one of the first FOX sitcoms but his vocal turn doesn’t draw us in like Slater’s does.

Just in case we’ve forgotten this a 90’s movie with “extreme” touches (on the level of the Kool-Aid Man smashing through a wall), Zak sky surfs on a falling leaf. Totally awesome!

Undoubtedly, Robin Williams vocal turn as Batty Koda (his first  feature in an animated feature and nine months prior to his work as the Genie in “Aladdin”) is the biggest reason to see this. Williams’ performance feels like a tryout for “Aladdin,” though his character here is endearingly daft and adorably pathetic in a way the Genie never was. Batty Koda spouts lots of great one-liners that still land, as Williams’ mind and the tireless animators make for a rich creative fusion.

Thomas Dolby, the pop singer behind “She Blinded Me With Science” and the underrated tunes on the “Howard the Duck” soundtrack, provides Williams with “The Batty Koda Rap,” which would be cringe-worthy, if it weren’t so odd and full of Williams’ obvious personal touches. There came a point late in Williams’ career where his riffing couldn’t save just any movie (“RV” and “Death to Smoochy” are prime examples of this). Here, he’s in full “Good Morning Vietnam” mode, crafting a well etched character (even in a film like this) and occasionally detouring into ripe improvisation.

Opening in between the release of Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” and “Aladdin,” the animation here is mostly consistent in its beauty and detail. “Ferngully: The Last Rainforest” was more impressive when traditionally animated features were frequent and the gloss and precision of CGI was still to come.

While not a Don Bluth film, some of the imagery brings to mind Bluth’s animated sequence from “Xanadu” (the best part of that debacle). Slater and Mathis, who created red-hot chemistry together in “Pump Up the Volume” in 1990, would later re-team for “Broken Arrow” in 1995. Their on-screen work was better served than their time as tiny flying Ferngully fairies. At the very least, “Ferngully: The Last Rainforest” is far better than the awful, all-star “The Earth Day Special,” which also featured Williams and nearly every other movie star on the planet. There are some lovely moments scattered throughout but sometimes the action is too busy and the story is pure formula. The good intentions of the core message are stronger than the story itself.

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