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Since the process of hand-drawn animation and animation, in general, takes time to create, sometimes, you will see a bunch of projects get greenlit when some film in the theatrical scene makes it big. The other studios see that, and want to capitalize on it or a popular trend. Sometimes, you just get four movies in a short period that happen to be around Bigfoot. Sometimes, you get a bunch of films about different takes on superheroes. In the 70s, you had so many sexually-driven animated adult films. Too many to be exact, but that’s beside the point. Heck, remember how many films have come out then and now since Despicable Me that want to make that Minions money? During the 90s, there were quite a lot of films coming out that were about protecting the trees and our forests. Many studios play the short-term, and it doesn’t always work out when you chase a trend. For some reason, 20th Century Fox, decades before getting bought out by Disney, had two animated films based on environmentalism with Ferngully: The Last Rainforest and today’s review of Once Upon a Forest.
Directed by Charles Grosvenor, executively produced by William Hanna (and yes, Hanna-Barbera’s William Hanna), produced by Hanna-Barbera Productions and ITV Cymru Wales, Once Upon a Forest was released in 1993 and was unfortunately for everyone involved, a box office bomb, only making $6.6 million on a $13 million budget. Now, I haven’t seen this film in ages. It’s one of those animated films I sort of saw when I was little, but forgot everything about it. Maybe that’s for the best, but sometimes, you don’t remember much when you are a kid. It’s now time to see 27 years later how this film holds up in a fairly non-competitive year in animation as 1993.
Our story revolves around a group of humanoid animal children called furlings. I don’t know why they are called that, but that’s not the point. These include a mouse named Abigail, voiced by Ellen Blain, a mole named Edgar, voiced by Benji Gregory, Russell, a hedgehog voiced by Paige Gosney, and a young badger named Michelle, voiced by a super young Elisabeth Moss. They go to class one day to learn from an old badger named Cornelius, voiced by Michael Crawford. After going about a rambunctious lesson during the day, the kids learn about gravity, plants, and the evilest creature of all, man! After the lesson, a truck carrying poisonous gas crashes off the road, and the gas leaks into the forest. Everyone tries to get back to their families, only to find that everyone is gone. Michelle tries to go find her parents, but ends up getting ill from the gas. Cornelius offers a solution for Abigail, Edgar, and Russell to find some plants to make an antidote for Michelle. Along their journey, they encounter a monstrous owl, a group of gospel birds with their leader voiced by Ben Vereen, and a group of animals that fight over food. Can our three heroes get what they need and save Michelle’s life along with their forest?
So, what do I like about this movie? Well, while I wouldn’t say it’s one of the best films from 1993’s animation scene, I do like parts of the story. The film has some pretty decent atmospheric moments with some very lovely lush background art. The film also doesn’t try to undo any of the deaths that do appear in the film. Normally, other films would try to make a nice little ending where everything is, well, happy. The film has a happy ending, but it does accept the fact that things did happen, and it won’t all 100% be the same, but it still has a fairly optimistic look at it all. Even the forest that was damaged by the gas doesn’t suddenly return to normal. You don’t see children’s films with that kind of consequence set in stone. Even animated films today don’t always commit to certain decisions made in the story. It was gutsier than what a company like Warner Bros was doing at the time. The film also has a pretty decent list of themes, like friendship, teamwork, overcoming your fears, and the not-subtle environmentalism commentary. However, I do like how they frame the poison gas as a man-made accident. Sure, in real life and today’s climate, it would have the humans as 100% the villains, but the humans here aren’t portrayed that way. They are portrayed as somewhat antagonistic and uncaring of their environment, but the humans at the end of the film were not, and that’s what I admire about it. It has a bit of a Ghibli sense of there being no real “villain”. Maybe this is giving the film too much credit, but considering this was 1993 and this was the year we got stuff like the Tom and Jerry the Movie and the butchered cut of The Thief and the Cobbler, I’ll take any film that adds a bit more nuance to the story than nothing at all. Sure, this was also the same year the US got My Neighbor Totoro, which is a better film, but still.
Animation-wise, for a film that cost $13 million to make, and where some of it probably went to Michael Crawford, it looks decent. Now, yes, you can tell where some animated objects like the miniature flying contraption do not blend well with the background, but it’s pretty decent animation. Everyone moves well, the designs are harmless to look at, and it reminds me of someone who was trying to capture that Don Bluth-style with how the characters move and look. It easily could be a film set in The Secret of Nimh universe. There isn’t much to say about the voice cast. It’s one of those animated films that heavily relies on the fact that it got Michael Crawford as Cornelius, but the acting overall is pretty good. Michael Crawford is probably the best one of the bunch, and yes, you can criticize his voice work for being a bit too whimsical, and his song sequence being hit-or-miss depending on how you like his singing voice, but I felt like he put a lot of heart into the role. Sure, his character vanishes for a huge majority of the movie, but when he does show up, he is the best part of the film. The child actors also do a decent job, and the cast of child actors is honestly interesting since there is a young Elizabeth Moss in one of her first film roles. I also liked Ben Vereen as the religious bird Phineas, and the other voice cast members they hired are good as well, with Charlie Adler, Paul Eiding, Susan Silo, Janet Waldo, and an uncredited Frank Welker as the barn owl they encounter.
So, what don’t I like about the film? It sounds like it’s rough around the edges, but a respectable title. A lot of what I talked about with the pros of the film comes from the third act. I found the pacing to be a touch slow as it takes a bit before the plot is moved forward by the poison gas situation, and much of the first act is spent with the three kids and Cornelius. After that, it plays out more like a road trip movie with events that come and go without much connection, and the side characters they encounter not being mentioned again. Some of them even happen too fast and end so quickly, that you wonder what the point was. It’s also a touch safe in terms of its themes and how it handles its story. It’s easily digestible for kids, which to be fair, is the target audience for this film, but it’s also a little too adult in spots for kids. It’s a weird uneven mix, and I think it should have either leaned more one way to slightly older kids, but in a PG (a serious PG) way or just go sugar sweet. Finding that balance is tough and it doesn’t always work. The characters are also not the most interesting. The three kids are all basic kid characters, and the most interesting of the characters, the one played by Michael Crawford, is not the focus.
Even with my criticisms aimed at this film, I can’t find myself hating it. Sure, it’s not the best animated film of 1993, the same year we got The Nightmare Before Christmas, but Once Upon a Forest is not the worst. I can see why people who grew up with this film enjoy it, but I also can see why it was maybe forgotten by many, despite having a lot of interesting facts surrounding it. For some reason, since 20th Century owns the rights to this film, it’s not available on Disney Plus, but that may also be due to Hanna-Barbera being the rights holders as well, but who knows. If you want to check it out, it’s pretty cheap on DVD. Now then, next time, we are going to look at another screener. That’s right, your possibly favorite animation reviewer has obtained another one! I’ll make sure you all get a clue about what I’m reviewing in my next review.
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Rating: Rent it!