Nowadays, it’s easy to walk into a theater and find an animated movie not made by Disney. The CG animated movie has so far been a much more level playing field for animation studios than it has ever been before. All the major studios now have a team dedicated to sniffing out the most cutting edge of talking animal trends and making a fluffy, pop-culture-ridden movie out of it as soon as is humanly possible. Now, these newfound niches in the animation market haven’t actually increased QUALITY, and if you think about it variety is pretty scarce, too, but hey. Maybe one day, right?
For the majority of the history of animation, though, Disney has had a stranglehold on theatrical-quality animation. The past is littered with the bleached bones of would-be Disney competitors, the greatest of which was Don Bluth, a disgruntled Disney animator himself. The most tragic of these is the project The Thief and the Cobbler, a stab at a Persian-style fairy tale decades in the making by Who Framed Roger Rabbit? animator Richard Williams who was eventually screwed over by Disney when they publicly announced Aladdin (which had several scenes that were nearly identical thanks to osmosis of animators) and when Warner Bros. pulled out of funding him and handed the film over to Completion Bond Company who finished the film as quickly and cheaply as possible. It’s honestly one of the grandest and most tragic fates to ever befall an animated movie.
There was another animator, though. The name Ralph Bakshi probably isn’t very familiar to you. But he was probably the biggest independent animator out there in the 70s and 80s. He was willing to experiment with techniques and subject matter Disney wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole. What did he do? His most famous notable contribution is probably J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, a movie way, way too ambitious for just one installment, unfortunately. But he has also done cult classics like Heavy Traffic, Wizards and R. Crumb’s Fritz the Cat. Oh, and Cool World. But let’s not call that one a classic.
In the 80s, Bakshi wanted another stab at fantasy, but this time not from the classic Tolkien angle, but a darker, more violent, more naked angle. So he hooked up with the only person who could possibly help him, legendary fantasy artist Frank Frazetta, and made the animated movie Fire and Ice.
The story is given to us via the most hilariously odd narration I believe I’ve ever had the pleasure of listening to. Ignoring the grammar of the on-screen text and any attempt at trying to reason with her, the narrator explains that an evil queen in the North, named Juliana, wished to extend her kingdom to all known realms, so she built an army and got knocked up. She tutored her son, Nekron, in black arts which let him control ice itself, and pushed an unstoppable glacier ever southward, destroying anything in its path. Including the tribe our hero, Larn, belongs to. There is one last bastion of hope against Nekron, King Jarol and his volcanic kingdom. While some of Nekron’s toadies pretend to broker for a truce with Jerol, they steal his unbearably hot daughter, Princess Teegra, to bring back to their master. Eventually escaping from the clutches of these Subhuman cronies, Teegra meets Larn and Darkwolf, a mysterious barbarian with an axe to grind against Nekron. Together, these three mount humanity’s final assault against Nekron and his grip of icy death.
It’s not a BAD fantasy story. The mere fact that it isn’t suckling on Lord of the Rings‘ teat is good enough for me. Way too many fantasy stories in the latter half of the century coast by on the mythos, stereotypes and cliches of Tolkien, mixing and matching various elements to try to pass them off as new and original stories. It’s like anyone can write a fantasy story and get it published. Just change some names around, slap an embarrassing cover on it and it’ll probably sell some copies. Sheesh. Can ANYONE name a sci-fi/fantasy novel with a GOOD cover? Frank Frazetta is, of course, exempt. :3
My only complaint about the story is that while it does well during the beginning and middle, the ending, where it should be at its fever pitch, is rather… unexciting? I mean, I don’t know how you manage to make the attack against Icepeak Castle mundane, but I was popping in and out at that point. It didn’t really feel like a climax. Since I’m not really sure what they could’ve done to fix it up, I’m not sure if I should hold it against them or not. Maybe it was my fault?
If you’re at all squeamish about bare flesh, you should not see this movie. Although it was PG when it came out, I don’t see how it could get anything other than a PG-13 these days. Since Frank Frazetta did the character designs, everyone runs around half-naked, or slightly nakeder than that. While this gives them plenty of opportunities to ogle at the bountiful Princess Teegra, it also means that equal time is given to the flesh of male characters. And since men outnumber women by an odd margin in this movie, it means you’re more likely to be looking at a guy’s tush than Teegra’s. As for this element, I also think it helps give the movie a different atmosphere than your run-of-the-mill Tolkien rip-off. Lord of the Rings was pretty tame compared to this. Even in the movies where it’s not a total sausage-fest, and you have hot mamas like Cate Blanchett and Liv Tyler, you never see anything more revealing than a neckline. Here, there are whole gratuitous sequences where Teegra just rolls around so you can see her jubblies flopping every which way. There’re even subtle hints at sapphic pleasures. Again, I have no idea how the MPAA was rating this movie.
Even though the movie’s animated, I feel like I should talk performances, however briefly that might be. As I said earlier, that narrator is fuckin’ hilarious, although I think completely unintentionally. It’s like Bakshi told her to go as completely and utterly mental during her line reading as she possibly could. It sounds like she’s just making things up as she goes along. Weirder than weird. Most of the other voice actors are rather mediocre, although not truly bad. They just are rather plain and stale, with voices as two-dimensional as their characters. There’s also some odd moments here and there. For example, when a sorceress is doing a spell to find out who Teegra is, she finds Nekron is trailing her. At first she says “Nekron?” in a totally normal voice, but then it’s like she goes batshit insane and screams at the top of her lungs in a crazy voice “NEKRON!? THAT BITCH! THAT BITCHHHHH!!!” Anyone familiar with Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings can probably attest to the fact that he can be an odd bird when it comes to acting. It’s not like the script aspires to high literature or anything, so outstanding actors might not have been able to help, but the impression left by the voice actors was so vanilla I can hardly say anything about them at all. Oh, the Subhumans don’t really have any speaking lines in English, but they do a decent, sometimes amusing, job with grunts and growls.
