Friday, August 26, 2011

Fire and Ice

NetFlix 3.4/5
IMDB 6.5/10
My Rating: 5/10

The dark lord Nekron advances his glaciers over the warm lands of the south, while our hero Larn battles orcs and teams up with mysterious hero Darkwolf to repeatedly rescue Princess Teegra and save the world.


If the above sounds slightly snarky, my apologies, but this film is so straightforward with its fantasy conventions that it could literally personify fantasy fiction as a genre.  Despite this, I'm giving it a lower rating than both IMDB and Netflix because I had a hard time getting past its flaws, much as I appreciated the amazing animation and artwork.  Before I start the review proper, though, let's do a little rewind to the year this came out, 1983...

Back then, animated anything was considered kids' stuff.  Trying to present an animated film for adults was fighting an uphill battle against a public determined to view cartoons as made for children.  Those of us "in the know", however, were drawn to all sorts of secret delights within the growing world of comics-for-adults, and probably the best single distillation of this was graphic magazine Heavy Metal.  Today's kids will look back and laugh, and know where to get far more extreme media online, but in the late 70's and early 80's, Heavy Metal came cloaked in exotic mystery and wild fantasy - Imagine if you will a world before the internet when seeing an illustrated novella of a naked woman fighting aliens was a BIG THING.  You probably had to be there.  And 10-14, and male.  Anyway, unlike all those modern films shot in 5 million quick cuts and tinted dull green, Heavy Metal and its ilk were genuinely "edgy" in their time.  The first big film I remember that really exploded this attitude into the public's face with a, "Take no prisoners and damn the torpedoes" attitude was the Heavy Metal movie, a personal favorite that I can still watch at any time, anywhere.

Two years after Heavy Metal debuted, this co-creation of Ralph Bakshi and Frank Frazetta appeared.  Bakshi was a renowned animator determined to make animated movies for adults, and Frazetta is of course a living legend in fantasy artwork.  When these two got together, they created what is in effect a moving Frazetta painting - A gorgeous, colorful world of handpainted backgrounds and dynamic action. Visually, it's stunning in a way that single stills can't convey.



It's the sort of film where you just want to sit back and marvel at the fluid movement of the characters, and not just because Princess Teegra spends most of the film bouncing across the landscape in a nightie or less.  Bakshi's rotoscoped animation brings realism to the animated action in a way that's still impressive almost 30 years later, and he did it without computers.  So having said all that, why the middling rating?  

The problem is that for me, this is a 2/3 movie - Fantastic designs and fantastic animation missing a quality story to hold it all together.  It was written by a pair of comicbook writers but struggles to really grab the viewer, or at least this one.  I could look at it all day but more often than not, the story just fell flat to me.  "Young hero teams up with experienced character to save the damsel and defeat the evil dark lord" is the plot of nearly every fantasy novel ever written, and it doesn't get any fleshing out here.  The running time is part of the problem, because even at a short 81 minutes, I was suffering from some serious attention drift as long, dialog-free scenes of our hero running, climbing trees, sleeping in trees, hunting for food, running from wolves and re-rescuing the hapless heroine ambled by...again and again.  Teegra, alas, is not exactly a feminist icon - Her role in the film is to be captured and recaptured, and captured all over again any time anyone leaves her alone for half a minute.  Send this woman to the mailbox and you'll never see her again.  It doesn't help that our hero is continually overshadowed by the movie's real star, Darkwolf (Who came up with these names, seriously?):


Darkwolf is the fantasy equivalent of having Superman in the Justice League - With him around, there really isn't much for anyone else to do because by the time Batman's Batarang hits the bad guy, Superman will have flown him to the moon and back.  Darkwolf looks great whenever he appears and his action scenes are a treat, but they're too few and far between and when he's not around, we're left with the hopelessly ineffective Larn.  I can't help but feel this movie would have left a stunning impact in the psyche of my generation if only it had been edited down to a 20 minute short and inserted into a Heavy Metal-like omnibus movie.  Hey, it worked for Taarna...

So, sadly, that's my overall take - It's amazing to behold but not very involving to be drawn into.  If only the writing had been as excellent as the artwork, this could have been a resounding classic.