FernGully and Rock-a-Doodle Were a Last Stand for Non-Disney Animation, 30 Years AgoMovies Features Don Bluth
This year has made it clear that the Walt Disney Company still dominates the American animation game, with or without billion-dollar blockbusters. Last fall’s Encanto blew up once it hit Disney+, and just won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, while Pixar’s Turning Red got some of the company’s best reviews in years, becoming a family-film event despite debuting on the streamer (alongside an abbreviated theatrical run—meant to qualify it for next year’s Oscars). But as successful as Disney is, their control of the market is far from complete. DreamWorks unveils their latest feature The Bad Guys this month, Illumination’s Sing 2 actually outgrossed the theatrical run of Encanto and Jujutsu Kaisen 0: The Movie, a film prequel to a popular anime series, just had a successful wide theatrical release in the United States. Over on streaming, Netflix and Apple are both ponying up for big, studio-level feature animation.
Thirty years ago, by contrast, eking out a theatrical release for a non-Disney cartoon could represent a considerable struggle. Disney’s resurgence with The Little Mermaid and the recently Best Picture-nominated Beauty and the Beast hadn’t yet created a major animation boom elsewhere, so it was unusual that April 1992 saw the release of two non-Disney animated films over the course of just two weeks: Rock-a-Doodle on April 3rd, and FernGully: The Last Rainforest on April 10th. Less strange was the fact that their combined U.S. grosses were passed by Disney’s Aladdin within about ten days of its release later that year. (Miraculously, another non-Disney double feature appeared before the year was out, in July of 1992: The live-action/animation hybrid Cool World and the stand-up-based Bébé’s Kids came out within weeks of each other—both from Paramount, no less—and both bombed, though Bébé’s Kids found an audience on home video.) With so much 1992 wreckage on the landscape, non-Disney feature cartoons in the U.S. became even more scant over the next few years.
Revisiting these FernGully and Rock-a-Doodle today is a noteworthy slog through 75-minute kiddie pictures with moments of real artistry—though Rock-a-Doodle brings down the average on the latter considerably. Oddly, between these two projects, Rock-a-Doodle was the one with some kind of brand-name behind it. FernGully’s producers were relative novices in feature animation, its environmental fairy tale a passion project for producer Wayne Young and his ex-wife Diana, whose stories the film was based on. Rock-a-Doodle director Don Bluth, meanwhile, was well-practiced at combating Disney. He had worked for the company throughout the ’70s, and during a studio low point he successfully struck out on his own: The Secret of NIMH was better-regarded than Disney’s The Black Cauldron a few years later, while in a same-year match-up, his An American Tail bested The Great Mouse Detective at the box office. In 1988, The Land Before Time came out on the same day as Disney’s Oliver & Company, on more screens, and handily won the weekend, even if the movies wound up grossing similar amounts in the end.
Bluth’s hot streak ended with middling results for All Dogs Go to Heaven opposite The Little Mermaid in 1989, but Rock-a-Doodle is something else entirely. It has the tenor of a dying gasp, emitted with clarity even when the movie itself is actively confusing. Loosely inspired by the play Chantecler, about a rooster who believes his crow causes the sun to rise every morning, the movie casts singer/songwriter Glen Campbell as the cocky, slightly dimwitted Chanticleer, who flees the farm in shame when it appears that he does not, in fact, control the sun. He embarks upon a successful career as an Elvis-style singer, which sounds like a neat idea for a movie, so of course it happens mostly off-screen. Instead, the movie follows a gaggle of animals, led by a live-action-boy-turned-animated-kitten Edmund (Toby Scott Ganger), seeking to retrieve Chanticleer from the city—because it turns out that the rooster really did affect the sunrise (?), and in his absence the farm is threatened by endless rains and also owls, who helped to engineer his departure in the first place (?!).
The casting of Campbell and use of Elvis imagery feels perfectly in tune with Bluth’s traditionalist fustiness. It’s also the least tedious of the many old-fashioned habits on display here. Disney voiceover go-to Phil Harris—Baloo the Bear himself—narrates much of the movie, playing a jowly hound dog (is there any other kind in the world of animation influenced almost exclusively by ‘60s and ‘70s Disney productions?). Edmund is the kind of naïf hero Bluth adores, speaking in the soft-r parlance of “cute” movie kids, and outfitted in a hat and overlong sleeves in a shameless knockoff of An American Tail’s Fievel. Somehow, Dom DeLuise is absent (was Bluth angry that he took a role in Oliver & Company?), but Charles Nelson Reilly is there. I don’t remember if the mangy animals yell “Charge!” at any point, as they inevitably do in the Disney productions Bluth most closely imitates, and I refuse to watch the movie a third time to find out. The worst of Bluth makes it seem as if his formative experience was not seeing Disney classics as a child, but working on The Rescuers as an adult.
