The shot that killed Bambi’s mother is etched into many people’s childhood memories, and tales about mankind’s destruction of nature have recurred at various points in animation history – take Watership Down (1978) or The Fox and the Hound (1981), for example. Yet the 1990s saw an unprecedented surge in environmental narratives. This movement was wide-ranging and international in scope, eventually developing into a distinct subgenre of animation that continues in films like Wall-E (2008), The Lorax (2012) and Moana (2016).
In the 1990s, earth’s population exceeded 6 billion humans. As the population rose, so too did deforestation, carbon emissions and ecological disasters. The decade witnessed one of the largest oil spills on record, alongside a shrinking ozone and accelerated species decline. The fate of the planet began to loom large in people’s minds. Educating the rising generation to protect the earth’s resources became a top priority of the environmental movement, and cartoons became a compelling tool for fostering change.
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In honour of International Day of Forests, let’s look at some of the most significant environmental animation of the era.
Captain Planet and the Planeteers (1990 to 1996)
Switching tactics from the cute-animals-in-peril narrative of previous decades, this Hanna-Barbera cartoon series instead tapped into the superhero genre with environmental champion Captain Planet. Gaia, the mystical personification of Mother Earth, distributes five power rings to five children around the world. With their powers combined – earth, air, fire, water and heart – the Planeteers combat ecological disasters, thwart greedy and destructive villains and educate humanity to prevent future crises.
The show was a popular landmark in after-school animation and became the second longest-running US cartoon series of the 1990s. But the show’s ecological message was not just performative lip-service. The tie-in toy line of posable action figures were specifically made with recycled plastic and designed to be recyclable themselves. Series producer Barbara Pyle also dedicated a portion of the show’s revenue to establish the Captain Planet Foundation, which currently helps provide environmental grants to students and funds youth gardening programmes.
FernGully: The Last Rainforest (1992)
Director: Bill Kroyer
Long ago, fairies and humans fought side-by-side to imprison the dark spirit Hexxus inside an enchanted tree. Fairykind believes humans went extinct in this battle, until young and curious fairy Crysta discovers Zak, a human lumberjack chopping down trees in her forest. When the other human loggers unwittingly cut down the wrong tree, vengeful Hexxus is released into the world once more. Now Crysta and Zak must work together to drain Hexxus of his powers and save FernGully from destruction.
FernGully was shown on Earth Day in the United Nations general assembly hall, the first film of any genre to do so. In a departure from traditional tropes, FernGully casts the pollution-monster Hexxus as the true villain of the story, allowing the human characters to become part of the solution in saving the forest. A portion of the film’s proceeds were donated to Greenpeace and the Rainforest Foundation, and the animation team re-used and recycled their drawing paper so the fewest number of trees would be killed.
Once upon a Forest (1993)
Director: Charles Grosvenor
A young badger is left orphaned and fighting for her life when an overturned tanker truck leaks poisoned gas into the forest of Dapplewood. Now it’s up to her friends – a plucky group of woodland youngsters called the ‘furlings’ – to find and gather medicinal herbs for an antidote. But the herbs grow far away, and the furlings brave the dangers of the human world to retrieve the medicine before it’s too late.
Another environmental tale from Hanna-Barbera, this feature-length musical demonstrates how eco-conscious messages were becoming a recurring trend in family films. William Hanna, the studio co-founder and executive producer of the film, felt Once upon a Forest was the finest feature the company had ever produced. Though the film lost money at the box office, critics praised its well-intentioned message and commitment to raising awareness for the woodland.
The Animals of Farthing Wood (1993 to 1995)
Directors: Philippe Leclerc and Elphin Lloyd-Jones
After a housing development clearcuts their forest and drains their pond, the now-homeless animals of Farthing Wood must band together for survival. Their only hope lies in reaching the distant White Deer Park, a nature reserve that stands as the last beacon of shelter and safety. Choosing Fox as their leader, the animals swear an oath to protect one another while on their perilous journey towards a new home. But despite the group’s best efforts, many lives are lost along the way.
Based on the book series by Colin Dann, The Animals of Farthing Wood ran for three seasons and was known for its gritty depiction of animal lives cut short by human activity. A pair of quivering hedgehogs are flattened beneath the wheels of a car in one episode, and, in another, a distraught pheasant is shot to death while searching for his murdered mate. The show tackled everything from the cruelty of fox hunting to the dangers of man-made forest fires and chemical runoffs poisoning streams. Occupying the same hedgerow setting as The Wind in the Willows or Peter Rabbit, The Animals of Farthing Wood is a sobering look at the threat of urbanisation to British wildlife.
Pom Poko (1994)
Director: Isao Takahata
The lives of a tribe of tanuki (Japanese raccoon dogs) are threatened by a sprawling urban development project. With dwindling food supplies and no space to raise their pups, the tanuki resort to the ancient art of shapeshifting to try and save themselves. The most skilled tanuki can transform into humans or even enormous monsters, but some of the weaker tanuki cannot transform at all. The tribe devolves into chaos as some factions try to halt construction by frightening and killing the human developers, while other factions argue that the old way of life is over and the tanuki must abandon their culture to live as humans.
In contrast to The Animals of Farthing Wood, Pom Poko depicts a no-win scenario in which the forest-dwellers have no real avenues for escape. While some of the shapeshifting tanuki are able to start new lives in human form, the other tanuki must scrape a living from garbage bins and huddle in the city’s parks for shelter. At the film’s core is a strong sense of loss – loss for the paved-over paradise and loss for the tanuki’s culture and freedom. The film ends with a plea for humans to be more mindful of nature in the future.
Princess Mononoke (1997)
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
After receiving a cursed wound from a demon, Prince Ashitaka travels in search of the Great Forest Spirit to find a cure. Ashitaka finds the right forest, but the land is in the grip of a devastating war between the human village of Tataraba and the animals and nature gods of the woods. Caught between the two sides, Ashitaka tries to persuade them that their short-sighted vengeance is corrupting their souls and will only result in suffering and death.
Princess Mononoke is one of the most lushly animated environmental films of the 1990s and has some of the most complex and ambiguous morals. What makes this film different from the others is the lack of a clear ‘good side’ and ‘bad side’. The animals are not entirely pure and innocent (many are bloodthirsty and fight among themselves) and the humans are not wholly cruel and selfish (Tataraba is refuge for social outcasts). Rather than an overly simplistic humans versus nature message, it’s more of a tale about hatred and vengeance opposing compromise and balance. With the right cooperation, there’s hope that both sides can learn to live in peace.