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As wildfires continue to ravage the West Coast of America, breaking horrifying record after horrifying record — more than 3.2 million acres have been destroyed so far — I keep thinking about Ferngully: The Last Rainforest. To those who grew up watching the 1992 animated musical, the apocalyptic images of scorching orange flames consuming vibrant landscapes and giving way to grey, ashy devastation are eerily familiar. They echo the destruction wrought by Hexxus, the pollution spectre villain voiced with menacing glee by Tim Curry. Unfortunately, our current dire situation won’t be fixed by a spiky-haired fairy wielding a magical seed.
Based on Diana Young’s YA book by the same name, director Bill Kroyer’s answer to the Disney machine follows optimistic fairy Crysta (voiced by Samantha Matthis), one of the many magical inhabitants inside FernGully Rainforest, a lush and verdant oasis untouched by humans. Years ago, the wise Magi Lune (Grace Zabriskie) imprisoned their greatest foe, Hexxus, inside a tree, making FernGully a haven for the Earth to thrive. One day though, Crysta gets curious about the world beyond that green canopy, and goes exploring, coming across a group of lumberjacks tasked with clearing a forest on the outskirts of FernGully. Surprised, Crysta accidentally wields her magic, and causes a city boy named Zak (Jonathan Ward) to shrink down to her sprite-like size. As Zak is forced to confront the effects his kind have on Crysta’s world, he comes to understand the importance of preserving, rather than destroying, nature. But when his remaining crew accidentally unleashes Hexxus from his prison, there may not be a FernGully left to protect.
Like many millennials, FernGully was a staple of my early childhood, the first — and most honest — lesson I received about the devastating effects of climate change. Vanity Fair once called it the “Millennial Silent Spring,” a reference to Rachel Carson’s world-altering 1962 book that helped shape the boomer generation’s view of their impact on the planet. In April, SyFy ran a story under the headline “How FernGully: The Last Rainforest Made Me An Eco-Friendly Kid.” The movie’s continued impact is seen in the FernGully memes flooding my timeline to denounce Donald Trump’s harmful stripping back of environmental protections or to poke fun at Melania’s gardening tastes. In August, when Hawaii’s Kaluae volcano erupted, forming a strange smiley face pattern, Twitter blamed Hexxus. (Like many animated villains, Hexxus also has a strong thirst following.) And don’t even get me started on the Avatar jokes.
I’m not sure how much of FernGully’s lessons I grasped as a kid watching a VHS tape I rented over and over from Blockbuster. Mostly, I remember finding Batty Koda, the erratic animated bat voiced by the late Robin Williams in his first-ever film role (he’d go on to voice Genie in Aladdin that same year), raucously hilarious. After rewatching FernGully again as an adult, though, I’m struck by how dark and unvarnished the story is. Do you know why Batty Koda acts so weirdly? It’s because he has escaped from a nearby facility that introduced electrodes into his brain. In other words, he was an animal test subject, tortured and traumatised by humans. Like I said, dark. And then there’s Hexxus himself, a Venom-like oozy monster (designed incidentally, by Kathy Zielinski, the artist behind Ursula in Disney’s The Little Mermaid) who feeds off the poisonous fumes of machines and factories, whispering his catastrophic instructions to easily corruptible humans eager to follow his bidding for personal gain.
Even more prescient was the idea of young women leading the charge against the destructive forces of climate change, a prophecy we’re seeing fulfilled in leaders like 17-year-old Greta Thunberg. In 2019, when teenage climate activists led A Global Climate Strike rally in New York City, young women made up the majority of the crowd. They are the face of this movement, and of the future we’re fighting for.
We need them now more than ever. The sad truth about FernGully is that even as it sparked a burgeoning consciousness in a generation, we have largely failed to heed its warning. It’s easy to point fingers at leaders and call them Hexxus. But the reality is that most of us are Magi, burying our heads in the sand and clinging to the belief that the threat is contained.
For years, the FernGully fairies were living on borrowed time, sincerely believing that the previous generation had dealt with the problem by locking it away. When Crysta asks about Hexxus or the humans she’s heard about in legends, Magi waves her concerns away. Everything is fine. It’s not that bad. It’s far away. We did what we could.
It’s hard to judge such an impulse. The ramifications and consequences of climate change are so vast, so all-encompassing, that burying our heads in the sand and wishing it away, hoping for a solution as clean and simple as a tree prison is, on some level, understandable. But it’s not sustainable. Ferngully doesn’t sugarcoat what’s at stake. The visuals of shorn, bare tree stumps stretching out for miles even after Hexxus’ defeat are haunting, but they are mere whispers of the real impact of the fires burning out of control across the West Coast, or the hurricanes that continue to worsen with each passing year.
In 2020, the movie is a caution against complacency, a call to arms for the next generation, but also an apology. The final dedication card reads: “For our children, and our children’s children.” More than 25 years later, those children’s children are the ones tasked with cleaning up the mess their grandparents and parents were unable, or unwilling, to prevent.
In the final moments of FernGully, Crysta uses her magic to grow a big, strong tree — the beginning of an entirely new forest. It’s a bittersweet ending, which gives hope for the future all while acknowledging the very real and lasting damage. It’s going to get worse before it gets better. We cannot escape unscathed. But that doesn’t mean we can’t start planting the seeds.
Credit: Original article published here.