James Horner has worked on some truly dreadful films during his career, and Once Upon A Forest is near the bottom. The 1993 film was a poorly-animated, preachy, and dull environmentalist treatise that was ignored at the box office; unlike the similarly preachy FernGully the year before, it doesn’t even have the consolation of a cult following (likely due to the lack of any performances with the gusto of Robin Williams or Tim Curry). Even to the devoted animation or children’s film enthusiast, Once Upon A Forest has little to recommend it aside from James Horner’s fine music.
As with many of his animated endeavours, stretching all the way back to An American Tail in 1986, Horner was asked to pen songs for the film. However, his contributions were not limited to a mere end credit ballad: Once Upon A Forest was a semi-musical with three songs. This allowed Horner to work with such noted vocalists as Michael Crawford (of Phantom of the Opera fame) and Ben Vereen, and the results were generally good. Crawford’s song, based on the film’s secondary theme, is underdeveloped but features a wonderful performance by the singer. Florence Warner Jones and the New London Children’s Choir bring a warm glow to “Once Upon A Time With Me” that makes the song compelling despite its nonsensical lyrics (oddly, identical versions of the song both open and close the album). “He’s Back,” a gospel song, has no relation to the rest of the score, but is performed with gusto and passes quickly.
Horner’s score uses the melody from “Once Upon A Time With Me” as its main theme, while weaving in aspects of “Please Wake Up” as circumstances demand. The opening tracks harken back to the composer’s work on The Land Before Time with long, flowing suites of music, most notably in “The Forest,” the album’s highlight. There’s some sprightly music in “The Journey Begins” as well–Horner takes a tiny motif from Willow, hardly developed at all in the former score, and works it into a rousing march. The composer’s infamous four-note danger motif makes an appearance during the album’s latter half, where it’s mostly used as counterpoint. Those are most egregious cases of Horner borrowing from himself in the score, though anyone who is enough of a fan of the composer to actually seek the obscure album out has likely made their peace with his continued Hornerisms.
Despite being chained to such a banal film, Once Upon A Forest is an engaging listen on album, full of melody and heart. The disc has become something of a rarity, thanks to the demise of Fox Records and the obscurity of the many Fox animated pictures of the 1990s; it commands a healthy price on the secondary market, but is well worth seeking out. For those interested, it offers one of James Horner’s above-average animation scores, as well as a return to writing songs for an animated musical of sorts, so long as you are not deterred by the scarcity of the album or the banality of the film.