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‘Once Upon a Forest’ (G)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
June 18, 1993

Walt Disney's enduring superiority in crowd-pleasing animation, from neoclassic ("Aladdin") to state of the art ("Who Killed Roger Rabbit"), renders most competition futile. "Once Upon a Forest," a Hanna-Barbera production about furry woodland animals, bears unintentional testimony to this awesome dynasty.

Dismally unimaginative, this 72-minute cartoon will be excruciating for anyone endowed with judgment. As for the extremely young, they will have no problem with it. But this is the same audience for whom mashing soggy crackers into the living room carpet is a good time.

One day in a forest called Dapplewood, an overturned truck spills noxious gas. The vapor begins defoliating the woods, which, given the mediocre animation, doesn't seem like such a bad idea. When the fumes overcome little badger Michelle, her friends -- a wood mouse called Abigail, a mole named Edgar and a food-chomping hedgehog named Russell -- undertake a lifesaving mission.

Encouraged by their mentor, badger Cornelius (voice of Michael Crawford), the threesome sets out for distant meadows in search of eyebright and lungwort, a natural antidote. Hostilities lurk along the way, from giant human digging machines to an enormous, glinty-eyed owl. There's also a musical interlude when the Dapplewooders run into ranting preacher bird Phineas (voice of Ben Vereen) and his hallelujah flock of followers. Ultimately, herb-gathering success depends on building a whirlybird flying contraption from Cornelius's blueprint.

Produced by David Kirschner, whose varied resume includes "An American Tail" and the Chucky-doll horror movies, this movie is entirely originality-free. In children's films, character traits don't have to be astoundingly novel, but there should be an imaginative twist to the cliches. But this lineup -- wise old badger, timid and bespectacled mole, greedy hedgehog and so on -- is creatively moribund. A noxious vapor of mediocrity seems to have overcome everyone associated with the project.

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