Directed by Bill Kroyer
Written by Jim Cox (based on the novella by Diana Young)
I promise I have more interesting things to say about FernGully: The Last Rainforest, but what we'll start with is, at least, more interesting than my first impulse, which was to bitch about its title's typography: it is, presumably, the best film ever made as a present from a film producer to his wife by an Australian insurance company. The movie producer in question was Wayne Young, and his wife was—or is, as I've had some trouble running down their biographical data—Diana Young. By 1990, Diana had created a little paracosmos called FernGully, wherein fairies used magic to maintain and defend their rain forest habitat and taught at least one human the value of the environment. Or I assume she'd gotten that far: I call it a "paracosmos" not to infantalize her but because, as near as I can tell, Diana hadn't actually written FernGully yet. The book seems to be based on the movie as much as the other way around, complete with an acknowledgment of gratitude to the movie's screenwriter, Jim Cox, so that the situation takes on the strange complexion of a man going halfway across the world to get his wife a children's book deal and possibly even to incentivize her to finish it. Nevertheless, she seems like a very earnest woman, and her husband a very earnest man; Youngheart, the production company they formed for FernGully, has a LinkedIn from not that many years ago, still propounding the ethos of the film they instigated, still bearing its coda, "for our children and our children's children."
I have no idea how Wayne managed it—his only prior producer credit is Crocodile Dundee, and maybe he had Australiana fad money to throw around, though I half-wonder if he was pretending to more clout than he had—but somehow he convinced Australia's Fire and All Risks Insurance to start FAI Films, solely to make a cartoon about saving the planet. Then Wayne went to Los Angeles and, armed with a list of recent Oscar animated short film nominees, he came to the door of Bill and Susan Kroyer, who in 1990 maintained a small animation firm that I only can't call "literally mom-and-pop" because I'm not sure if the Kroyers had kids. The Kroyers' stock-in-trade was actually CGI: Bill had cut his teeth on TRON with Steven Lisberger, and acquired that Oscar nomination for 1988's "Technological Threat" (Susan also worked on it), this being an amusingly-hypocritical gag short revolving around the formal conceit of early—very early—CGI character animation at odds with traditional character animation, in a story about systematically murdering CGI robots lest they take your job. In the meantime, the couple had managed contract work, sometimes CGI (1990's Jetsons: The Movie), sometimes not (the UPA-ish animated opening to 1989's Honey, I Shrunk the Kids). The supposition would be that Australia had nobody, or else Young always planned on playing up his Canadian girlfriend of an American animation studio to his backers, but whatever the case, he asked the Kroyers if they could make a theatrical feature film to compete with Walt Disney with a final budget of $24 million. It is bad-ass as hell that they said "yes," but it's badder-ass still that they did it.
I love that this is how FernGully came to be, which is why I've gone overboard on its history. Like 90s environmentalism, it's not a story with the happiest ending—the Kroyers did not become important fixtures in the industry, and for Bill, who took the directorial credit (though I don't think it's too much to say that Susan, who took numerous credits, was effectively a co-director), it would turn out to be his last feature directorial turn (he's still a working animator... on the new DNEG Garfield movie)—but at least the story has a happy middle. That part of the story is "hardscrabble underdogs made a movie that's never been forgotten": the Kroyers had to build a whole organization out of the losers and cast-offs and malcontents of the animation game in the 1980s, and despite the inevitable ephemerality of the association, their team came out of it with enough mutual affection to show up to FernGully reunions years down the line.
