Before An Inconvenient Truth, before Leonardo DiCaprio’s aloof but charming charity-based Twitter account, and before the recent astronomical rise in 19-year-olds spending their spring breaks WWOOFing in Honduras, the 1992 animated musical FernGully: The Last Rainforest gave us reason to be reticent about destroying our environment: that humans are abhorrently greedy, the trees can feel pain, and you might get laid by a hot fairy if you make it seem like you care.
20th Century Fox’s FernGully takes place in an enchanted forest inhabited by talking insects and fairies. Our protagonist is the young, ambitious, pixie-donning fairy, Crysta. She is parentless, living only with her wise fairy grandmother, Magi, who holds the highest mystical status of all of the fairies in the forest. When humans intrude with bulldozers to cut down all of the trees for an unnamed lumber corporation, Crysta takes it upon herself to stop it. She can only do this with the help of a handsome human man, Zak*, whom she has accidentally transformed into fairy size with a misguided spell. The film is half heavy-handed message about our species cruelly destroying the fragile environment and half magic spell-driven romcom a la Seventeen Again and The Switch.
I watched it daily as a child.
Zak is really the one that holds my interest here. He is young, blonde, and wears a mid-1970s Bruce Springsteen outfit. We are introduced to him a bit later in the movie, after we have fallen in love with FernGully and all of the magic that it beholds. He is just a good old city boy working in deforestation as a summer job. Our blonde dreamer is the one we can relate to here. Have we not all spent a summer doing something shitty and simultaneously having some grand realization about life?
During the summer of 2011, following my freshman year of college, I subletted an apartment and worked three jobs to pay for my rent and food. While everyone else flew home to Maryland or California for the summer I worked at Starbucks, an improv theatre box office, and a catering company. I was completely self-sustaining at age nineteen, and yes, I flaunted it once we all arrived back at school that fall like a proud, delusion-fueled independent douchebag. Like I am doing now.
That summer hurt. My feet ached all the time, I always took the very last lonely 1:15am subway home from work, and I did not know anyone else living in Boston. I lived in a basement apartment, meaning that it was completely windowless. I had no sense of time of day except for the penetrating, harsh, boxy red light coming from my alarm clock situated across my room. It made that summer the closest to a Russian novel that my life will ever be. A completely self-imposed Russian novel, that is. My life was seriously lacking some of that straight-up Dostoevsky-imported shit that is supposed to make you smart and conviction-filled and just tired enough of everything to seem like a cool friend others would want to acquire. I had to get my hands on it.
I could have flown home to Florida and spent a summer playing Wii Fit, receiving a daily morning yoga lesson from Landon, the handsome virtual male trainer I named that you can pick to coach you through your Warrior pose. But I wanted something that would teach me about the bigger picture of our universe instead. Ticket for one shitty self-important young adult, please.
Once Zak is shrunken down to three inches in size he begins to follow Crysta around, infatuated with the fairy lifestyle and eager to learn about things that are different than him. He chooses to stay tiny for longer than necessary after learning about the magic of FernGully. He and Crysta spend an amazing night leaping through a multi-colored lake in a grotto and we are left to assume that he got lucky. He is going to be bragging to his ultimate frisbee friends at Tufts in September about that one undoubtedly.
Even more importantly, though, in 90s movie fashion, Zak learns that corporations are bad and that he cannot be a part of the rat race that is expected of him. He has spent a maximum of 36 hours as a tiny forest dweller, and yet his entire life approach is changed. It is the first thing that he mentions to his co-workers after they reunite, putting his arms around them and telling them, “Guys, things have gotta change.”
Yes, he is that guy.
And I have been that person. I think plenty of us have. We want to feel like an adventurous protagonist who learns things. It is a young person thing especially. A friend once told me a theory that — no matter how well-off — every person wants a certain level of troubles in order to feel like they have something to overcome and courageously come out the other side of. All I could talk about in September of 2011 was how confident I had become after spending a summer completely alone, forced to interact with new people on a daily basis, eating Thai food on my bed alone at night watching Hey, Arnold! on Netflix. The truth is, three months is not that long, and I still will never know true hardship as a white woman living in the United States who is attending college and has a good family.
This being said, I sure do get off on reminiscing about the tiniest taste of that real Crime and Punishment shit I snorted once at a party but then had to leave early to answer a phone call from a friend because she was “going through something.”
As for a lesson learned from any of it, manufacturing your own beliefs and experiences just because you are excited by the prospect of being thought of as the person who has beliefs and experiences is just as shitty as eating Fritos on your parents’ couch and fantasizing about Landon from Wii Fit. Landon is his name and I do not care what you intended, inventor of Nintendo. Go invent something important!
With such a short time spent learning about an issue and yet immediately becoming so passionate about it, Zak from FernGully: The Last Rainforest is the KONY reblogger of 1992.
I will not ruin the film’s conclusion for you, but I will tell you a few things you have to look forward to when you make time for this Netflix Instant gem: Batty, the high-energy bat voiced by Robin Williams, sings a comedic romp about how humans in labs destroyed him; Zak earnestly says the line, “You know? Bodacious, bad…tubular?!” while trying to explain his culture to Crysta; and the reveal of the defining symbol that the unnamed corporation is truly evil, shown during a pan of the control panel of the giant tree-chopping machine: a half-eaten pizza and a crumpled candy bar wrapper that simply reads “CANDY”.
*Note: I would like to expand on the significance of the male protagonist being named Zak. Official research university sponsored studies** have determined that the spelling of the names Zach, Zack, Zac, and Zak produce wildly different inherent personality traits. Zachs are our beloved classic, writerly, sensitive, cardigan-wearing sweethearts. Zacks are approval-seeking fraternity guys. Zacs are pop stars and Zaks are the wild cards. Zaks could either be Ed Hardy shirt-wearing ghost hunters or slam poets or our young, salt-of-the-Earth protagonist who learns a little something about life.
**Source not yet verified. Unless you count the experience of going to college as a source.