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How 'FernGully' inspired a generation to pursue environmental justice




A scene from
A scene from "FernGully: The Last Rainforest."

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Let's get a little nostalgic and talk about a film that left a lasting impression on a lot of kids of the 1980s and '90s — "FernGully: The Last Rainforest."

"FernGully" takes place in a pristine Australian rainforest and follows a group of fairies and other magical creatures. But humans begin logging their forest, unwittingly unleashing a destructive creature called Hexxus, who threatens to destroy their home.

Director Bill Kroyer was a former Disney employee who started his own company to focus on computer animation, and "FernGully" was one of the earliest films to use the new technology.

Unlike most movies at the time, "FernGully" had strong environmental themes. The film also had a lasting impact on young moviegoers at the time, including KPCC's environment reporter Emily Guerin. We spoke with both Kroyer and Guerin about the making of "FernGully" and how the message of the film is still relevant today. 

Interview Highlights:

Kroyer on the power of the rainforest and its influence on the film:

One thing you find out right away is that rainforests covered a lot of Australia. And the sad story is that everything you could cut down was almost immediately cut down. So the only rainforests remaining were the ones that were too remote to log. You have to go way up into the Green Mountains to get there. And they're stunning to see — these huge trees and the interconnected vines. That idea of the Web of Life is literally right in front of you in the rainforest, where every creature and every plant is really interconnected. The beauty and the magic of that made such an impression on all of us that we ended up using that precisely. We hardly caricatured this film. If you really look at it, every branch, every tree, every animal is exactly how it is in the rainforest because we thought you don't have to fantasize this. If you learn what it's really like, you'll understand that the world is a magical place and it's really worth saving. 

Guerin on tracing her environmental interests back to "FernGully":

I think because I was so young and because the film's message was so distilled – Here's this beautiful lush landscape and humans are messing it up is the message I took from it.  That to me really was sort of the central theme of the film. I did take that with me as I got older. And of course it became more nuanced. As I became a journalist I increasingly wanted to see the other side. But I think that central question, it had a big impression on me. Especially the theme of the oil industry! I later went on to live in North Dakota and covered the oil boom. 

Guerin on the idea of a modern-day "FernGully":

I actually think that, for now, we've sort of moved on from the rainforests as an issue. I think it's interesting, Bill, that you keep getting hate mail from logging companies. Because, for me, the takeaway wasn't that we're logging the rainforests to death, it was more the power of the oil industry and oil as the "villain." In the early '90s we were having a lot of discussion about logging, the rainforest and the timber wars in this country. But now we're talking a lot more about climate change and fossil fuels. So in some ways I think the issues have changed. I wonder if you were making a "FernGully" now, if it would be set in the icecaps. The polar bears would be the characters instead of the rainforest creatures. 

Kroyer on how the film has aged: 

As an artist I always tell my students: The only way you can really be successful is to do what you truly love doing. If you love doing it and you commit yourself, don't rely on the critical reactions or the audience reaction. You have to really believe in what you're doing. This movie was such an easy thing to love. To this day we have a reunion. We're one of the few movies that has a cast reunion every five years. We have all the artists come to our house. There's just a special affection for this movie that I've never seen in any other project. Everybody who worked on it will say that. A lot of it is that the topic and the subject matter seem to bleed into the crew and bleed into the process, making it a very special thing. 

If you -- or your kids -- haven't seen "FernGully: The Last Rainforest," there's a free screening Sunday (Earth Day) at the Billy Wilder Theater.



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