Once Upon a Forest is a 1993 animated film based on the Furlings characters created by Rae Lambert. A Hanna-Barbera/HTV Cymru/Wales production released by 20th Century Fox, the film was directed by Charles Grosvenor and produced by David Kirschner.
It tells the story of three forest denizens that go on an expedition to cure their friend, Michelle, who became sick from chemical fumes. The film's environmental theme divided critics at the time of its release, along with the animation and story. The film was a box office bomb, grossing US$6.6 million against a budget of $13 million.
The story opens in a forest known as Dapplewood, where "Furlings" (a term for animal children) live alongside their teacher, Cornelius (Michael Crawford). The four Furlings central to the story are Abigail (Ellen Blain), a woodmouse; Russell (Paige Gosney), a hedgehog; Edgar (Benji Gregory), a mole; and a badger named Michelle (Elisabeth Moss), who is Cornelius' niece.
One day, the Furlings go on a trip through the forest with Cornelius, where they see a road for the first time. Russell is almost run over by a careless driver, who throws away a glass bottle that shatters in the middle of the road. Cornelius orders the Furlings to forget the road altogether. The ramble ends on a boat ride. Afterward, they go back to the forest to find out that it has been destroyed with poison gas from an overturned tanker truck that blew a tire from the broken glass bottle while transporting chlorine gas, and the truck driver who was unharmed in the crash, ran to get help. Michelle panics and runs to her home, breathing in some of the gas and becoming severely ill. The gas inside the house has already killed both of her parents, which the mother happens to be Cornelius' sister. Abigail manages to save Michelle, and the Furlings go to Cornelius' house nearby for shelter after they found their homes deserted. There, Cornelius tells the Furlings that they need to fetch two herbs that can save Michelle's life: lungwort and eyebright. With limited time, they head off for their journey the next day.
After encountering numerous dangers including a hungry barn owl, a flock of religious wrens including their preacher Phineas (Ben Vereen), and intimidating construction equipment, which the wrens call "yellow dragons", the Furlings make it to the meadow with the herbs they need. There, they meet the bully squirrel Waggs (who insulted Michelle), and Willy, a tough but sensible mouse who grows a liking to Abigail. After getting the eyebright, they discover that the lungwort is on a giant cliff making it inaccessible by foot. Russell suggests they use Cornelius' airship, the Flapper-Wing-a-Ma-Thing, to get to the lungwort, which he unknowingly brought along to be a bag for food he decides to bring.
The Furlings manage to get the lungwort after a dangerous flight up the cliff, then steer their airship back for Dapplewood. They crash-land back in the forest after a storm, and bring the herbs to Michelle and Cornelius. A group of humans who come to clean up the gas' mess appear. The animals, thinking the humans mean them harm, escape through the backdoor of Cornelius' house. Unfortunately, Edgar gets separated from the group, and (after losing his glasses), gets caught in an old trap. When one of the workers finds him, the animals are at first worried about their friend, but are surprised when he frees Edgar and smashes the trap before stuffing it in his trash bag, an act Cornelius never expected a human to do, making him realize that there are good humans in the world.
The next day, Michelle is given the herbs and awakened from her coma. Cornelius sees the Flapper-Wing-a-Ma-Thing and becomes amazed on how the Furlings have grown-up. The Furlings' families and many of the other inhabitants arrive as well, except for Michelle's parents, who died in the gas accident, but Cornelius promises to do his best on taking care of her. The Furlings happily reunite with their families, who are relieved to see that their children are alright. Michelle asks Cornelius if anything will ever be the same again. Cornelius looks at the dead trees in the forest and says to her that if everyone works as hard to save Dapplewood as the Furlings did to save Michelle, it will be.
- Michael Crawford as Cornelius
- Ellen Blain as Abigail
- Benji Gregory as Edgar
- Paige Gosney as Russell
- Elisabeth Moss as Michelle
- Ben Vereen as Phineas
- Will Estes as Willy
- Charlie Adler as Waggs
- Rickey D'Shon Collins as Bosworth
- Don Reed - Marshbird
- Robert David Hall as Truck driver
- Paul Eiding as Abigail's father
- Janet Waldo as Edgar's mother
- Susan Silo as Russell's mother
- Angel Harper as Bosworth's mother
- Benjamin Kimball Smith as Russell's brother
- Haven Hartman as Russell's sister.