But I promised an interesting part, and I almost glossed over it: Bill Kroyer was himself one of those losers and cast-offs and malcontents from the animation game in the 1980s, one of the innumerable Disney veterans—though "veteran" might be pushing it, since not counting TRON (which you shouldn't) he worked on only one Disney cartoon, The Fox and the Hound—who flipped the Mouse the bird and walked away, because fuck The Black Cauldron. And Goddamn, that is FernGully: a movie that looks and feels exactly, thrillingly like a Disney movie made ten years earlier, or, better yet, still eleven years after The Fox and the Hound, but now in some crazy alternate universe where Disney got its shit together in an entirely different way than it actually did—by all means, in a less complete and less revolutionary way, but that's what makes it so interesting. Disney, under new management, was presently taking a quantum leap into tomorrow; the Kroyers were stuck with ten years of iterative improvements to the clunky technology of the 1980s to make their own independent Disney-style movie, so that when their movie came out in 1992, it wasn't all that close to "the Disney style" anymore, not after The Rescuers Down Under and Beauty and the Beast and the advent of CAPS, the medium-redefining digital ink-and-paint-system developed by Pixar (founded by another Black Cauldron refugee). (And that's one of the other things about FernGully: where do you think the painters on FernGully came from? The Kroyers are not crystal clear about it, but it's also obvious that then-independent 20th Century Fox's lawyers forbade them from saying so much as the word "Disney" in relation to FernGully, or even mentioning any Disney film, so their commentary track somehow omits acknowledging Fantasia's "Nutcracker Suite," despite the approximately five hundred homages to it. Well, the bulk of the job was done in Korea, though a significant chunk of primary work was accomplished in-house.) I've tried to be as diligent as possible, and I think I'm right to say so: this is the very last traditionally-animated American feature film that, as that "tradition" was understood in 1992, had real pop cultural impact.*
"But the films of the Disney Renaissance are traditionally-animated," someone might say, and someone would be sort-of right and sort-of wrong; I hold, only slightly facetiously, that "traditional" animation has barely existed for sixty-five years. The critical event here is 1961's 101 Dalmatians, marking the introduction of xerography, with which Walt and Roy Disney, giddy in their greed, fired their "useless" inking staff. (Whose function was essentially replaced, eventually, with more clean-up animators.) I am, of course, on record as saying xerography sucks, with a limited aesthetic applicability despite it being the default aesthetic for all American animation for three decades; but it also improved greatly over time, culminating in the Animation Photo Transfer process at Disney, which afforded the one masterpiece of xerography in feature films, The Little Mermaid, right before getting thrown into history's dustbin. (To be clear, of course I am not saying that FernGully looks, or is, as good as The Little Mermaid. But the quality of FernGully's line resembles Disney's APT—mostly the more advanced stage of APT represented by The Little Mermaid, and sometimes, unfortunately, the unimpressive experimental phase represented by The Black Cauldron—more than any true old-school xerography.) In any event, while The Rescuers Down Under and digital painting didn't occasion a purge like 101 Dalmatians did, the Kroyers are pretty clear that FernGully benefited from the redundancies at some not-explicitly-identified company (on top of outright talent poaching, which occasioned a small feud with Jeffrey Katzenberg that's likely the reason the Kroyers were advised against mentioning "Disney" on a Fox home video commentary).
I have, regrettably, pushed back discussing the movie itself—but you've probably seen FernGully. The story, as you know, is just a knock-off of Avatar with a more mature, less wish-fulfilling ending (I may have my dates mixed up here). So: in a corner of Australia there is the fairy, Crysta (Samantha Mathis), student to the shaman Magi Lune (Grace Zabriskie), the latter introducing us to their world during its striking opening sequence inspired by Aboriginal art (which somewhat implies humans evolved in Australia, but whatever). She tells us of the long-ago time before the coming of the spirit of extinction, Hexxus (Tim Curry), who killed all the humans, and almost killed the fairies, too, before the fairies' magic put a stop to him. Crysta is skeptical that all the humans could have died, and maintains a curiosity in general about the vast world beyond FernGully, so that despite frolics with her fairy pal Pip (Christian Slater) and other denizens of the forest, she's driven to investigate a pillar of smoke she spies on the horizon. Inevitably, these are Crysta's precious humans—we know they're loggers sent to cut down this forest, though Crysta can't understand that yet. Their number includes Zak (Jonathan Ward), whom she saves from a tree felled by the forest-eating "monster" (Zak's friends' admittedly-terrifying logging machine), but only by accidentally shrinking him with fairy magic. Thus reduced in size and power, and also immediately smitten with the scantily-clad bug-woman, Zak finds it expedient to pretend he was trying to protect the trees with magic sigils rather than marking them for timber. This goes well enough until his colleagues destroy one very special tree, the even-more-evil-looking-than-usual boab that has, these eons, been Hexxus's prison. Hexxus bends the loggers to his will, and his will has but one object: the destruction of first the fairies who trapped him, then all life on Earth.
Also, somewhere between this and that, a rapping cyborg bat flies screaming out of the clear blue sky, his time as an experimental test subject having primed him to serve as comic relief (this would be Robin Williams, and while FernGully has a remarkably stacked cast for an indie film already, obviously this was the get). Well, Avatar certainly doesn't have a rapping bat. FernGully has a rapping bat and a rapping varanid lizard (Tone Loc with lyrics from Jimmy Buffet, in case this wasn't too strange and 90s enough for you already).
So FernGully's a musical too, a "make it exactly like Disney" imposition upon the Kroyers and Cox, but one they accepted readily enough, and principal songwriter Thomas Dolby ensured it would be a pretty dang decent integrated musical. It might beat anything Disney had made prior to The Little Mermaid—which wouldn't be a fair comparison—at least as far as the density of its songs (those raps are practically right on top of one another) and their usefulness go. And it's still not trying to be The Little Mermaid: for a lot of it, it's still "being an animated musical" in ways that Disney in the 70s and 80s did animated musicals, to the extent that the big love ballad, "A Dream Worth Keeping," is a non-diegetic pop song montage. (I would also point to Alan Silvestri's score, which isn't even doing Disney-in-the-80s, but something more like Don Bluth's movies, with a lot of excellent, mystic filigree, notably synthesizers that sound like otherworldly choral voices.)
