In dabbling through Tim Curry’s filmography a bit more, I have to wonder if he’s been a little type-casted as the charismatic villain; not to say that he isn’t great at it, but I have yet to find a film where he isn’t one of the main antagonists, if not the antagonist. Today is another case of the latter, and again he shines, but luckily I’m not clinging to his small amount of lines as the saving grace for the entire film. Yes, even though Curry’s part is proportionally smaller than any of the other leads, the film is good enough on its own that I’m not left wanting.
FernGully: The Last Rainforest is another one of those films that I watched when I was younger and never saw again for whatever reason. Being a remnant from the 90’s, rife with all that totally cool and radical (and dated) lingo, and an environmental cartoon, I wasn’t expecting it to hold up well. Apparently FernGully not only taught me about forest preservation, but also not to make lazy judgments before I re-watch something. Although the 90’s was strong here, the film more than holds up in the modern era, and even the animation remains gorgeous.
Surprisingly not going out of the whole “magic battles of good and evil” thing I have going on here, FernGully, for those that know it, presents the opposing sides in a blatant way that is accessible to kids, but doesn’t treat these kids like idiots either. Out in the rainforests of Australia, we’re introduced to the excitable fairy Crysta who is currently learning the magic of creation (nature magic) from the wise elder fairy, Magi. Magi reveals that though in the past humans and fairies lived in harmony together, due to a destructive force—Hexxus—the forests were destroyed and the humans went extinct. Eventually, Hexxus was trapped within a tree by Magi, and can cause no further damage. However, Crysta is all too quick to use this as an excuse to abscond from her magic lessons (we’re totally safe now, right?) and instead runs off with her friend/maybe-lover Pips. Feeling adventurous, Crysta ventures above the rainforest’s canopy and in the distance spies a funnel of smoke and a mountain. Excited by this, and none too swayed by the worried words of Pips and his friends, she rushes off to tell Magi about it. Despite Crysta’s fears that it might be Hexxus, Magi reassures her that Hexxus is safely locked away, yet seems less sure of it once Crysta leaves.
Heading off to look at the mountain herself, Crysta runs across a fruit bat, Batty, who warns her about going out there because humans are terrible. Of course, believing that humans no longer exist, and being more intrigued than scared by the prospect of them, Crysta pays these warnings no mind. She does, in fact, find humans. Worse, she finds them cutting down trees. One of these humans is our co-protagonist, Zac: a teenaged city kid who could not give any less of a shit about what he’s doing. As he’s marking off trees to be cut down, he gets distracted by Crysta’s fairy sparkles. He runs after her to catch her, but in the process totally misses the fact that a tree is just about to fall on him. Not wishing this strange human to die, Crysta casts a spell on him to shrink him. He’s not very happy about this.
Surprisingly, he gets over it easily enough once he discovers he’s not actually in a dream. Instead he focuses his efforts on not getting eaten and making Crysta believe he had nothing to do with the trees getting cut down at all. The two spend a little time getting to know each other and their respective cultures, and developing an unnecessary romance. In the meantime, Zac’s co-workers chopped down the tree Hexxus was trapped in, and now Hexxus is feeding off the pollution created by their machines, growing stronger with every moment.
Crysta brings Zac back to FernGully to prove that humans are still alive, and Pips is obviously not pleased with the presence of someone who is macking on his maybe-lover. However, soon the signs of pollution and Hexxus’s return become evident in FernGully and Zac must tell the truth about what is happening and what he inadvertently caused to all the fairies: Zac was the one who, albeit accidentally, marked Hexxus’s tree to be cut down. Unsurprisingly, Crysta is not very happy about this.
Realizing there’s not much the fairies can do as they are, Magi gathers all the fairies together to teach them to use the creation magic they had forgotten in their complacency. However, this costs her her life. Magi’s timing was incredible, though, because Hexxus and the leveler arrive not too long afterwards. With a few fancy moves, Zac and Batty (who Zac won over by telling the truth) manage to get Zac on the leveler, and with Pips’s help, Zac manages to get inside and cut the ignition. Momentarily, it seems as though Hexxus has also died—since he was no longer gaining power from the machine—however, he rises once more as a lava skeleton demon thing. Crysta, whose magic previous to this wasn’t nearly strong enough to combat Hexxus, dives right into Hexxus’s sludge and grows a tree from his insides. With the help of all the fairies, Hexxus is once more trapped inside a tree. Not wanting to let the lessons he learned go to waste, Zac returns to the human world and to normal size and makes a vow to reform how the business he works for runs things, as well as (presumably) fixing the attitudes of as many humans as he can.
