Once Upon A Forest (1993) | Animated and Underrated

Famous movie critic, Gene Siskel said of this film, “The characters are not memorable; the songs are lame and the drawing style is pedestrian.” And while I do respect his opinion, I’m afraid I’m going to have to disagree, and say that that opinion is a tad too short and harsh. Allow me to explain.

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(sigh) They don’t make’em like they used to.

And don’t you think for a second that that’s not true. They really don’t make them like they used to. The closest we’ve gotten to making another movie like this in the modern era is Coraline, but that just seems to be a trait of Laika Films: producing dark and twisted stories centered around child characters and intended for general audiences.

The late 1970s through the early 1990s was a time where movie companies were less candy-coated about what they made for the young audiences to watch. I mean, hell… when Ralph Bakshi, the mind behind the street-wise adult films Fritz the Cat, Heavy Traffic and Coonskin wanted to make a “children’s film”… he made freakin’ Wizards. And that was in 1977. Now did that “look” like a children’s film by ANY stretch of the imagination? No! But that’s what the man thought he was doing. And that just goes to show you how lax Hollywood once was, until Disney changed everything with The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. Then suddenly everything had to start being lovable and cutesy and generally inoffensive. But today, we’re here to talk about a film that sits right on the edge between the gloominess and grit of the 1980s and the overwhelming stampede of the Disney influence of the mid-to-late 1990s. This is Once Upon A Forest from 1993.

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Once Upon A Forest is about three young rodents who go to have their daily lesson with the local wise-man, named Cornelius; and how they travel across great distances and past immense obstacles in order to retrieve some herbs that mean life or death to one of their youngest friends who was afflicted by a deadly gas leak.

 

Our three protagonists are named Abigale (a mouse), Russell (a hedgehog), and Edgar (a mole); and their ill younger friend is named Michele (a badger).

At first glance of the recent DVD cover, you get the same effect that you do when you look at the most recent covers of The Secret of Nimh, An American Tail, and this piece for Atlantis the Lost Empire: it just doesn’t look that interesting.

 

It’s a bunch of characters standing around looking generally pleasant and smiling at the camera. It’s kinda like bad comic book covers where you just have the group pose together in a big line or a big cluster with no indication of what actually happens in the story and no indication of the tone or atmosphere. It really does these films an injustice.

However, if you were to look at the original covers or artwork for all of these films and more, you’d realize that there’s more to it than the smiling faces. In fact, these covers for An American Tail and Ducktales: the Legend of the Lost Lamp were painted by none other than Drew Struzan: perhaps the greatest movie poster artist of all time. And this also goes to show you that even animated films could get the star treatment when it came to promotional art. But back to the film at hand.

 

Once Upon A Forest has its weaknesses in its story, its animation, and some of its performances. And you might think “well, that’s just about everything, isn’t it?” Well… no, it isn’t. Star Trek (2008) had a really simplistic and clichéd story, but what made it work was its characters and the visualization of that story. And in that sense, Once Upon A Forest does fine. It’s not really the most epic of adventures, but it’s serviceable. The characters aren’t the most unique, but they have their moments. And the performances are hit and miss, but when they count, they’re not half bad.

I did have a problem with the characters’ behavior between the beginning and end of the film, because the story tries to shows a distinct difference between how the characters act when we first meet them, and then how they act after they’ve been on their harrowing journey. Except the writers or the story people tried too hard to visualize this, and ended up presenting Abigale, Russell and Edgar as a gaggle of careless selfish brats, when they really should have been much more sensible. They have, after all, been going to learn from their teacher Cornelius for weeks if not months at the start of this film.

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I can’t say if this fact is a game-breaker on whether or not you will like these characters, but I just consider it a fault of the story telling that isn’t as balanced as it should be, and does end up making at least Abigale a tad unlikable. However, she is the one who reconciles her issues and has a character arc first. So at least the characters are more enjoyable by the half-way point.

But now you might be getting the sense that this film is rather “Meh.” And yeah, it is kinda “Meh.” A lot of this film sits on that gray fuzzy line between cliché and uninspired, and clever and endearing. It has bits of both. And what I think is interesting about it being on this line is that some parts of the movie may just stick with you for years after you watch it, as it has done with me; but you may also forget a lot of other parts. Some moments or characters from this film may even blend into memories you have of watching The Secret of NIMH, An American Tail, or even The Rescuers: Downunder; and I would not be surprised if they did. The 80s and 90s were very fond of films about small animals; and aspects of many of them were borrowed and retooled for others.

So now you’re probably asking, “what makes this movie memorable or important?”

Well, for starters, it is another one of those “bleakish” family animated flicks that deals with heavy subjects, the weepier of emotions, and intense daring situations: much like The Land Before Time and The Brave Little Toaster; although this isn’t nearly as serious as those. The kind of stuff that comes up here is that Michele (the little badger who becomes ill) loses her parents to the gas, and must now live on as an orphan with her uncle, Cornelius. And we also have to contend with a few creepy moments involving faceless humans, a road-way where some moron throws a bottle against the asphalt; and the scene where the gas leaking from the tanker truck leaches its way across the landscape, killing everyone it comes in contact with: kind of like the “angel of death” sequence in the original Ten Commandments.

We are also treated to a special surprise as James Horner provides the music for this film, as he did for An American Tail and The Land Before Time. And his work is no less emotionally charged here. Thankfully his craftsmanship does add some much needed whimsy to an otherwise often lack-luster production. He even gives the film one of his trademark main themes, which I thought was rather nice. Some people out there may not appreciate the songs in the movie, perhaps not even the one over the ending credits; but I’m rather happy with them. It’s true, they are a bit corny, but I think they offer a certain innocence and charm that is very unique to this film, and it would not be what it is without them: and certainly not without Michael Crawford’s singing voice.

