Once Upon a Forest is a 1993 British-American animated fantasy film directed by Charles Grosvenor and written by Mark Young & Kelly Young. It is based on the "Furlings" characters created by Rae Lambert.
The film was released on June 18, 1993 by 20th Century Fox.
In the forest of Dapplewood, four "Furlings" (Abigail, a woodmouse; Edgar, a mole; Russell, a hedgehog, and Michelle, a badger) live alongside their teacher and Michelle's uncle, Cornelius.
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 gets run over by a careless driver, who throws away a glass bottle that shatters in the middle of the road.
Afterward, they go back to the forest to find that it has been destroyed by poison gas from an overturned tanker truck that blew a tire from the broken glass bottle.
Michelle panics and runs to her home to find her parents, breathing in the gas and becomes severely ill. Abigail risks her own life to save a comatose Michelle, but Michelle's parents succumb to the effects of the gas.
The Furlings go to Cornelius' house nearby for shelter after they find their homes deserted, believing everyone else to have succumbed to the gas. Cornelius tells the Furlings about his past encounter with humans that claimed the lives of his parents, hence why he is fearful of all human beings. He says he needs two herbs to save Michelle's life: lungwort and eyebright.
With limited time, the Furlings head off for their journey the next day. After encountering numerous dangers, including a hungry barn owl, a flock of religious wrens led by preacher Phineas, and intimidating construction equipment that the wrens call "yellow dragons", the Furlings make it to the meadow with the herbs they need. There, they meet the bully squirrel Waggs, and Willy, a tough but sensible mouse who grows a liking for 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.
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 & Cornelius.
A group of humans appear and the animals (thinking the humans are going to hurt them), escape through the backdoor of Cornelius' house. Edgar gets separated from the group and gets caught in an old trap. When one of the workers finds him, the animals are surprised when he frees Edgar and destroys the trap, revealing that the men are cleaning up the gas.
Michelle is given the herbs; the next day, she appears unresponsive, but a single tear from Cornelius awakens Michelle from her coma. Cornelius sees the Flapper-Wing-a-Ma-Thing and becomes amazed by how the Furlings have grown up. The Furlings' families and many of the other inhabitants arrive as well (except for Michelle's parents); Cornelius promises to do his best on taking care of Michelle.
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's life, 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 as Marshbird
"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, the film 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 of 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]."
The 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 film's name from "The Endangered" to "Once Upon a Forest" because they feared 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 the executive producer for "An American Tail" 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" (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).
"Once Upon a Forest" performed poorly in theaters, opening at #8 at the box office, grossing $2,206,251 during its opening weekend. Domestically, it grossed $6,582,052 (which was just over half its budget).
On Rotten Tomatoes, "Once Upon a Forest" has an approval rating of 18% based on 22 reviews with an average rating of 4.9\10.
Roger Ebert gave the film a 3 in a half-star rating, saying that it "has a good heart; I liked the way it treated its themes, but the movie is kind of dumb."
Gene Siskel said that "The characters are not memorable; the songs are lame and the drawing style is pedestrian."
Desson Howe of the Washington Post called it "dismally unimaginative."
Johanna Steinmetz of the Chicago Tribune said that the film "lets ecobabble and an essentially pessimistic view of the future dominate its story."