Dapplewood is a common forest where animals such as badgers, moles, squirrels and mice live. The young animals, known as Furlings, go to their teacher named Cornelius, an old and wise badger who also likes to build new inventions. Four furlings, the mouse Abigail, the Hedgehog Russell, the mole Edgar and the badger Michelle, go with Cornelius for their current lesson. While Cornelius normally has trouble tutoring these four, it is the least of his concern after the five come across a road and almost get killed by a reckless driver. Their problems with the humans worsen when a hazardous gas leaks from an overturned tanker, damaging their homes and even killing some of the animals, and when Michelle runs to her home to find her parents, she falls gravely ill from the gas. Now Abigail, Russell and Edgar have to venture to another meadow in order to find the herbs needed to cure Michelle, facing the dangers that lie ahead, hoping that it’s not too late to save their friend.
In 1989, Welsh born graphic designer Rae Lambert envisioned an idea of an environmental tale known as The Furling Stories while working at HTV, and collaborated with animation writer Mike Young to pitch it to cartoon studio Hannah-Barbera. The studio approved the idea and Mike Young, along with Kelly Ward, was brought on to write the screenplay. While initially a made-for-TV movie under the name “The Endangered”, but it became a theatrical feature after 20th Century Fox agreed to fund and distribute it, under the name “Once Upon a Forest” since the original name was deemed too dark and inappropriate for a kid’s movie. With a budget of $13 million, Hanna-Barbera managed the animation with eight animation studios from six different countries. However, it failed to earn back its budget during its original run, and lead to Hanna-Barbera to stop doing feature length animated films, with their animation department moving towards Turner Entertainment.
The animation is surprisingly good, really surprisingly good. Now I do not hate Hanna-Barbera, I grew up and loved their shows, but looking at the shows and films they made and the studios they worked with (including the ones that worked on this movie), they worked well on the design and aesthetics but are very cheap on the animation itself. Here it seems slightly the opposite; the animation is smooth and detailed to a good quality for its time, albeit slightly dated, but the overall design, while effective for an environmentally focused film, with detailed artwork and what would be expected from the director of animation David Kirschner, it feels a little generic. It’s also amazingly consistent for a film animated in many different countries.
The music is general orchestra; it’s mainly calm, even in the more dark and tense scenes, so it is weak. The songs they have in the film, the few they have for a 71 minute feature, are actually quite good. The first song is sung by Cornelius, because he is voiced by the original Phantom of the Opera, Michael Crawford. His song shows Cornelius’ caring for the young Michelle and whether you like it or not depends on what you think of Michael Crawford himself. For me, I like him and how he sings, but it might annoy those who hate him. If you don’t have previous knowledge of Michael Crawford, I think the song is good enough to listen through, and the backing melody acts as one of the running themes in the score. The next song is sung in Gospel by a large group of birds, which I will talk about later, and it’s good as a Gospel song, but it gets annoying fast. The final song plays through the credits and it’s tolerable, and is easily comparable to other calm and slow songs sung by female singers in films like Secret of NIMH, Little Nemo and Land Before Time.
The voice acting is good, with most of the child actors doing a good job, they give their characters fitting personalities and make them likable, and it’s a shame that some of them never got anywhere in films, with the exception of Elizabeth Moss as Michelle and Rickey Collins as Bosworth. Probably the most memorable performances come from the two Tony Award winning actors, Michael Crawford as Cornelius and Ben Vereen as Phineas the Priest. While Crawford is toned down in comparison, both do very over the top performances that make them fun to watch, although that doesn’t stop Crawford from giving serious moments. They can get annoying at times, such as Cornelius’ habit of tongue rolling on “R” sounding words and Phineas constantly doing an over the top impression of a Gospel preacher, but they are the ones that really stick out in my mind.
The film is a simple adventure where the three main characters, the furlings, face their fears and problems, all in the hope that they can save their friend. It’s nothing special, except for its surprisingly dramatic finale. Some of the scenes are really moving, and you can easily feel sympathy for the furlings as they try their hardest to get these herbs to cure Michelle.
One important thing to note is that it’s an environmental film, and despite the fact that my favourite film of all time, I am one of the many people who know the problems with environmentally aware films: they have a forced message, they are over dramatic, the villains are usually one dimensional corporate men or militant jerks who unrealistically show no care for nature in general. One of the reasons I love the environmentally aware anime film Pom Poko was because they took the environmental message more realistically, and made the humans more…human. Once Upon a Forest actually follows that route, as the human characters are barely the focus and are represented as being unaware of what dangers they’ve caused, and both the actions and result of the actions are viewed from the animals’ point of view, as it appears larger than we can see.
However the film does have its issues, most notably is the film’s length, which could be blamed on the fact that due to time constraints the film had to be cut by ten minutes, if I thought the story felt rushed. In a way this is correct, since elements of danger, character development and parts of the plot such as Edgar trying to be brave and stand up for himself, and going through a construction site to reach a meadow, get only a small amount of screen time and end up being almost ignored for the rest of the movie. On the other hand, the film feels that it feels padded out as some of the events that don’t get a short amount of time, last much longer than necessary. What makes it worse is that halfway through the film, the story goes to a grinding halt as a group of birds that speak in Gospel take up around ten minutes of the film, only contributing one musical number, the obnoxious acting of Ben Verneen and the fact that they wasted the viewers time by making one bird that is stuck in a lake of mud sound like a legitimate threat of danger.
I think out of all the American produced environmentally aware films, this is probably one of the best, especially for kids and animation fans. It’s not a perfect film to make people understand the problems with nature, and both the rushed and padded moments makes it difficult to feel relaxed while watching it, but it does have good drama and it’s enjoyable, even the Gospel birds that really have no reason to be there.
Once Upon a Forest is available from 20th Century Fox, a book which is an adaptation of the film written by Elizabeth Isele with illustrations by Carol Holman Grosvenor, who was the production designer on the film, was available from Turner Publishing and Andrews McMeel, but is out of print. A video game adaptation for the MS-DOS computer was available from Sanctuary Woods but has also remained out of print. Both could be found used if you took the effort to look for them.