FILM / Trees a crowd: FernGully: The Last Rainforest reviewed

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The Independent Culture
ROBIN WILLIAMS' peformance in FernGully: The Last Rainforest (U), where he supplies the voice for Batty Koda, the brain-damaged bat, proves once and for all that this wonderfully gifted comedian should only do cameos. When his screen time is restricted, his talent goes into manic overdrive - a case in point being his marvellous King of the Moon in Terry Gilliam's Munchausen - and he forgets how much he needs to be loved. Parents taking their children to this greener-than-thou entertainment over the summer holidays are likely to enjoy themselves more than they bargained for.

Environmental issues are creeping up the agenda in Hollywood (as witness the recent Medicine Man), despite the inevitable hypocrisy of a greedy industry taking a high moral line. An ecological cartoon like FernGully seems to be a contradiction in terms for a different reason. No medium is less capable of conveying the meaning of the word 'last', so prominent in the film's subtitle, than animation - where nothing need have consequences and everything is reversible. Then again, animation works by bringing things to life, but specifically to our kind of life. It's a magic that is less generous than it seems, more truly childlike, even solipsistic, and it can't hope to respect the otherness of other places and species.

Never mind. Most of what passes for ecological thinking is wish fulfilment anyway. What is interesting about FernGully is that an entertainment perfectly willing to oversimplify and to talk down to its target audience should still be riven with tensions and contradictions.

Magi Lune, looking and sounding like Angela Lansbury though voiced by Grace Zabriskie, is a tree fairy, a sort of miniature Green Witch. She tries to pass on the fertilising touch to her protegee Crysta, a sort of bimbo Tinkerbell with naturally red lips and a do-it-yourself ragged bikini reminiscent of Racquel Welch's in One Million Years BC. Crysta can't seem to get the knack of making things grow until she finds the hero within herself. In a sort of tree fairy variant on thirtysomething, she must re-examine her life and realise what's truly important before growth magic can work.

So, is it an instinct to care for ecology, or is it a skill that must be acquired? Is environmental responsibility a secret we have lost, or something that has never existed? If fairies, who seem to have no place in the food chain, have to work on their emotions before they can give Mother Nature a helping hand, it's hardly surprising that human beings, infinitely more compromised, should share their confusion.

To adult eyes, the rainforest in FernGully is visually cloying, too much like a Green adventure park, a saccharine Eden, even though the 'key creative team' of the film visited forests up and down the north eastern coast of Australia, observing and sketching, and have not set out to sentimentalise the wilderness. It may be partly that the rainforest seems to be run mainly as a vegetarian co-operative, with predation a minority interest. The total body count of the cartoon - unless you count trees, which perhaps you're meant to - is a single snail. Children would learn more about natural processes from five minutes of any David Attenborough film than they could from all of FernGully.

Classic hand-drawn animation is one of the most labour-intensive of all human enterprises; to be an artist for Disney in the Thirties was not far from slave labour. The makers of FernGully, under the command of the director Bill Kroyer, are only moderately Luddite - that is, they like the look of hand-finished cartooning, but they use computers extensively in the early and intermediate stages of the work.

Only the Leveller, the giant tree-eating juggernaut that threatens to destroy the forest, is allowed to look as if it were computer-animated, with the result that it may excite boys of some ages more than anything else in the film, with its dull oranges, hot reds and dynamic greys. It will be a test of the film-makers' good intentions whether, having employed three artists to design the Leveller alone, they will pass up the opportunity of manufacturing it as a toy, to complement the Crysta dolls presumably being mass produced even now under licence.

An oddity of the plot (which is based on the stories that the Australian writer Diana Young started to invent for her young children in 1975) is that evil is not exclusively human. The Leveller is the agent of destruction, but it needs to be taken over by the evil spirit Hexxus, hitherto trapped in a tree by Magi, just as Caliban was confined by Prospero. So it seems that original sin was there in Eden all along.

The sequences of Hexxus oozing as a sort of demonic sap from cut timber inside the Leveller and gradually assuming power are the most inventive in the whole cartoon. It does no harm that he is voiced by Tim Curry, who seems to be having all the fun he might have had as the hooved and horned baddy in Legend, had he not had to wear three tons of make-up.

His gloating production number 'Toxic Love' certainly knocks spots off the pastel ballads and environmentally friendly anthems ('A Dream Worth Keeping', 'It's Raining Light') that accompany the forest folk. In FernGully the devil not only has the best tunes but the best images too.

Even in the forest, though, some pleasures are impure. A character in free fall with a leaf uses it as a surfboard. There is a gang of (I swear) fairy bikers, mounted on the backs of beetles and revving the antennae of their steeds as if they were the handlebars of arthropod Harleys.

The character who sums this up best is Batty Koda, whose free-wheeling improv style is ascribed to his having been fitted with an aerial in a biology lab. In fact the film owes much of its liveliness to this character, as he slips in and out of Zen epigrams, silly voices and movie references. The character of Batty Koda was originated by Diana Young's children, who fed back into their mother's responsible fantasies an element of mischief and instant gratification.

Ecology is a science we need to learn, not a secret we have lost as our species so rapidly developed, a secret which we might expect to find still possessed by our young. What children and cartoons share is a capacity for wish fulfilment. If preserving your habitat was instinctive children would tidy up their rooms without needing to be told. As it is, many parents will find themselves saying this summer, 'I'm not taking you to FernGully until you've put away your toys.'

FernGully opens tomorrow; see facing page for details.

(Photograph omitted)

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