What I appreciate about FernGully compared to some other children’s films with environmental messages—like Pom Poko—is that humans aren’t really cast as the villains. Sure, they’re depicted as kind of lazy and oblivious, but I wouldn’t say that’s inaccurate by any means, especially when it comes to preserving the environment. However, humans did not create Hexxus. From the looks of it, Hexxus was formed from a volcanic eruption, thus the reason why the humans got the fuck out of there back in the past as well as the reason why Hexxus could turn into a lava skeleton. Hexxus isn’t human corruption or pollution, he is simply a force of destruction and destruction can be caused by nature just as much as it is caused by humans. The important lesson that kids get from this route is that humans can exacerbate this destruction from negligence: none of the humans want to kill the fairies, but they’re not thinking enough about the effects of what they’re doing. Better yet, the lesson is that people can learn. Humans aren’t doomed to be negligent forever, but we have to educate ourselves and others. This is the kind of activist message I can get behind.
In terms of characters, I really enjoyed Crysta—I liked her back when I watched the movie as a kid, but I’m glad to say that I still like her. She’s curious and excitable, willing to do what others won’t, but at the same time she suffers from a sort of childish trust and naiveté about the word around her. Even as she grows, though, she doesn’t lose her wonder about the world around her. However, I really, really wish her relationship to Magi was expanded on a lot more. Mentor-student relationships between women are so important to see, especially as children. And I feel like more scenes showing the two interact could have really improved Magi’s character and purpose. As is, Magi is an untouchable shaman who knows a lot but only reveals what is necessary, but if Crysta and Magi were supposed to have this mother-daughter relationship that the film was implying (Magi telling Crysta she loves her before she dies; Crysta wanting to tell Magi about every cool thing she sees) then why weren’t the two shown in a closer relationship? Or, at least, why wasn’t it more explicitly stated? It’s difficult to understand the pain Crysta is feeling when Magi dies—outside of “it’s sad when people die”—because we don’t know anything about their relationship. What are they to each other? The movie barely gives us any hints as to why Crysta spends more time around Magi than her own father. Because of this, their relationship feels very superficial.
However, I was surprised to find that barely any of the characters were obnoxious. Zac is somewhat annoying in his slinging around 90’s slang like it’s no big deal kind of way (though I’m willing to admit this is just a personal pet peeve), but he has believable character growth and honestly feels bad for things he’s done, like lying to Crysta. Furthermore, Pips’s jealousy towards Zac was only showed briefly and didn’t end up having an impact on the climax at all. It could have been easy for Pips to be written as a character who totally left Zac to die because he didn’t like him, but in the end, it’s because of their teamwork that the leveler is stopped before it can raze FernGully entirely. Even Batty, token animal comedic sidekick that he is, wasn’t entirely grating. He was even likable. Mostly.
Speaking of which, I’m actually a little uncomfortable with how they treated Batty. (I never thought I’d be saying that for an animal companion…) It’s clear that he’s suffering from some form of PTSD: he mentions something about escaping from a lab and has little off-handed remarks about animal testing. In fact, he has this antennae thing sticking out of his head that acts as some sort of “on-switch” when he’s knocked out and as a radio dial any other time. It’s not clear how it got lodged in his brain, but I think it’s safe to say that it can’t be removed safely (unless that’s in a sequel). However, on more than one occasion, other people use this antennae for their own purposes, most notably Zac in the climax, who used it to switch Batty’s personality to something more aggressive so he wouldn’t run away. I know it’s a comedy thing, but it seems insensitive and really invasive to change someone’s personality, especially when they have no control over it a lot of the time.
Still, I’m glad to see that FernGully is one of the films that can hold up more than twenty years after its initial release. I’m a little less glad that these environmental messages are still extremely relevant, but I guess that makes the dedication of the movie more poignant than ever: “To our children, and our children’s children.” I hope that even forty or fifty years from now, kids and adults are still watching this film and still learning from it—all while having a few laughs along the way.