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"Once Upon a Forest' is a boon for parents

This is the summer of a parent's discontent, when seemingly all movie offerings contain prehistoric monsters or Neanderthal cops who'd scare the Pampers off toddlers. Where can small children go for safe entertainment and a positive lesson?

The answers lie deep in Dapplewood meadow, near the edge of civilization. Once Upon a Forest, this animated wonderland, was a peaceful animated haven of cuddly cartoon animals. Now the "yellow dragons" _ known as steamshovels to those pesky humans _ are decimating the landscape.

Once Upon a Forest is a decidedly "green" cartoon, with an environmental message that is surprisingly subtle. Two years ago, Ferngully: The Last Rain Forest covered similar ground in splashy, preachy fashion. This new film from Hanna-Barbera takes an understated approach to its subject, like a gentle bedtime story.

The film opens in the shadows of the lush forest, presented by computer animation that resembles the nearly 3-D effect of Disney's Beauty and the Beast. One wishes the characters drawn here had been as evocative as Belle or the enchanted castle's residents.

Instead, Once Upon a Forest "stars" typically cute cartoon animals, many of whom resemble The Rescuers, another Disney favorite. Russell (Paige Gosney) is a bristle-haired hedgehog. Edgar (Ben Gregory) is a pudgy, bespectacled mole. The token female Abigail (Ellen Blain) is a mouse. Tiny Michelle (Elizabeth Moss) and the "curlings"' teacher Cornelius (Michael Crawford) are skunks.

Character development is kept to a primary level; those Hanna-Barbera folks know their preschool audience. But the charm of the story (based on a Welsh tale by Rae Lambert) and its soft-spoken message are amusing.

The curlings learn the lessons of the woods from Cornelius and all is happy until disaster strikes. A human's littering on a highway leads to a poison-gas eruption that kills Dapplewood and most of its inhabitants. Michelle is stricken and the others leave for greener pastures to find a natural herb cure.

Along the way, the curlings meet Phineas (Ben Vereen), a gospel-spouting bird with a flock of followers. Their New Orleans-flavored funeral tune He's Back (written by Grammy winner Andrae Crouch) is the best scene in Once Upon a Forest.

Vereen and Crawford, best-known as Broadway's Phantom of the Opera, have only one song each as the obligatory "names" for theater marquees. These cameos _ a mildly frightening encounter with a vicious owl and a death-defying escape from the "yellow dragons" _ keep the movie on pace for an agreeably short 75 minutes.

Young children will take home a balanced lesson in mankind's treatment of the Earth from Once Upon a Forest. Humans may cause the Dapplewood environmental crisis, but it's other humans who save the day and all the fuzzy animals.

Once Upon a Forest doesn't have the vivid look or emotional texture of a classic like Beauty and the Beast. Its animation is smooth _ better than the cost-cutting Saturday morning style of Happily Ever After, another recent release.

If nothing else, Once Upon a Forest will eventually be a fine addition to family video libraries, perfect in length and tone for repeated viewings.

And it's a nice way for animated film fans to pass the time until the fairest of them all, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is rereleased by Disney in July.


B -

Once Upon a Forest

Director: Charles Grosvenor

Cast: Voices of Michael Crawford, Ben Vereen and a cast of children

Screenplay: Mark Young and Kelly Ward, from the Welsh story by Rae Lambert

Running time: 75 min.

Rating: G