The raps are, somehow, almost the most integrated songs in the film—frankly, I like them, though I'm not sure how much "time capsule" irony is going into me liking them—and they both serve wholesome narrative functions: the self-describing "Batty Rap," besides introducing the character and being (some value of) funny, prefigures the conflict between nature and human rapine, posing a warning to Crysta to not trust humans, even if she's foreordained to ignore it**; the lizard rap, "If I'm Gonna Eat Somebody (It Might As Well Be You)," re-introduces us to nature from Zak's perspective, as a terrified, weenie human reduced to a potential meal for a goanna***, plus Tone Loc is always an enjoyable vocal presence in small doses. (As for Williams and Batty, let's take a moment to recognize that he makes for good Disney-style Sidekick Comic Relief, which is of course not going to startle anybody on this side of 1992, but outside of how arbitrarily his character is inflicted upon the narrative—which I can't get mad at, for it's a 76 minute film, and that obliges it to take numerous shortcuts, of which this is only the brusquest—he's suprisingly unobtrusive, and even useful thematically, standing somewhere between us and the film to comment upon human perfidy. This makes him a more palatable joke engine than a goofy, inept clown of a bat should be, particularly one with a built-in mechanic for manic Williamsisms, in the form of the radio device horrifically stuffed inside his brain by human science. Now, it's never as good as the outside-time-and-space mechanic of Genie, and it doesn't ever lead to as good results, but it's all reasonably cute, and more-or-less justifies the rapid-fire impressions we were going to get one way or another.)
Still, neither rap is the song from FernGully, that title correctly belonging to the weird, loungey "Toxic Love," a shockingly fully-formed Disney-style villain number given the absence of virtually any precursors—really just "Poor Unfortunate Souls"—sung by Curry on behalf of Hexxus and powered by the unmistakable suggestion that pollution turns him on, sexually. It's a terrific piece of villain song staging, too—the musical numbers all use animation to bolster them, and vice versa—and while we should circle back to Hexxus's animation, that animation, the almost-abstract staging, and Curry's commitment all combine to distract from some inordinately clumsy lyrics, probably most blatantly just the refrain "you're going to love my toxic love," which at least sounds better in the song, but above all the world-class terrible couplet, made worse by being put in the mouth (or mouthlike organ) of a deathless spirit of environmental degradation: "filthy brown acid rain/pouring down like egg chow mein." But it's not easy to forget Curry's rendition of that first part, "FIL-thy BROWN... ASS-id rain."
Sparing a word for our leads, then, they're fine; as a Mathis fan, it's difficult to comprehend how they could put her and Slater in a movie together and not give Slater the male romantic lead role, other than if it's because their post-Pump Up the Volume relationship had already wound down (which shouldn't have mattered anyhow, since we find them in 1996's Broken Arrow picking up exactly where they'd left off). Ward is serviceable as a dumb blond California-coded bro, and Mathis is a bit better than that as a guileless naif; on the animation front, things get flipped, Zak being the better-animated of the pair, courtesy lead Chrsystal Klabunde (I'm fond of a stressed reaction shot during their "Dreams" frolic montage that's the movie's funniest joke), while Crysta, split between several animators but mostly Doug Frankel, is recipient of a design from S. Kroyer that maybe goes too far in caricaturing Mathis as a dumb innocent (to the extent I wasn't sure she was a caricature of Mathis, until I saw a picture of Zabriskie, whose Magi Lune is 100% a caricature of her), with a tendency (for good and ill) to be drawn with lust in her animators' hearts, as well as a tendency (always for ill) to save time by not always drawing her face moving if she's not speaking, or remembering that hair is subject to gravity and wind, particularly while flying. And we will get to her flight animation. But it all works as the boy-meets-magical-girl sketch it needs us to meet it at; the "Dreams" montage is, even with its weaknesses, lovely, and ends on a classy, subtle, but amusing gag that can be interpreted as anything on the romantic comedy spectrum from "walking on air" to "metaphor for an accidental but welcome erection."
The show here, for character animation, is Hexxus (arguably all the rest of the "top ten animated characters from FernGully" slots are taken by animals, including some appearing only in single shots, though I kind of even mean this as a compliment). Well, despite not having that much screentime, Hexxus was complicated enough to require the devoted attentions of two leads, Kathy Zielinski and John Allan Armstrong, who may not have had all the same ideas about him—mostly in a productive way that keeps him mercurial and gross and capable of being frightening in forms as diverse as a sickeningly-wonderfully-animated blob, an oil stain of a ghost, and a rotoscoped ebon skeleton with a heart made out of backlit fire (plus the weird choice from Zielinski to give him a floating, detached skull, which B. Kroyer asserts was an assistant's mistake, but as a design feature consistent across an entire sequence it was almost certainly deliberate, whether we disagree with it or not). Hexxus is basically all effects animation, and some really amazing and expressive and distinctive effects animation (there's all sorts of great beats, though I think my favorite is during "Toxic Love" where he first appears as a poisonous cloud, splitting into four or five different faces all singing with their own Curry voice, which immediately eat each other; the grace note at the end where he closes the funnel cap to get intimate with the logging machine's exhaust is also fantastic).