So yes, Rock-a-Doodle is a very bad, sub-Rescuers cartoon—it’s now streaming on Prime, Tubi and Pluto, and can be comfortably avoided everywhere—and worst of all is how empty its gestures are. Whether due to interference with or difficulty in the filmmaking, the movie doesn’t even bother to explain its central plot point about whether or not the rooster actually controls the sun. It seems more concerned with dragging out all the stuff that’s supposed to make an animated feature: The songs! The familiar voices! The cuteness! An animal wearing extra-long sleeves! Disney and DreamWorks have both been dinged for rigidly adhering to their own formulas—often rightly so—but their worst stuff has nothing on Rock-a-Doodle, which performs a disconnected pantomime of formula.
This leaves FernGully in a better position by default—and in a lot of ways, it is genuinely forward-thinking. It’s an original story, rather than an adapted fairy tale, with then-contemporary resonance, set in a rainforest (though never explicitly identified beyond the title), warning about the dangers of pollution and deforestation. Two of its songs include rapping—and one is performed by actual rapper Tone Loc! The other is performed by Robin Williams, who the movie, credit due, scooped up for voiceover work prior to his beloved work in Disney’s Aladdin.
Williams isn’t the only aspect of the movie that overlaps with Disney triumphs past and present. Fairy Crysta (Samantha Mathis) yearns to know more about humans, specifically an accidentally-shrunken one called Zak (Jonathan Ward); Little Mermaid vibes abound, and Crysta’s mentor discusses the “web of life” in a way that sounds like a woo-woo version of The Lion King. That web of life is threatened when Zak’s forest-destroying employer unleashes a powerful evil force that feeds on pollution, and like a lot of Disney heroines of this period, Crysta is caught between arcless feistiness and the romance track.
Despite its reunion of Pump Up the Volume’s Mathis and Christian Slater (he has a supporting role as another fairy!), FernGully isn’t exactly ’90s youth culture crystallized into animation—it might be more interesting in 2022 if it were more directly, rather than vaguely, dated. It’s more a throwback to the unevenness of hand-drawn 2-D cartoons: There are shots fluid with motion and rich with color, while some of the character animation looks soft and sloppy. There’s also some charm to FernGully owing its entire existence to a divorced couple who wanted to bring an environmental fable to life (and could only do so through the magic of a Robin Williams rap). Most striking is that this cartoon wasn’t made to form the cornerstone of an animation empire. FAI, the movie’s production company, made one other movie, a direct-to-video FernGully sequel, before its parent company was absorbed—right around the time DreamWorks was making in-roads as a viable animation upstart.
The eventual success of DreamWorks led to other big-name animation studios, most of which can be wearying in their incessant branding. (Without ever making a movie quite as bad as Rock-a-Doodle, Illumination has managed to create more of an ongoing nuisance.) Either way, little of this came at the expense of Disney, who only had a short dry period for animated features, many of which made more money than you might guess, and whose failures were mitigated by Pixar phenomenon.
As the 2000s wore on, big-studio animation got more plentiful, even as it remains most often seen as kids’ stuff with some potential for parent-friendly references. (Look no further than this year’s Oscars, where the Best Animated Feature nominees were framed as timeless and frequently princess-centric children’s entertainment, despite one being an animated docudrama about escaping Afghanistan as a refugee.) Those dust-ups with Bluth in the ‘80s were ultimately the closest anyone ever came to overtaking Disney. FernGully and Rock-a-Doodle were mere blips on the way to a diversified but still-formulaic slate of cartoons that eventually abandoned the art of hand-drawn animation—and despite their homemade qualities, neither movie qualifies as a classic lost to the Disney struggle. Honestly, Disney’s quality is nearly as hard to beat as its corporate power; a movie like Encanto is as excellent as its parent company is unnervingly powerful. Yet it was probably important, in some small way, that other companies tried to stand up to Disney in those intervening years, when it was much riskier than it should have been. In that sense, a clunky parable about corporate pollution and a graceless pastiche of cartoon clichés were the right warnings, however unintentional.
Jesse Hassenger writes about movies and other pop-culture stuff for a bunch of outlets including The A.V. Club, Polygon, The Week, NME, and SportsAlcohol.com, where he also has a podcast. Following @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out about what he’s watching, listening to, or eating.