“Once Upon a Forest” is an OK ecologically themed animated entry from “An American Tail” creator David Kirschner. While an agreeable enough effort in most respects, pic is a bit dark and somber to be terrifically appealing to kids, and could have used bigger doses of humor and music. Fox should be able to generate modestly respectable B.O. results from this briskly told fable.
Introductory section nicely sets up the idyllic forest world of Dapplewood, where a variety of cuddly animals live in perfect harmony with one another. Four kids, or “furlings”– Abigail the cute mouse, Edgar the nerdy mole, Russell the pudgy hedgehog and Michelle the adorable badger — study with Michelle’s uncle, the wise old inventor Cornelius, who’s just developed a model of his greatest creation, the flying flapper-wing-a-ma-thing.
On one of their forest treks, the furlings come upon a highway, and Cornelius warns them to stay away from the hostile outside world. But humankind won’t leave the creatures alone, as a chemical truck crashes nearby and releases poisonous gas into Dapplewood, decimating the foliage and infecting its inhabitants.
With Michelle gravely ill, Cornelius sends the three others on a journey to find the rare herbal cure in a far-off meadow. Along the way, the little critters grow up fast, fighting off a hungry owl, encountering a rambunctious preacher and gospel group, sneaking past the “yellow dragons” (which are actually bulldozers and cranes at a construction site), and finally building
a full-sized version of Cornelius’ flying machine in order to snatch the medicinal herb off its perch on a mountainside.
Highly ecologically sensitive film does a good job of creating an us-against-the-world feeling.
Until a late sequence shows human beings as capable of some kindness, civilization is portrayed as the ever-looming source of evil, the force capable of contaminating Eden and all its citizens.
This threatening cloud hangs over most of the action, lending it a somewhat gloomy mood despite the upbeat personalities of the furlings.
Periodic attempts are made to lighten the tone and inject some juice into the proceedings, notably with the gospel number (created by Andrae Crouch and performed by Ben Vereen) and mild clowning. But pic features only three songs, which are not really enough to qualify this as an actual musical. More jokes and gags would have been helpful as well.
The furlings are genuinely appealing without being cloyingly cute, and Cornelius, very nicely voiced by Michael Crawford, quickly emerges as a thoroughly lovable source of wisdom and guidance.
Character animation is pleasing without being overly complex, and backgrounds are nicely filled in, although not on a level with the most ambitious animated outings.
Script wisely wraps things up quickly when the upbeat ending is in sight, and endurance of small children will not be overly tried by the reasonable running time.