But at this point, if we're talking about effects animation, we're talking the texture of the film generally, and my thesis is that FernGully looks great, but with huge caveats. It is, I would aver, something close to a masterpiece of background design and color styling: in the latter capacity, art director Ralph Eggleston came up with a simple but profoundly effective color theme that tells the story as well as the actual story does, about an hour of lusciously verdant greens giving way to dead browns and then infernal reds as things turn against our heroes (there's a great cut with a dozen frames of poppy birds-of-paradise immediately replaced with a bleak hellscape), and alongside fellow art director Victoria Jenson, although it's possible this was just a matter of production reality, the backdrops that essay this color theme, which have always wanted you to notice the handicraft of their gouache construction, start getting much more impressionstic and abstract as things get scarier and more dominated by a giant oily smoke monster riding a logging tank. There is likewise the impressive kineticism with the way these backdrops get used—befitting a film with a lot of flight, it's extremely dynamic and three-dimensional in its staging, despite the necessity of cumbersomely old-fashioned multiplane, and there is an immersive sense of the scale of FernGully as seen from fairy point-of-view; the effects animation keeps up, with the one very salient exception, but this includes some outstanding water animation and, recalling that the Kroyers were CGI-peddlers, some even more outstanding machine-traced/hand-painted CGI so that we can, for instance, swiftly race down a mighty Amazon of a jungle stream, beneath a canopy of river plants. (The logging tank is also CGI.) It's also worth noting, considering how often traditional animation would fuck this up, how good FernGully is at integrating animated background elements with its background paintings.
And then there's the unavoidable fact that, for all its constrained but real technical splendor, it's still cheaper than it needs to be, and that cheapness screams like a baby in the night: it has some terrific lighting effects and an agreeably nostalgic reliance upon 80s backlighting for its frequent glowy magic stuff, yet, as the Kroyers will happily acknowledge, they simultaneously couldn't afford more than about a dozen drop shadows for the entire film; and I've been arguing with myself for hours whether to take a full point off for how utterly distracting every last shot of fairies in flight is, and as this is nearly every shot of the fairies, it's also most shots in the movie. In the making-of featurette, there's a stray observation that the designers were debating whether the fairies should have wings—yeah, really!—but the movie that got made demonstrates how that question even came up: they could not afford to credibly move those wings. Even cheating like mad with obscuring, backlit "magic," which the Kroyers will pretend has a story logic rationale (it doesn't), it's not nearly enough to hide that there is only the occasional, physics-optional flutter of these wings as their owners move or float through the air. I understand it—the translucency made it a multiple-pass problem, and it probably would've added millions of dollars to the budget to get it "right"—but it is enervating. (And the most dubious part of the movie's secondary cast, the Beetle Boys (wow, Cheech and Chong?)—tiny people who ride beetles and, confusingly, aren't fairies—are even worse: those beetles they fly don't even have their wings exposed.)
This one part of the movie hurts it enormously in my eyes, because most everything else about it I adore: I'm a sucker for ecofables, rushed elemental romances, and backlighting effects supporting mystical mumbo-jumbo, so that even the most abtruse part of the film's story (its Obi-Wan gesture, which feels like it's missing crucial exposition) doesn't bother me in the slightest. But then I think on it, and in a way it's only a special case of how FernGully was manufactured, on paper and on plastic, and in camera, in a way that made it almost the last of its kind by the time it was released into the world. Not quite paradoxically, having so much of it made mechanically, rather than digitally, affords it a tremendously organic feel—you can so clearly perceive the hands that operated those machines, sometimes very literally when you have outright shit like a misregistration of animation frames under the camera. It's dirty, it's messy, the xerography is an embarrassment whenever they quixotically attempt to outline Crysta's black hair against a dark background. But it feels tangible and alive, as a story like this should, and for all that digital ink-and-paint rightfully was the future, the sterility it could sometimes occasion is never even a possibility here.
*1993's Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is an argument, though it has the problems of Batman: Mask of the Phantasm being neither a hit nor, in a completely robust sense of the term, American.
**It's also the one full sequence where the Kroyers experiment with digital ink-and-paint, albeit a system clearly more primitive than CAPS.
***Oh my God, Rescuers Down Under? "Joanna"? That movie absolutely just keeps on giving.