This movie isn’t all bad, but it needed at least five million dollars more and twenty “development meetings” fewer to really cook. It has a great villain, Robin Williams doing a dry run for his Aladdin Genie character, and a winning ecological message. But it looks cheap at times and has horrifying creative choices that I assume 20th Century Fox forced on the filmmakers at gunpoint.

The worst part is Zak, the 90s ‘tude hero. For those who don’t understand or remember, “90s ‘tude” is where a piece of media would try to appeal to Generation X but in a phony and corporate way. Have you seen The Simpsons episode where the Itchy and Scratchy Show is losing ratings, so they add a dog with sunglasses? A dog who skateboards, wails on guitar, and says stuff like “remember, kids, always recycle…to the extreme!“? 90s ‘tude is what they’re mocking. It is so heavily parodied that it’s hard to believe it once existed everywhere, unironically. I’d argue the grunge/alt movement itself died because it had been Borg-assimilated by lame, toothless corporatism.

Zak is 90s ‘tude to the extreme! He has a Walkman, a feathered ‘do, and like the first line out of his mouth is “Don’t have a cow. Sheesh!” He’s an utter joke, and when I realized he wasn’t comic relief but the male lead I wanted to tie a rope around my fucking neck.

He’s marking trees for logging in a rainforest when he’s shrunk by the fairy Krysta, who’s never even seen a human dude before, let alone one so radical and tubular. From then on, the plot’s a bog-standard “liar revealed” thing where you tap your fingers impatiently, waiting for Krysta to discover that Zak is there to destroy the rainforest so she can freak out and break up with him but by that point he’s had a change of heart and says he’s sorry but it’s too late because she hates him now but then the big threat arrives and Zak redeems himself by stopping it and then the movie ends and then you clip your toenails and then you notice a weird crusty yellow growth on one of them and you Google what does it mean when your toenail

The plot is perhaps too simple. It’s like they read Save the Cat! or some other screenwriting book and tried to pack a lot of formula characters into a plot that didn’t have room for them. The film has multiple sets of villains whose motives are just “destroy the rainforest”. Human loggers are busy cutting down trees (not noticing that one of their own has been shrunk to three inches in height) when they accidentally free the spirit of Hexxus, a sentient smog cloud that the fairies once imprisoned inside a bottle tree. He takes over their operation and tells them to…continue cutting down trees. Hard sell, but okay.

But it doesn’t matter, because Hexxus is voiced by Tim Curry, who just carries the entire film on his shoulders from that point on. He’s a wonderful character actor and this is one of his flagship performances: a one man clinic on how to turn crap into gold. Even the (otherwise mediocre) animation rallies when Hexxus is on the screen, giving him a sticky, tarlike quality that’s viscerally repulsive. The character and performance is so great it’s almost a detriment to the movie, because it shows how hollow most of the rest of it is.

FernGully has an advanced case of what I call Tim Curry Syphilis. He enhances films (just as the treponema pallidum bacterium is supposed to enhance artistic output) but also kinda causes them to die at the same time. He steals the show, and almost consumes their essence: you don’t care about the rest of the movie, you only want more Tim Curry. The Rocky Horror Picture Show is Patient Zero. Early-stage Tim Curry Syphilis can be observed in Captain Planet and the Planeteers and The Wild Thornberries. We witness the disease’s progression in Legend and The Muppets: Treasure Island. Don Bluth’s The Pebble and the Penguin is dead of Tim Curry Syphilis.

The animation is occasionally really good. The parts where Crysta and Zak are exploring look fantastic.

As a kid I was obsessed with the Leveler (the loggers’ machine), for reasons I cannot explain. The huge arms? The fact that its cockpit is an icosahedron? I don’t know. It’s just cool.

I suspect I love the Leveler because it’s insane. It’s this ridiculous monster truck-looking abomination that makes no sense—why would a machine for cutting down trees be armor-plated like a Panzer tank? Why does it have spiked caterpillar treads that look like a Goth chick’s belt? How would you get it around obstacles like ditches or creeks, and wouldn’t it be smarter to break up the Leveler’s functions among several smaller vehicles (so that a breakdown doesn’t cripple your whole operation?). There’s no reason for the Leveler to exist, but here we are. I share Tim Curry’s appreciation for this fabulous metal panther. What a beautiful machine they have provided!

The part at the end (where Hexxus assumes his true form) is strongly derived from the ending sequence of Fantasia, and works both as a homage and on its own terms. Robin Williams plays a deranged bat. Cheech and Chong do something. Tone-Loc plays a horny goanna who sounds like he wants to fuck Zak instead of eating him. Note that in “Funky Cold Medina”, he says “it’s the eighties, and Tone is down with the ladies!”, implying that in other decades (such as the nineties) he might gay, or at least bisexual. I think I’ll skip the deleted scenes on the DVD.

Moving along, I’m just too old to handle Zak’s radical gnarliness, and Crysta is pretty forgettable. There are two human loggers, one of whom is fat and is called “Tone” by the other. This movie will give him something to discuss with his therapist, Dr Melfi. Why is the movie set in Australia when all of the characters are so clearly American?

I had it in my mind that FernGully was made in Australia. It wasn’t. Australia essentially had no animation industry in the mid 90s, aside from Yoram Gross Films (which made cheap TV shows such as Dot the Kangaroo and Blinky Bill, with animated characters and non-animated backgrounds), Burbank Animation Studios (who had devolved into making shoddy “mockbuster” ripoffs of Disney films), and truly obscure novelties such as Go To Hell!!, a bizarre curio that remains one of the only feature-length animated films created by a single person.

There was certainly no studio capable of a Disney-sized production (or Disney-quality animation) within Australia. The film was financed by the Australian company FAI Films, but all creative personnel and staff appear to have been American (aside from Diane Young, who wrote books that FernGully was based on). Maybe this explains why characters call Fern Gully “the jungle” instead of “the bush”.

While it’s not entirely a failure, FernGully is one of those movies where the main story is absolutely boring, but the peripheral stuff is absolutely captivating. There are a lot of films like that. So far as I’m concerned, the movie’s real cast is Tim Curry, Robin Williams, and the Leveler.

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