Evergreen Tale -- Jim Cox And Jeff Dowd Bring Northwest Perspective To Making Of `Ferngully'

The names of two Northwest filmmakers are prominent in the credits of "FernGully . . . the Last Rain Forest," a delightful feature-length animated film that's scheduled to open in 1,500 theaters this weekend.

Jim Cox, who won several film-festival prizes for his satirical 1975 Evergreen State College movie, "Eat the Sun," is the screenwriter of the ecological fairy tale. Cox is part of the "Evergreen Mafia" that included Matt Groening, Lynda Barry and his "Eat the Sun" co-director, Steve De Jarnatt, who went on to make a memorable 1989 science-fiction feature, "Miracle Mile."

"We're plotting to take over Hollywood," he joked by phone from Los Angeles. "I was part of the first Evergreen class, when the school didn't really have a film department, although I started making films in high school in Spokane. That's what I've always wanted to do. After graduating from Evergreen in 1975, I packed up my '56 Plymouth station wagon and drove to Hollywood."

Cox soon got a job working on one of the most acclaimed movies of the 1970s, Terrence Malick's "Days of Heaven," then started writing screenplays for Disney, including "The Rescuers Down Under," "Oliver and Company" and the first draft for "Beauty and the Beast."

Jeff Dowd, who worked with the Seattle Internation Film Festival for several years and helped market such films as "The Black Stallion" and "Blood Simple," is listed as co-executive producer of "FernGully."

Dowd headed for Hollywood in 1984, intending to become a filmmaker as well. He ended up in marketing again for a time, and finally got into producing a couple of years ago with "FernGully" and "Zebrahead," an interracial love story that won a prize at the Sundance Film Festival in January.

"This all started when I went to Australia to give a speech for their version of the MPAA (the American ratings board)," said Dowd from his home in Venice, Calif. He met Australian producer Wayne ("Crocodile Dundee") Young, whose ex-wife, Diana Young, had written a collection of unpublished "FernGully" stories for children.

"Wayne's a very visionary guy," said Dowd. "He wanted to make a film about the idea that it's important for kids to affect and change things, that they can make a difference. I was working with another former Seattleite, Bill Willett, and we built a team to support Wayne and get it done. It was financed by the head of an Australian insurance company, which will be donating some of the profits to environmental groups."

Lest this sound too high-minded, it should be noted that "FernGully" rarely turns didactic. Visually and musically it's an entrancing film, with excellent animation by a crew that includes several ex-Disney artists and songs by Thomas Dolby, Elton John and Jimmy Webb. The soundtrack voices include Tim Curry as Hexus, an evil spirit unleashed by a destructive logging team, to Robin Williams as Batty, a brain-scrambled bat whose dialogue sounds like channel-changing.

"Batty was written with Robin in mind," said Cox, "but it's like writing for a jazz musician rather than classical. You'd give him an idea and he'd go for 10 minutes with it."

The cast also includes Christian Slater and Samantha Mathis, the stars of "Pump Up the Volume," as an elf and his favorite fairy, and Grace Zabriskie (Laura Palmer's mother on "Twin Peaks") as the voice of a wise old fairy who tries to warn Mathis of the coming danger.

"We wanted the movie to be an entertainment first and foremost," said Cox, who spent nearly a month on Australian locations with the chief animators. The director, Bill Kroyer, is Disney-trained, having worked on "Tron" and the animated credits of "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids" (for which Cox worked as second-unit director).

"We tried to make the characters' interactions as comic and musical as possible," said Dowd. "The film visually tells a story about a magical place."

Dowd feels that children are especially receptive to the movie's concerns. He said that executives at Twentieth Century Fox, which is distributing "FernGully," are finding that "it's a film they can talk about with their kids, at a time when there's not much to take the kids to see. I think they were all surprised by their children's reaction to Earth Day. Kids are really into this at school.

"Most people who see it will never visit a rain forest," he said. "But we all have something equivalent to the rain forest in our own communities."