It tells the story of three forest denizens that go on an expedition to cure their friend, Michelle, who became sick from chemical fumes. The film's environmental theme divided critics at the time of its release, along with the animation and story. The film was a box office bomb, grossing US$6.6 million against a budget of $13 million. It was filmed in 1992.
The story opens in a forest known as Dapplewood, where "Furlings" (a term for animal children) live alongside their teacher, Cornelius (Michael Crawford). The four Furlings central to the story are Abigail (Ellen Blain), a woodmouse; Edgar (Benji Gregory), a mole; Russell (Paige Gosney) a hedgehog and a badger named Michelle (Elisabeth Moss), who is Cornelius' niece.
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 run over by a careless driver, who throws away a glass bottle that shatters in the middle of the road. Cornelius orders the Furlings to forget the road and their lesson ends with a boat ride. Afterward, they go back to the forest to find out that it has been destroyed with poison gas from an overturned tanker truck that blew a tire from the broken glass bottle while transporting chlorine gas. Michelle panics and runs to her home to find her parents, breathing in the gas and becoming severely ill. Abigail risks her own life and saves a comatose Michelle, but can do nothing for Michelle's parents. The Furlings go to Cornelius' house nearby for shelter after they find their homes deserted and believe everyone succumbed to the gas. There, Cornelius tells the Furlings of 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 (Ben Vereen), and intimidating construction equipment, which 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 to 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 and Cornelius. A group of humans appear and the animals, thinking the humans mean them harm, 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 the men are cleaning up the gas. The group, especially Cornelius, realize that there are good humans in the world.
Michelle is given the herbs. The next day, she appears unresponsive but a single tear from Cornelius awakens her from her coma. Cornelius sees the Flapper-Wing-a-Ma-Thing and becomes amazed on how the Furlings have grown-up. The Furlings' families and many of the other inhabitants arrive as well, except for Michelle's parents, who died in the gas accident, but Cornelius promises to do his best on taking care of her. 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, it will be.Michael Crawford as Cornelius a badger who is Michelle's uncle and also the teacher of the furlings.
Ellen Blain as Abigail, a young wood mouse and leader of the furlings
Benji Gregory as Edgar, a young mole and planner of the furlings
Paige Gosney as Russell, a young hedgehog and doer of the furlings
Elisabeth Moss as Michelle, a young badger who becomes sick after inhaling poisonous gas, Cornelius' maternal niece
Ben Vereen as Phineas, a religious bird
Will Estes as Willy, a young field mouse who becomes smitten by Abigail
Charlie Adler as Waggs, a squirrel who bullies the furlings and insults Cornelius and Michelle
Rickey D'Shon Collins as Bosworth, a young bird who was saved from a puddle of oil by the furlings
Don Reed - Marshbird
Robert David Hall as Truck driver, the man whose truck crashed and released the gas on Dapplewood
Paul Eiding as Abigail's father, and adult wood mouse
Janet Waldo as Edgar's mother, an adult mole
Susan Silo as Russell's mother, an adult hedgehog
Angel Harper as Bosworth's mother, an adult bird
Benjamin Kimball Smith as Russell's brother, a young hedgehog
Haven Hartman as Russell's sister, a young hedgehog
Frank Welker as The Barn Owl
Florence Warner as Abigail as an Adult (segment "Once Upon A Time With Me") / The Balladeer (as Florence Warner Jones)
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, it 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 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]." 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 name of The Endangered to the present Once Upon a Forest, for fear 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 Tail's executive producer, 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 (1990), 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).
The Miami Herald took note of the film's potential competition with Universal Studios' already-established summer hit, Jurassic Park: "[A] small but well-crafted animated feature like [this] seemingly doesn't stand a grasshopper's chance. And that's a shame, because this is a delightful family film." Ultimately, Once Upon a Forest did poorly in theaters: after opening with $2.2 million at 1,487 venues, it only managed to make back US$6,582,052 at the North American box office, just over half its budget. The film was also panned by critics and currently holds a 19% rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 21 reviews.
Fox Video's original VHS and laserdisc issue of the film, released on September 21, 1993, proved successful on the home video market for several months. On October 28, 2002, it premiered on DVD, also available on VHS in the UK with the content presented in fullscreen and widescreen formats. The original trailer was included as the only extra on the Australian Region 4 version.
Once Upon a Forest was nominated for an Annie Award for Best Animated Feature in 1993. It won an MPSE Golden Reel Award for Best Sound Editing.
The score for Once Upon a Forest was among the last that composer James Horner would write for an originally made animated film. Three songs were written for it: "Please Wake Up", "He's Gone/He's Back", and the closing credits track, "Once Upon a Time with Me". The soundtrack, released by Fox Records, has been out of print since its publisher went out of business in the mid-1990s.
Once Upon a Forest was adapted into book form by Elizabeth Isele, with illustrations by Carol Holman Grosvenor, the film's production designer. The tie-in was issued by Turner Publishing and distributed by Andrews McMeel, a month prior to the film's release (ISBN 1-878-68587-2).
The multimedia company Sanctuary Woods also released a MS-DOS point-and-click adventure game based on the film, on CD-ROM and floppy disk for IBM computers; Beth Agnew served as its adapter. Many elements of the game stayed faithful to the original source material.