Yes, it’s true, by the way. Michael Crawford is in this. I don’t mean to say that like I actually know who the guy is, because I don’t really; but I say that for those of you who do and may be surprised that he’s here. You may also be surprised that this film was one of Elisabeth Moss’s first films, playing young Michele; as she has gone on to act on Law And Order, The West Wing, and Mad Men as Peggy Olson.

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Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for her co-stars, as none of the main three went on to do much after this film. In fact, this was the very last role of Benji Gregory (Edgar), who had previously performed in just over 100 episodes on ALF. And funny enough, I thought Ellen Blain’s voice (as Abigale) sounded familiar from other cartoons or films; but it turns out that she didn’t do anything else memorable beyond this, let alone any voice over roles.

How does she hold up then? Well, Ellen is actually my favorite voice in this film. And I’ll admit, it’s my favorite for the exact same reason that I liked Cathy Cavadini’s voice as Tanya in An American Tail 2; it’s somewhat attractive. That isn’t to say I don’t think Paige Gosney as Russell doesn’t have an interesting voice, or to say that I don’t like Benji as Edgar; but Ellen has a very special sound. It’s that sometimes loud and bossy, sometimes subtle and dainty raspy sound that a lot of youthful voice actresses had back in the 90s and early 2000s.

 

There was Lacey Chabert as Eliza Thornberry, Kellie Martin as Roxanne (A Goofy Movie), Shayna Fox as Reggie Rocket (Rocket Power); Francesca Smith, who did many variations on the voice along with her most famous role as Helga G. Pataki (Hey Arnold); and to a lesser extent Ashely Peldon and her singing double Lindsey Ridgeway as Darla Dimple (Cats Don’t Dance). In short, it’s a voice you don’t soon forget; and Ellen’s performance as Abigale shows a range from head-strong and self-centered, to embarrassed and self-loathing, to good-natured and selfless. And while I can honestly say that any of those other actresses could have done a better job in this role, I can also say that I genuinely enjoy Ellen Blain’s portrayal none-the-less.

Now in terms of the animation, it suffers from a lack of consistency and qualified clean-up work. It has a lot of rough edges and a lot of things are not centered or stick as close to character models as more seasoned animation teams would have done. However, there is a visible level of performance when it comes to how all of the characters move. They have their subtle facial wrinkles. You can tell that the characters are excited or tired or angry based upon how they shift their body weight and gesture their arms. They may not have as broad a range of facial expressions as Don Bluth characters, but I’ve seen much worse.

In a previous entry all about the works of the Japanese animation juggernaut, Tokyo Movie Shinsha, I wrote a side paragraph about Wang Film Productions, and how they had done twice if not three times as much outsourced work as TMS had. In fact, Wang Film Productions is responsible for nearly 3/4ths of all of Walt Disney’s television episodes from every single one of the shows they produced, past and present. And they’re still working on Disney shows today. And Once Upon A Forest happens to be one of the feature films that Wang Films supported with its animation team, as the production had to split among 6-7 different foreign studios. So with that in mind, it’s actually amazing that the film looks as coherent and consistent in its rough state as it does.

A few more bits of trivia: Glen Close almost had a role in Once Upon A Forest, but her character and her scene were cut from the final version of the film due to the production going over-budget.

David Kirschner, the producer of many cult animated classics of the 1980s and 1990s, and the original creator of the American Tail characters; was also the creator of this feature and its initial storyline. And sometimes you have to keep in mind that even if a film doesn’t turn out to be all that great, and may even be disappointing; it may have been a very important and emotionally fulfilling experience to those who worked on it; as this one was for Mr. Kirschner. And so I can’t fault him for that, and I can see why he would have been proud of this final piece.

Unfortunately, Once Upon A Forest was going head to head at the box-office with Steven Spielberg’s dinosaur hit Jurassic Park, and only managed to make back half of its $13 million dollar budget. However, the film did garner a cult-following and an increase in sales when it went to VHS and Laserdisc, which is how I first saw it as a kid.

In the end, what’s the take-away here? What can this film offer you? That’s actually a little hard to say.

I suppose the best thing it can offer is a mature outlook and a story that does not talk down to those who watch it. Whereas its contemporaries like Ferngully and Captain Planet try to create a hip and modern vibe with an overtly fantasy universe and a transparent environmental plotline. In the case of Once Upon A Forest, there is no pop culture references, except perhaps the gospel choir (but that sort of thing has a timeless feel to it), there are no annoying or unnecessary side-kicks and tag-along characters, and the atmosphere of the film is consistent and doesn’t bounce you between cheery and quirky and dark and intense: it has a very smooth gradient across which it places its scenes and its emotional moments.

And what I think is the best part of this film is that even though the tanker truck leaking gas may seem like an overt environmental message, it isn’t anywhere near as bad as having an evil pollution spirit chopping down trees with an enormous lumber machine, or a blue tinted super-hero with taking out super-villains with the power of the 5 elements. They don’t even give the audience a call to action until the very last line of the film. So I can honestly say that this film will not make you groan at its story, unless of course you just hate movies about adolescent animals having an adventure; in which case you shouldn’t even be watching this film anyway.

So tune in next time guys, when I’ll be taking a look at another animated feature from our recent past. And stay frosty my furlings.

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