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"Rock & Rule" Cranks it Up to Eleven

Giants Disney, Pixar, Dreamworks, and Fox’s steady stream of entertaining films such as Lilo & Stitch, The Incredibles, Madagascar, and Robots have recently spoiled fans of western animation. While business is booming, it is doing so within a very narrowly defined genre: safe family fare with some clever jokes for mom and dad. That wasn’t the case in the early 1980s, when several small-time operators risked failure to experiment and take feature animation in new directions. The most famous example may be 1981 sci-fi cult favorite Heavy Metal, which combined enough sex, violence, and rock and roll to have sent Walt Disney to an early grave. Following closely in Heavy Metal‘s footsteps, but infinitely less famous, is 1983′s Rock & Rule, which didn’t get a chance to reach a wide audience until it was released on DVD yesterday.

Heavy Metal can rightly be called juvenile and simplistic, but one has to appreciate its boldness. Canadian studio Nelvana’s Rock & Rule is a more conventional project, as if someone had been working on a typical family filmChanneling King Kong with cute animals, then saw Heavy Metal and decided to take off the gloves. The core story of an aspiring singer with a phenomenal voice sought after by a villain with sinister designs could well have come from the pens at Disney, but they would have been horrified at what was done with it. Like Heavy Metal, Rock & Rule plays out in a dark, grim, decaying world full of evil and raucous music, but it has clear heroes and goofy comic relief, so it isn’t quite as gloomy as Metal overall. It also tones down the violence and sexuality from an R to a hard PG. Apparently Nelvana staked its future on the success of this one project, which took four years and many stops and starts to reach completion. All I can say is they must have been mad. Heavy Metal itself was a dud in theaters, and it comes as little surprise that Rock & Rule barely reached them. A shame really, because it truly is an interesting experience.

Our story takes place in the distant, dark future, where the planet’s only remaining residents are human/animal hybrids. In sleepy Ohmtown, legendary but seriously creepy musician Mok is laboring to complete a device that will allow him to open a portal to another dimension and bring across a monstrous demon. Why is not clear, but I suppose everyone needs a hobby. The last component is a special voice, and he has been scouring concerts near and far to find it. Across town cocky young guitarist Ohmar argues over whose songs to play with Angel, his beautiful and compassionate band mate and girlfriend. He leads off the show with one of his tunes, but when this falls flat Angel launches into one of hers, and a disgusted Ohmar storms off. It receives a much warmer reception from Mok, who happens to be in the audience and is sure hers is the voice he needs. After the show Ohmar and Angel kiss and make up, and when Angel receives an invitation to Mok’s mansion the band goes to check it out. Ohmar is contemptuous of the whole setup, but hallucinogenic crystals entrance him and band mates Stretch and Dizzy while Mok tries to recruit Angel for his mysterious project. She refuses to leave her band, so he simply kidnaps her and makes off in a blimp for the subtly named Nuke York to try his plan at a massive concert. The band sets off to find her, while Angel, having stumbled on the terrible truth, does her best to thwart Mok’s scheme.

I suppose it’s intended as satire, but Mok’s attempt to contact a demon through song plays very obviously into the cliché that rock and roll is the devil’s music. He also seems to be the focus of an attack on the decadence and superficiality of then-prevalent “corporate rock,” as expressed through his fondness for gaudy, grandiose decor and cheap magic tricks.

The characters all suffer from a slightly unnatural, disembodied delivery, but it’s hard to say whether this is the fault of the actors or the production. That issue aside, the performances aren’t bad, if working from relatively narrow clichés. Mok is the best developed and most interesting of the lot. Looking rather like a sinister David Bowie, he oozes evil from every pore and can go from suave prima donna to vicious lunatic in a heartbeat. He paints a very negative but probably accurate portrait of a huge star past his prime, endlessly vain and self-obsessed. Angel is an appealing heroine, kind but tough, and despite the vague animal features is stunningly attractive with large, seductive eyes. At first it’s hard to understand what she sees in the doglike Ohmar, a rebellious punk almost as self-absorbed as Mok. One might expect the evolution of his character to be a focal point of the film, but Ohmar is an oddly passive hero who gets little to do until the climax. Comic relief mostly falls to the goofy Dizzy and Stretch and Mok’s gargantuan, dimwitted triplet bodyguards. The latter are strongly reminiscent of Disney’s Beagle Boys.

There isn’t much action to speak of in the film, and most of the attempts at comedy are derailed by the film’s pervasive creepiness and flat deliveries. There is a good running gag with a Disney-like, gruff police officer who keeps trying to arrest the band only to have them steal his car from under his nose. Mok’s corporate oversight software amusingly frets that the pestilence and famine resulting from unleashing an omnipotent demon on the world might possibly tarnish his image. In a scene that may have inspired Beavis and Butthead, one of Mok’s goons watches a cartoon in which a psychotic Beavis-like character torments cows.

Although the disc claims the film has been restored, the image is often dark and grainy. It still looks pretty good for a 20 year old film though. The animation has its highs and lows, but overall is very impressive for a 1983 production from a small studio. At its best it’s quite fluid and the eccentric and foreboding characters and backgrounds that recall Heavy Metal and Pink Floyd’s The Wall keep it visually engaging. The film uses a variety of effects, from models to paintings to very basic but impressive-for-1983 CGI. The only thing that doesn’t really work is the demon, which is too roughly drawn to convincingly interact with the other characters.

Naturally the soundtrack figures very large in the film, and to my surprise I enjoyed it, mostly. Angel’s great pop rock theme “Send Love Through” from Blondie’s Deborah Harry may be a little cheesy, but it’s so uplifting I didn’t mind. Ohmar gets a couple of fun hard rockers from Cheap Trick. Earth, Wind, and Fire delivers a passable funky dance song, and Lou Reed and Iggy Pop provide Mok with glam rock and punk numbers, which I found rather dreary. Perhaps that was the idea. The score is extremely early 80s in character, very electronic and ominous. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I loved it and Blade Runner fans should too.

This single disc version has a respectable set of extras. Director Clive Smith’s commentary reveals unsurprisingly that the project was originally intended for a younger audience. He gives a very interesting, detailed analysis of the animation techniques in the film. Next is a decent 1983 TV documentary that contains interviews with the musicians and key animators. Unfortunately little light is shed on the film’s lengthy and troubled production. There’s a very extensive gallery of various designs for all the key characters. Angel seems to use not only Deborah Harry’s voice but possibly her face as well. Finally there are some brief before-and-after comparisons of the restoration work, but honestly it’s hard to see much of a difference. The two-disc version features an extras disc including an alternate version of the film with some scenes changed and a different voice actor for Ohmar as well as a short film from the late ’70s that provided some of Rule‘s inspiration, entitled “The Devil and Daniel Mouse.”

If you haven’t caught on yet, no, Rock & Rule is not a nice family film to enjoy with the kids. All cheese aside, it succeeded at creeping me out at times. It’s hard to call it a great film, and yet it’s fascinating just because it’s so different from the norm. Animation junkies and Heavy Metal fans should enjoy it. Let the big studios know we like our cartoons loud. Cheap Trick could use the gig.

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