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EARTHWATCH

An Aussie Vision : The creators of 'FernGully--The Last Rainforest' find a taste of home in Ojai. Their film opens tomorrow.

April 09, 1992|RICHARD KAHLENBERG | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Ojai for almost a century has been a place of refuge for people seeking to escape the stress of the urban environment. Like the "hill stations" of India, which provided folks in oppressively humid Bombay a summer getaway, Ojai has evolved in the minds of Southern Californians as a synonym for "safety valve"--something you employ just at the moment when your system can't cope anymore.

This idea of escaping, or running away to a nicer place, is going to be less and less of an option in this era of ozone holes, global warming and swelling pollution. We're going to have to fix things up where we regularly live--stand and fight, if you will, rather than just cut and run.

This is the philosophy of a group of filmmakers I've encountered recently. Ojai is where they hang out. They came to Ojai because it reminds them of their hometown of Byron Bay in Australia, an endangered area of rain forest on the continent Down Under.

They've taken their fight to save the rain forest of Byron Bay all the way to 20th Century Fox. For the last two years, they've spent the workweek in a Hollywood animation studio, creating "FernGully--The Last Rainforest," which premieres tomorrow in Ventura County theaters.

On weekends, the Australian contingent heads for Ojai "to recharge our batteries and reconnect with our roots," said the film's producer, Wayne Young.

"Ojai is like Byron Bay, except at home I can walk to the surfing," said Matthew Perry, creative consultant on the Fox feature. Byron Bay is to Sydney what Ojai is to Los Angeles, except the Australian cities are 10 hours drive apart.

"An Aussie friend in L.A. told me Ojai's a good place to get hammock scars," said Perry, sounding like a character from "Crocodile Dundee." It turns out, by the way, that Peter Faiman, the director of that famous film, is one of the producers of "FernGully." These Aussies stick together. At least when they're at the office.

"At work it's cramped--15 people in each closet," complained Perry, describing the conditions that result in a lot of names showing up on the credits of an animated film.

When the Aussies get to their rented cottages in Ojai and Wheeler Hot Springs, they want a lot less togetherness. No "management retreat" here. What they're looking for, Perry said, is anything but group activities like executive golf or power jogging. They want "power sleep."

It's astounding to me that a bunch of foreigners from a town of 3,000 in New South Wales could piece together the cash needed to hire American animators at Kroyer Films in Burbank, get major studio distribution in L.A. and land Robin Williams--as the voice of a crazy bat--for an eco-film.

If I wanted to be glib about it, I could speculate that the Ojai atmosphere sharpened their wits in some way. The David Zucker movie with an eco-theme, "Naked Gun 2 1/2," was cooked up--partly--in Ojai. But I learned while interviewing the "FernGully" folks that they have been plugging away at this project for almost 20 years.

Diana Young is the author of the Australian children's book on which the movie is based. Their driving ambition, she said, was to keep the rain forest from being destroyed--back in her home country, or up in our Pacific Northwest, or in Brazil or anywhere.

Changing fashions have served the Ojai-Aussie struggle well. Major studios now seem to want eco-films. This has triggered merchandising "tie-ins" with the likes of Dial Soap, Green Giant canned foods and Pizza Hut.

And in less than two weeks on Earth Day, April 22, "FernGully" will be screened for a green-ribbon crowd of international environmentalists in the General Assembly Hall of the United Nations.

By the way, Robin Williams and the Burbank animators may not be the only Yank influences on this film. If you watch carefully, you'll notice some vistas that seem familiar. I think some Ojai scenery crept into the Aussies' heads during their power sleep.

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