- Phyllis Smith as Abigail's Mother (uncredited/deleted scenes)
- Jodi Benson as Herself/Narrator (uncredited/deleted scenes)
- Frank Welker as the Barn Owl
Once Upon a Forest was conceived as early as 1989, when the head of graphic design at HTV, Rae Lambert, devised an environmental tale entitled A Furling's Story as a pitch to the American cartoon studio Hanna-Barbera, along with partner Mike Young. Thanks to screenwriters Mark Young and Kelly Ward, the project started as a made-for-TV movie with The Endangered as its new name. With 20th Century Fox on board, it was re-designed as a theatrical feature, with a US$13 million cost attached. The producer was David Kirschner, former chairman and CEO of Hanna-Barbera.
At the suggestion of Liz Kirschner, the wife of the film's producer, The Phantom of the Opera's Broadway star Michael Crawford was chosen to play Cornelius. Members of South Central Los Angeles' First Baptist Church were chosen to voice the chorus accompanying the preacher bird Phineas (voiced by Ben Vereen). While filming the live-action references, the crew "was thrilled beyond [...] expectations [as the chorus] started flipping their arms and moving their tambourines", recalls Kirschner.
William Hanna, co-founder and chairman of Hanna-Barbera was in charge of the film's production. "[It is] the finest feature production [we have] ever done," he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in May 1993. "When I stood up and presented it to the studio, my eyes teared up. It is very, very heartwarming."
Kirscher spoke to The Dallas Morning News' Philip Wuntch a month later on the diversity of the film's production services: "Disney has great animators, and the studio has them locked up for years and years. We got the best worldwide animators available from Sweden [actually Denmark], Asia, Argentina, Spain and England [actually Canada]." Work on the animation was in the hands of Wang Film Productions in Taiwan; Lapiz Azul Animation and Matias Marcos Animation of Spain; the Jaime Diaz Studio of Argentina; Denmark's A. Film; Phoenix Animation Studios in Toronto, Canada; and The Hollywood Cartoon Company. Mark Swanson Productions did computer animation for the "Yellow Dragons" and the Flapper-Wing-a-Ma-Thing.
Because of time constraints and budget limitations, over ten minutes were cut from the film before its release. One of the deleted scenes featured the voice of Jodi Benson, whose character was removed entirely from the final storyline. At around the same time, the Fox studio changed the name of The Endangered to the present Once Upon a Forest, for fear audiences would find the former title too sensitive for a children's film.
The film's advertising at the time promised a new masterpiece "from the creator of An American Tail". The creator in question was David Kirschner, who served as Tail's executive producer, and actually did create the characters and the story of the film. But ReelViews' James Berardinelli and the Times Union of Albany found it misleading, hoping instead for the likes of Don Bluth or Steven Spielberg.
Hanna-Barbera's feature production unit created to produce this film and Jetsons: The Movie (1990), which also carried an environmental theme, was spun off into another unit under parent company Turner Entertainment, Turner Feature Animation, which produced The Pagemaster and Cats Don't Dance. David Kirschner remained as head of the division. No further theatrical animated films were produced by Hanna-Barbera itself (it would license live-action film adaptations of The Flintstones and Scooby-Doo before being dissolved in 2001).
Release and reception
The Miami Herald took note of the film's potential competition with Universal Studios' already-established summer hit, Jurassic Park: "[A] small but well-crafted animated feature like [this] seemingly doesn't stand a grasshopper's chance. And that's a shame, because this is a delightful family film." Ultimately, Once Upon a Forest did poorly in theaters: after opening with $2.2 million at 1,487 venues, it only managed to make back US$6,582,052 at the North American box office, just over half its budget. The film was also panned by critics and currently holds a 19% rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 21 reviews.
Fox Video's original VHS and laserdisc issue of the film, released on September 21, 1993, proved successful on the home video market for several months. On October 28, 2002, it premiered on DVD, also available on VHS in the UK with the content presented in fullscreen and widescreen formats. The original trailer was included as the only extra on the Australian Region 4 version.
- Main article: Once Upon a Forest (soundtrack)
The score for Once Upon a Forest was among the last that composer James Horner would write for an originally made animated film. Three songs were written for it: "Please Wake Up", "He's Gone/He's Back", and the closing credits track, "Once Upon a Time with Me". The soundtrack, released by Fox Records, has been out of print since its publisher went out of business in the mid-1990s.
Once Upon a Forest was adapted into book form by Elizabeth Isele, with illustrations by Carol Holman Grosvenor, the film's production designer. The tie-in was issued by Turner Publishing and distributed by Andrews McMeel, a month prior to the film's release (ISBN 1-878-68587-2).
The multimedia company Sanctuary Woods also released a MS-DOS point-and-click adventure game based on the film, on CD-ROM and floppy disk for IBM computers; Beth Agnew served as its adapter. Many elements of the game stayed faithful to the original source material.
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