'FernGully' is awash in politically correct attitudes

April 11, 1992|By Janet Maslin | Janet Maslin,New York Times News Service

"FernGully: The Last Rain Forest" bears a conspicuous resemblance to "The Little Mermaid," although it lacks that film's prodigious parent appeal.

What "FernGully" has instead are politically correct attitudes about conservation, pollution and junk food, subjects that may not be entirely riveting for children but that are ostensibly close to parental hearts.

In that regard, this animated feature would be a shade more admirable if it didn't also have a coquettish, turquoise-eyed heroine who is referred to as a "bodacious babe."

An uncertain blend of sanctimonious principles and Saturday-morning cartoon esthetics, "FernGully" tells of pert, insect-size Crysta (with the voice of Samantha Mathis), who lives in a lush, dramatically drawn rain forest that is the film's most appealing feature.

Warned by her elders that she must "never, never fly above the canopy," this tiny, winged sprite goes exploring all the same. She discovers the outside world, just as Ariel the mermaid did, and becomes smitten with Zak (Jonathan Ward), a human hunk who is unfortunately engaged in razing the endangered rain forest.

Crysta casts a spell on Zak, making him fairy-size, and sets out to show him the error of his ways.

This slender plot calls for a lot of padding, even though the film has only a 72-minute running time. So there is an evil woodland spirit named Hexxus (Tim Curry), who sings the praises of toxic slime.

And there is Magi Lune (Grace Zabriskie), who provides the story with its quotient of new-age spirituality. ("We tree spirits nurtured the harmony of all living things, but our closest friends were human.")

Also on hand, and providing the film with a few welcome bursts of energy, is Robin Williams, who supplies the voice of a cheerfully demented bat. Children may be puzzled by Williams's fast, throwaway impersonations of Bette Davis, John Wayne and Desi Arnaz, among others, but adults will appreciate the change of pace.

As written by Jim Cox and directed by Bill Kroyer, "FernGully" is more run-of-the-mill than its subject matter might indicate.

The main characters are disappointingly ordinary, with the exotic Crysta sounding very much like someone who spends time at the mall. And even the film's more stellar-sounding touches, like the voices supplied by Christian Slater, Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong, or the songs by Elton John, Jimmy Webb and Jimmy Buffett, among others, tend to get lost.

Even Raffi, a musical superstar for this film's small viewers, is heard only briefly before his music fades away. (This film is rated G.)

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