Thursday, November 12, 2009

Rage Against the Machine (FernGully)


I am a bit of a fan of the pro-environmental animated film FernGully. While I do disapprove of the extreme political message in the film, it is an entertaining fantasy adventure story with likable characters, so I can mostly push such thoughts aside to enjoy the film. However, as I think about it, I believe the movie’s plot contains such an extreme message that it itself contains troubling subject matter that actually casts a poor light on the general movement the film seeks to promote. This is seen in the characters’ devotion towards the trees they protect and the hatred felt toward the machine that cuts them down, as well as an overall bigoted view of various species, and other instances of dubious morality.
The film does a good job of preaching its message of loving nature and hating pollution. More than that, it portrays trees specifically as almost holy entities, perfect bearers of life that must always be respected. The Leveler, a giant logging machine, is perceived by the fairies as a monstrous creature. FernGully’s creators designed it to look like one, so who can blame them? The idea of a creature capable of cutting down trees is horrific to the fairies. When Crysta first sees humans marking trees to be cut down, she assumes that they must be putting a spell in place to ward off the evil creature.
I have to say that the fairy notion of morality is, well, odd. Shortly after Zak is shrunk down to the size of a fairy, the human is introduced to the primal struggle for survival when he’s stalked by a hungry lizard. The lizard, technically a goanna, sings a song about his need to eat meat while stalking a live person, which in a show like this would be practically any living thing, using lyrics like “You’re a welcome little snack”. As Zak runs, leeches pop up and taunt him about how the lizard’s going to eat him. “Welcome to the food chain”, the lizard says as he draws Zak into his mouth.
Okay, how can this be seen as anything other than sadistic? If this was The Land Before Time, the lizard would be a villainous sharptooth, like various other sadistic carnivores in the series. The lizard only stops eating Zak when Crysta shows up and says that Zak’s her friend. Forest animals worship fairies, I guess, so the lizard releases him and presumably goes off to sadistically hunt someone else.
“Mother Nature is a bloody bitch.”
Howard Bloom
I imagine the scene exists to bring home the fact that Zak is dependent on Crysta for survival in the rainforest, something that should be obvious anyway, but whatever. It does serve to illustrate the barbarisms of predator and prey, made extra sadistic in the context of the everything-is-sapient type of world depicted. It is also made clear that the fairies don’t care about it. Nature red in tooth and claw is a-okay for them. Crysta didn’t want Zak to die because he’s a human, which makes him a natural friend of fairies, and the lizard let him go because of this apparent fairy-worship. Earlier in the movie Crysta is almost eaten by a bird of prey, which is something the fairies fear but is not something they demonize. However, an apparent creature eating trees can only be seen as a monster.
Later on, Zak, who has somehow missed Crysta’s environmentalism, tries to carve her name in the tree she lives in. “No! You mustn’t do that!” she cries, putting his hand on the tree’s injury and asking if he can’t feel the tree’s pain. Zak, lacking Crysta’s magical empathy, of course does not, and humanity is cast as ignorant, blundering, and unknowingly cruel in the natural world. Now, I can understand how this scene alone is different from the lizard scene because at least the lizard sought sustenance, whereas Zak causes pain needlessly.
The problem is that Crysta can’t conceive of something causing pain to trees for any worthwhile reason. “Trees give life. They make the clouds, the water, the air.” Never minding all the plants and animals (woodpeckers, beavers, etc.) that naturally damage trees that FernGully’s environmentalist creators inexplicably didn’t know about, it is strange that Crysta is unable to imagine a creature essentially good that would eat trees, while she accepts the lizard’s carnivorous sadism as perfectly natural.
The Leveler is perceived as some sort of creature, as the fairies have no understanding of machinery. Why not try to communicate with the Leveler? They could ask it to only eat a few trees (and not the one imprisoning Hexxus), explaining how important trees are to their ecosystem, so that the creature could find its place in the circle of life (with beavers). The Leveler, being a machine driven by humans, obviously wouldn’t listen, and FernGully could have an overall message about humans acting outside of the natural order by causing needless destruction. Instead the message is a misguided one about trees being holy.
“Everything in our world is connected by the delicate strands of the web of life, which is a balance between the forces of destruction and the magical forces of creation.”
–Magi Lune, fairy matriarch
One of the problems with FernGully is the religious influence on the story. While not explicit, such influence is apparent with Magi Lune’s discussion of a creator, and with humans held in high regard over all other animals. Creation is overseen by the fairies, a matriarchal society based off of the Gaia sort of myth holding that the earth is this motherly source of fertility and such, while the humans are their friends and at a similar level in the hierarchy of animals. Fairies use their magic to make trees grow, which in turn “give life”, and humans are a neutral force that can either support creation or destruction. This idea that there is some magical source of all life based in trees misunderstands nature, and the notions of certain species having superiority over others is inconsistent with the storyline.
In a world where all or most animals are intelligent rational beings, to have humans be innately superior to the others is… well, I would say racist, except that word doesn’t really apply. Speciesist? I suppose the proper term is anthropocentric. I know a lot of environmentalists challenge that viewpoint in the real world where animals are not all sapient, so it seems especially strange to see it in FernGully. (On the other hand, most environmentalists have heard of beavers.) Speaking of racism, though, it seems worthwhile to note that every humanoid character is white (with the exception of Hexxus only because he lacks skin). As the fairies are indigenous to Fern Gully, an Australian rainforest, it seems logical that they would be Aborigines. Either the creators didn’t think that would sell well or they just didn’t consider it at all, as the lack of characters with Australian accents might suggest. It’s ethnocentrism either way.
In conclusion, FernGully presents a troubling view of morality. In the creators’ haste to create a movie to promote rainforest preservation, they seem to have abandoned the depiction of reasonable ethic standards within the narrative itself. The circle of life viewpoint, partially promoted, is set back by the arbitrary religious values in place, and the end result is rather twisted. Now, I want it made clear that I enjoy this movie. It’s fun. I like the characters. I like the way actor Tim Curry makes Hexxus sound bizarrely seductive (especially in the full version of “Toxic Love”). I like the romance between Zak and Crysta. I like FernGully as entertainment, so I do not just hate the movie… but here’s a bunch of stuff I don’t like about it.

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