Really, the most noticeable part of Fire and Ice is the animation style. Yes, this is still a 2D movie animated with cels and paint, but how they came about to that is interesting. Bakshi likes to mix live-action with some of his animated projects (the prologue to Lord of the Rings and almost all of Cool World) and in this outing he captured the motions of his characters through rotoscoping. If you are unfamiliar with the name of the term, maybe you’re more familiar with the technique itself. It’s been used recently with the movies Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly. Ringing any bells? Basically, the animators look at film of people acting out the scenes of the movie and then they trace the actors, frame by frame, to get a finished product that more closely resembles live-action. The result can sometimes be unsettling and obtrusive, however. But for the most part, it works well on its own in Fire and Ice, especially for action scenes with a lot of big movement. You can see people’s muscles behaving correctly, it adds quite a bit to the experience. I say they work on their own, because when put up against some of the other hand-drawn animation in the movie, it brings you out of the experience. It seems most of the time and effort was spent portraying the characters because when something like the glacier moves, or worst of all, the lava at the end. It looks so cheap you will actually become embarrassed. I know they weren’t working with the sort of time and money places like Disney can offer, but sheesh. I’d be willing to trade rotoscoping for inanimate objects that don’t look like shit.
Musically, Fire and Ice succeeds, with a rather rousing theme by William Kraft (has ANYONE heard of him?) that I can still hum. It seems like some decent effort was put into the soundtrack, with the sort of John Williams-y score that you couldn’t escape from in the heady days of the original Star Wars trilogy’s run. At least they have what sounds like an orchestra performing it, and not someone’s uncle on a Casio. DVD company and B-movie championers Blue Underground released Fire and Ice with a 6.1 DTS sound mix, and I’m not sure why, except to have the music fill your home theater. I can’t remember any sequence where any sort of directionality was put to use. Still, it certainly helped making the decision of whether or not to buy this easier.
The transfer on the DVD is probably as good as it could possibly have been, but where it fails is probably in the film source. Nothing was done to clean up the source, which I think is sort of an odd thing to do if you were trying to do up the movie in high style like this edition pretends to. I mean, you can see all sorts of dust and dirt captured in the photography progress. It was disappointing, because I think this movie could pop off the screen a lot more if proper care was taken with the video.
There’s also a documentary on the character designer, Frank Frazetta, that came with the collector’s edition of the DVD that I bought. It was a rather informative documentary for someone that knew next to nothing about Frazetta beforehand except that he was the guy that drew all the mean-looking naked people on book covers. The feature covers all of his life up to the present, from his roots in Brooklyn (they actually visit his mom’s house!) to the discovery of his natural talent at art, to his work on comics like Lil’ Abner to movie posters and finally fantasy book covers. Frank’s a legend in that business, having influenced seemingly (or so the documentary would like you to believe) everyone that’s done genre cover art for the past thirty years. I’ll admit, that guy’s probably the best there is at what he does. (Sit down, Wolverine.) I mean, if you ever have to have someone paint pteradactyls fighting a saber-tooth tiger, he’s your man. The interesting point is raised that even though his technique, proficiency and success are extremely respected in the circles he runs around with, he’s frowned upon by “serious” art fans who look upon him as “merely” a commercial artist. What do you guys think? Does working on commissions and pre-existing properties make an artist less of an artist? I can think of several designers that I would call true artists, but don’t have the same sort of clout a fancy-pants artist would in the art world. In my opinion, you should be judged on how well you execute your art and the amount of your own personal thoughts and feelings that get put into it, not how penniless, tortured, drug-addicted or snobby you are. My big beef with the documentary is that it’s such a puff piece. Not one single bad word is ever uttered against Frank, and why would there be? He’s almost narrating the entire thing himself. Ralph Bakshi and him act like old pals. His children adore him. Was he REALLY that squeaky-clean? The worst thing about him I could take away from the thing is that he seemed a bit cocky about how good an artist he was. Not an asshole or anything, but he knew he was talented and didn’t have any problems talking about it. Sorta irksome, but whatever. I mean, the guy suffered about a billion strokes and now draws with his left (!) hand. How many artists has that happened to and they can still produce good stuff? Anyways, unless you’re a die-hard Frazetta fan (or just love sweet holographic covers) I wouldn’t recommend the collector’s edition. Although, seriously, that’s not a bad cover at all.
So is Fire and Ice worth the excursion away from Disney’s sickly sweet 2D animation embrace? I’d give a definite yes, especially considering the era it came from. The early eighties were not kind to Disney. At ALL. With live action fiascoes left and right (Tron? The Black Hole?!) and animated movies that made it all-too-clear that Walt Disney had been an irreplaceable creative force, time was ripe for an outside endeavor like Fire and Ice to occur. It’s not perfect, and it’s definitely not timeless, but if you want an off-the-beaten-path fantasy romp, you’ll find yourself in good hands. Just mind the man-butt on your way out.