'Once Upon a Forest': A glorious adventure in banality

June 18, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

"Once Upon a Forest"

Animated feature

Directed by Dave Michener

Released by Twentieth Century Fox

Rated G

... * 1/2

5/8 If there were a truth-in-titling clause in the federal code, "Once Upon a Forest" would have to be called "Three Vermin in Search of a Plot."

Really, here's a movie about a mouse, a mole and a hedgehog. Bring on the cats! Here, nice kitty, kitty, come eat the cast. Thatta boy. Yes, gobble them up and swallow them down and spit out their bones.

When Disney conflates a deer into some kind of mythic avatar of grace, beauty and purity in the world, that's fine, because as a creature a deer is a majestic gift, a miracle of sinew and bone on four sleek legs. Alternatively, when Disney invents a cartoon universe where a mouse and a duck can be friends and wear white four-fingered gloves and have a dog, that's OK, too, because the inner laws of such a place are at least consistent.

But when the Hanna-Barbera animation mill tries to sell you on . . . a mouse, a mole and a hedgehog as the moral center of the universe, next to which we poor humans are pure scum and before which we poor humans must grovel in all our corruption, it's a a conceit of mind-boggling anthropomorphic narcissism. Who wrote this thing, the policy committee from PETA? Is a mouse a mole a hedgehog a Bambi a Micky?

Plus, whoever drew this thing didn't have much luck with the poor hedgehog. I thought it was a porcupine until I looked in the press notes. It's sort of a brown hairy smear with eyes. I don't even know what a hedgehog is. Do they have them in this country?

Anyway, the movie is set in one of those hopelessly sentimentalized forests where all the animals live like Ozzie and Harriet Nelson or Ward and June Cleaver and the animal kiddies wear overalls and glasses, which they get from animal GAPs and animal Pearle Visions. They carry animal lunch boxes to animal school, where a kindly old professor-type instructs them in advanced bromides, solipsisms and truisms. (Where is that damn cat when you need him?)

The troubles begin when those mean old humans just happen to be transporting poison gas through the forest -- happens all the time, don't you know? -- and the tanker truck goes over, turning the Magic Kingdom into Verdun or Ypres. A baby something -- I don't know, a baby furball, all right? -- has her lungs seared and so mole, mouse and hedgehog set out looking for a meadow with the right Herbs. Herb White? Herb Jones? Again, I don't know, but I know they weren't looking for herbs, because herb is pronounced "erb."

The adventures of this threesome won't make you forget "Star Wars." The obstacles feel entirely arbitrary -- a red-eyed owl who, after all, is only doing what owls do, or a steam shovel -- but not as arbitrary as a sequence in which the three encounter some African-American ducks. When Disney portrays crows as black honky-tonk musicians in "Dumbo," that's only a little bit all right, because the year, after all, was 1941; who knew better? But it's 1993 and here we have a richly stereotypical, unironic version of a black minister as grotesquely exaggerated as the Kingfish, who struts and waggles before a flock of sweating, rhythmic, amening brethren.

The art work could not be called "distinguished," unless for you the word "distinguished" means "hopelessly banal." The forest runs your usual puce, vermilion and teal color scheme and the three creatures have been given glowing doll's eyes the size of hubcaps that are swamplike in their dense and endless moistness, set off by lashes the length of fly-swatters. This stuff makes Disney look like Helmut Newton.

@4 Hear kitty, here kitty, come eat the nice movie.

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