`Once Upon A Forest' Is Just Animated Rehash Of `Ferngully'

Movie review

XX 1/2"Once Upon a Forest," an animated film featuring the voices of Michael Crawford and Ben Vereen. Directed by Charles Grosvenor, from a screenplay by Mark Young and Kelly Ward. Based on the Welsh story created by Rae Lambert. Aurora, Bay, Broadway Market, Crossroads, Everett Mall, Factoria, Gateway, Grand Cinemas Alderwood, Kent, Metro, Renton Village, Totem Lake. "G" - Suitable for all ages. -------------------------------------------------------------------

It's a good thing this breezy animated adventure lasts only slightly more than 70 minutes. Children will no doubt enjoy its simple tale, but would probably grow restless if it went on for a minute longer.

Kids intuitively know when they're being preached to, and their tolerance is no higher than that of most adults. Young or old, most of us prefer our messages inserted wisely yet inconspicuously into the context of a rousing story.

That's where "Once Upon a Forest" falls short. Not only is its obviously valid ecological warning delivered with a heavy hand, but its story is far too flimsy to give the lesson any lasting impact. It's utterly well-meaning, charming to a fault, impressively animated and blandly uninspired.

Set in a lush region of the rain forest called Dapplewood, not far from the devastation wrought by man, the story involves three young forest animals who, after an accidental leak of poison gas kills much of the thriving flora, must race against all odds to save a tiny friend from dying.

As life slowly ebbs from the little badger Michelle, her wise, elderly Uncle Cornelius (voiced by "Phantom of the Opera" stage star Michael Crawford) urges the three inexperienced "furlings" to set out across the vast forest to a glorious, unpoisoned meadow, where they will find eyebright and lungwort, the herbs needed to cure their dying friend.

And so Abigail the wood mouse, Russell the hedgehog and Edgar the mole venture farther than they've ever gone, spurred on by the desperate need of their friend and the fear that they've lost their parents to the toxic fog.

Of course, they meet obstacles and interesting creatures along the way, and their rite of passage includes the construction of a flapping-winged forest glider based on Cornelius' model prototype.

It is a swift, lively adventure boosted by the bright personalities the animators of Hanna-Barbera have given to the youthful heroes.

But the film is oddly schizophrenic, diluting its message with a nagging uncertainty about what kind of movie it wants to be.

With only two songs (not including a smarmy closing-credits theme), it isn't purely a musical, which is too bad because those two songs are wonderfully written and composed. The second - in which a group of chickens sing a gospel-inspired funeral dirge - has the divine energy of a Baptist revival (complete with a dazzling eulogy voiced by Ben Vereen), and for five minutes the movie springs vibrantly to life.

The rest of the journey is similarly pleasant, but with the overriding theme being "Avoid the humans," the film's inclusion of one benevolent, unseen forester isn't enough to avoid the conclusion that, as far as this movie is concerned, mankind is pond scum.

That may be true from a furling's point of view, but it was delivered to deeper effect in last year's "FernGully," and by now the cynicism-for-a-good-cause has lost its cautionary appeal.