SUMMARY: The battle between woodland creatures and a group of ruthless loggers is played out as a mini-history of animation.
WHY IT’S HERE: Osamu Tezuka’s ‘Legend of the Forest’ is a complex masterpiece which was sadly cut short by the director’s death. Tezuka’s film is set to Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony and the plan had been to make a short for all four movements but ultimately only the first and fourth movement were completed. From its poster, time and theme, ‘Legend of the Forest’ looks like just another wannabe Disney film and it managed to get lost in the flood of forest-based environmentalist animations that appeared in the late-80s and early 90s. But Tezuka’s film is so much more ambitious. While the notion of setting his story to classical music is an obvious tip of the hat to ‘Fantasia’, ‘Legend of the Forest’ juxtaposes its tale of man vs. nature with a history of animation.
Tezuka moves fluidly and roughly chronologically through animated styles. We begin with a slide-show of drawings and then a zoetrope, before moving into pastiches of Emile Cohl, Windsor McCay, the Fleischer Brothers, Disney, Japanese anime and cheap TV animation. The styles flow into each other beautifully. One particularly effective moment has a black and white Fleischer style squirrel disappear into a hole in a tree, only to emerge from the darkness as a full colour Disney squirrel. The environmental theme showing man’s capacity for destruction is neatly offset by the history of animation, showing man’s capacity for creation.
As is the case with most environmentally themed films, many viewers found ‘Legend of the Forest’ too preachy and Tezuka does go a tad far in making the head of the loggers a caricature of Hitler, a dangerous comparison to draw so lightly even when mimicking the satirical nature of specific animations. But there is more than just an environmental message here. The final battle between the cheap, duplicated loggers with their bold outlines and the detailed, attractive inhabitants of the forest is also the battle against the domination of cheap TV animation over the classic style, a metaphor Don Bluth probably appreciated greatly!
Lasting half an hour, ‘Legend of the Forest’ is, for all its flaws, a masterpiece and a treat for animation fans. Although his progression through history in the wonderful first movement is roughly chronological, Tezuka peppers the film with reference. So a ‘Felix the Cat’ style sequence features a vicious take on ‘Dumbo’, in which a flying squirrel is hindered in his flight by crows trying to attack him. A brief moment in which a bird loses his beak is perhaps a tip of the hat to Chuck Jones’s Hunting trilogy, in which Daffy Duck’s beak spends more time off his face than on it! There are lots of references to pick up which make ‘Legend of the Forest’ infinitely rewatchable. One of the most beautiful animated films ever made, perhaps ‘Legend of the Forest’s niche appeal to animation fans is what has made it so forgotten. For lovers of the medium like myself, it is a wonder to behold.