One day Jakob (voiced by Myron Mensc) the hungry crow is looking for food when he eavesdrops on a village meeting. It seems the local church is badly in need of repairs. No problem, says Father Benjamin (Leonard Pike). They can gather wood from the forest. But then Marcus (Cyn Branch) proposes a bolder idea. Why not cut down all the trees and sell the wood to the lumber mill? They could be rich beyond their wildest dreams. Everyone agrees this is a splendid idea, except Matthew (Alfred Russell) the nature-loving old farmer who is swiftly told to shut up. Jakob flies to warn the animals of Placid Forest including Mary the self-obsessed owl (Lisa Paulette), Adam the slow but eager frog (who talks like John Wayne!) and Stanley the prickly hedgehog (Don Warner). At first the animals are dead set on going to all-out war with the humans. However Peter (Reba West), the little green root fairy and protector of nature, proposes a peaceful solution. They send a stern letter to the villagers imploring them to leave Placid Forest alone. Unfortunately, if in retrospect inevitably, the men dismiss the letter as a joke. What can a bunch of dumb animals do?
Turns out quite a lot. Safeguarding the environment was a prominent theme in Japanese animation long before the likes of Ferngully: The Last Rainforest (1992) and the misbegotten Captain Planet and the Planeteers took up the cause. Starting with the cautionary sci-fi fables of the Seventies eco themes grew bolder in the Eighties. While most grownups were too busy counting their money to take issue with then-President Ronald Reagan's bizarre statement that trees created pollution, a host of seemingly innocuous straight-to-video cartoons were moulding young minds. In their own modest way anime like Legend of the Forest (1987), Wat Po and Us (1988), Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984) and Peter of Placid Forest helped sow the seeds for a collective shift in attitudes towards the environment.
Adapted from the novel Jakobus Nimmersat (also the anime's original Japanese title) by Scandinavian writer Boy Lornsen, Peter of Placid Forest first aired on the Nickelodeon channel in the late Eighties. It was also released on VHS as Back to the Forest. With a peppy theme song performed by a band called Slapstick (who sound like a sappier Devo) and lovable chara designs by the great Yasuji Mori, the film is aimed primarily at very young children. It paints in broad strokes satirizing the capitalist dreams fuelling mankind's disregard for nature ("I don't care what happens to those animals, I'm cutting down those trees!") and, some could argue, concocts simplistic solutions. To their credit however director Yoshio Kuroda (a dependable craftsman of children's fantasy: e.g. Gulliver's Space Travels: Beyond the Moon (1965), Peter Pan and Wendy (1989)) and scripter Toshiyuki Kashiwakura avoid resorting to crude caricature. Far from cold-hearted captains of industry, Marcus and his cronies are portrayed as basically decent men who only want to improve their lives. That said they prove remarkably, albeit perhaps realistically, stubborn even after Peter and his animal friends visit a near-Biblical onslaught of plagues upon the village. They start by stealing the men's lunches then gradually escalate to destroying private property. Again to its credit the film makes a point of teaching budding young eco-warriors the consequence of such rash action leaves few willing to take them seriously.
While the animals' articulate debates and orderly resistance are deeply Japanese, a few crazy subplots almost derail an already slight story. The mice and squirrels start a feud over who can destroy the local bridge faster. Losing the battle a surly Papa Mouse berates his daughter for not pulling her weight, reducing her to tears as she spirals into self-doubt. Early on it is mentioned that should a human catch sight of Peter he will cease to be a magical fairy, but this never comes into play. The film treads a line between unintentional and deliberate comedy (as when Mary the owl tries to work her charms on a domestic fowl, only to to be told she is not his type) but its third act successfully balances the overall lighthearted tone with darker mystical undercurrents. Even though Mori's designs remain too darn cute to be menacing. Alongside the musical stylings of Slapstick, an eclectic score by Tatsumi Yano incorporates an unmistakable pastiche of "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?" from Walt Disney's classic Three Little Pigs (1933) and, surprisingly enough, some of Ennio Morricone's spaghetti western themes.