Take Two: 'FernGully' remains a delightful time capsule every 90s kid should revisit
There are some movies from childhood that you watch over and over again. Then there are those films you see once and put away into the nostalgic recesses of your mind. Over time, those movies are stripped down and coalesce into a rose-colored memory. For me “FernGully” falls into the later category. If anyone asked, I’d declare my undying love for that animated film. Yet if pressed, I could barely sketch out the plot.
Here’s what I do remember.
I saw “FernGully” in theaters with my friends and it was the most romantic movie our nine-year-old eyes had ever seen. To my young self, “Fern Gully” was less a story about the dangers of pollution than a modern day “Romeo and Juliet” between a fairy and a human, only without the double suicide.
Like any good love story, it involved a headstrong teenage daughter. In this case, the heroine in question was the fairy Crysta. Obviously her father disapproved of her attraction to the human Zak and her dude friend was unhappy about being overlooked in favor of the hot new thing. The star-crossed lovers were from different worlds but it didn’t matter. In the end the human learned a valuable lesson about saving the rainforest, the fairies learned humans weren’t all bad, and Tim Curry was vanquished into a an appropriately evil tree.
There was also a scene involving a star-lit cave that would be the criteria by which I judged all future boyfriends until at least the end of high school. Could any first kiss be as magical as one happening mid-flight under an inexplicable indoor night sky? No. No it couldn’t.
But would this romance hold up under the scrutiny of my adult self? Was “FernGully” even really a romance? How accurate could my opinion even be if I could barely recall four scenes? Despite the fear that I was about to taint a childhood memory with adult cynicism, I took the plunge.
Guess what? “FernGully” is just about the most pure distillation of 90s pop culture that exists on planet Earth.
There are so many cultural touchstones in “FernGully” that are hilariously dated, to the point that I wish I’d forced my kids to sit through it with me, if only to get their thoughts on everything from Crysta’s hair to Zak’s usage of slang like ‘tubular’ and ‘bodacious.’ There’s a an entire musical number that revolves around a yellow Walkman that will be familiar only to people of a certain age, and Tone L?c randomly appears as a rapping lizard. The late Robin Williams appears in his first animated role as Batty the Bat, also rapping; this time about the dangers of animal experimentation, in a moment that is perhaps the quintessential 90s experience.
Despite all the terrible fads forever immortalized in “FernGully,” the premise remains sound. The 90s were a great time for environmentalism. There was a string of family friendly entertainment with themes about living in harmony with nature. “Captain Planet” ran in one form or another from 1990-1996. During that time Disney had great success with both “The Lion King” (1994), and “Pocahontas” (1995). For almost a decade, American cinema was committed to instilling the “Circle of Life” message. None of those other forms of eco-tainment, however, were nearly as visually enticing as “FernGully.”
For all the jokes that James Cameron’s “Avatar” is just “FernGully + Dances With Wolves in Space,” it’s not a bad visual comparison. It’s hard to harp on two movies sharing tropes as wide and prevalent as the White Savior or Industrialized Evil, but by the last third of “FernGully” I was incredulously gesticulating at the screen about the similarities.
How could I have forgotten the fairies are so in tune with the forest that their hands light up when they “plug in” to them? Or that when Hexxus (Tim Curry) is coming to destroy the fairy Hometree, the locals refuse to leave even after the human warns them they cannot possibly win against such mighty technology? Or that after the fall of said Hometree, all the fairies follow the wizened old crone to the OTHER tree, where the true interconnected nature of the rainforest is revealed through a magical ritual involving illuminated plant life?
The one aspect that let me down, however, was the love story. Without the innocence of childhood to cast a True Love™ sheen on everything, Crysta and Zak go from soulmates to the equivalent of a Spring Break hook-up. Pips — Crysta’s friend — appears to actually be her boyfriend, putting him a sympathetic light instead of being an obstacle to overcome. Even the kiss in the starlit cave of wonder (which has innuendo to spare) loses some of it’s charm as Crysta’s reaction is more “what insane human thing is this?” and less “Let’s declare our undying love and run away together.”
“Fern Gully” holds up under my microscope of jaded adulthood. If you grew up in the 90s, the callbacks to a bygone era of technology and fashion will take you back. However, the environmentalist message is somewhat undercut by casting Tim Curry as the villain and then giving him an oddly sexual song entitled “Toxic Love.” Pretty sure you’re not supposed to sexually attracted to pollution. But c’est la vie.
"FernGully" is currently available for on-demand streaming through Netflix.