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"Fire and Ice" Runs Hot, Cold, And Bloody

Why do mature animated action films draw sizable audiences in Japan, whereas American adults are highly reluctant to show up at theaters unless you throw in a few adorable singing animals so that their kids will drag them along? It’s one of the industry’s great mysteries. But in 1982 oddball animation director Ralph Bakshi of animated Lord of the Rings fame thought he had the solution: deliver beautiful, clearly adult and critically acclaimed artwork. His source was red-hot fantasy illustrator Frank Frazetta, who among other things was known for perhaps single-handedly reinvigorating the Conan the Barbarian franchise. Together they produced Fire and Ice, an epic of tale of swords and sorcery inspired by both Tolkien and Conan.

Darkwolf, Teegra, Larn, and some subhuman buddiesUnfortunately Bakshi’s gamble did not pay off, at least at the box office. However, the film has built up a cult following over the years, which its long overdue arrival on DVD proves is not undeserved. Admittedly originality is not its strong point, released on the heels of the greatly successful Conan movie. Still, the animation is far superior to Lord of the Rings and the similar concurrent He-Man cartoon, and the action is neck and neck with Conan. In addition to Frazetta providing the compelling art design, a young pre-Aeon Flux Peter Chung was among the ace team of animators. The story by Marvel Comics veterans Gerry Conway and Roy Thomas is, well, closer to a glorified He-man episode than a Tolkien tale, but so is Conan‘s. Beginning as a Tolkien-style epic conflict, it quickly yields to an extended game of hide and seek.

At the end of the ice age the power hungry queen Juliana and her sorcerer son Nekron carve out a massive empire with an unstoppable glacier and a brutal subhuman army. In their frozen mobile castle Ice Peak they continue ever southward, Juliana intent on subjugating free humanity’s last great refuge – the benevolent King Jarol’s Fire Keep fortress deep in a southern volcanic range. As Ice Peak crosses the great plains in between the army easily slaughters the small village of the warrior Larn, who himself narrowly avoids capture. But Nekron grows weary of the campaign, and Juliana sends envoys to meet with Jarol and the hotheaded Prince Taro in hopes of compelling their submission without a fight. Meanwhile subhumans discreetly kidnap Jarol’s restless daughter Teegra. Outraged, Jarol kills the envoys and sends out a patrol to search for Teegra, who manages to lose her captors in the depths of a jungle. Soon she encounters and befriends Larn, who, aided by the fearsome berserker Darkwolf, is intent on ending Nekron’s reign of terror.

Fire and Ice was lucky to be released just before the introduction of the PG-13 rating. There are numerous brutal, bloody deaths caused by blades, arrows, and vicious monsters. In a progressive move, both Larn and Teegra spend the entire film almost nude, although the camera seems to prefer ogling her shapely posterior. There is no sexual activity, but some strong hints are dropped, in particular by a sorceress who seems to have an eye for the ladies.

Our two heroes are brave and adventurous, but don’t make much of an impression apart from Teegra’s riveting physique (if the princess thing doesn’t work out there’s always Vegas). To be fair Larn does distinguish himself by falling flat on his backside more times than any hero I’ve ever seen. The enigmatic Darkwolf plays it close to the vest, getting by on a healthy dose of attitude and a mean costume that might rival Conan for coolest barbarian. More convincingly human are Jarol and Taro, the former willing to compromise his principles to save Teegra, and the latter handicapped with a violent temper. Most interesting are Juliana and Nekron, although they are victims of time constraints. She is a coldhearted manipulator, and apparently was scripted to have an incestuous relationship with her son, but instead there is an awkward scene where he rejects her choice of bride as if women really aren’t his thing. Like Darth Vader, Nekron can move objects with his mind and may have mixed thoughts about his evil mission, but is unable to override his master. Voice acting is excellent across the cast, a certain flair for melodrama aside.

The only real laugh occurs when Teegra shows off her wares for her transfixed captors and we suddenly see behind them a row of suggestively shaped upright mushrooms. Otherwise the fun lies in hacking and slashing, which Darkwolf excels at. He gets in some brutal axe kills, including one where his blow goes right through his opponent’s knife to split his skull.

Rotoscoping, in which live action footage is shot and used as the model for animation, tends to look dreadfully unconvincing, as in Lord of the Rings. Here, however, it produces stunningly fluid and realistic human movement that may be the best of the decade in American animation. On the downside, the very static, sometimes abstract painted backgrounds are often an awkward match. Although not particularly original, the solid art design evokes some of Frazetta’s more famous images. There is minor dirt evident on the transfer, but the colors are quite crisp. Though a bit simple, the score nicely complements the action with a grand Conan-esque sense of adventure.

Bakshi’s commentary on the film is the highlight of the many extras, chock full of fascinating details on the production and his experience in the animation industry. The making-of documentary breaks down the rotoscoping process step by step. There’s some amusing footage of the initial live action shoot in which actors clad as barbarians battle in a parking lot with a crane standing in for a monster. It’s evident this was the precursor to the modern Sin City/Sky Captain green screen technique, only done without computers. Next is a brief interview in which Bakshi describes his relationship with Frazetta, fondly remembering the many barely clad hopefuls they auditioned together for the Teegra part. This is followed by Nekron live action performer Sean Hannon’s entertaining diary notes, which compare the shoot to a cheap porno film in that there was much sweaty, half nude grappling. Disc 1 concludes with the largely redundant “Behind the Scenes Still Gallery”, and a trailer that confirms the film was marketed to an adult audience.

Disc 2 compensates for the surprising lack of an art gallery with Frazetta: Painting with Fire, a feature length documentary on Frazetta’s life in which many fellow illustrators comment on the significance of his work. The parade of artwork spanning his long career from comics to paintings is breathtaking and fascinating, but the great amount of biographical detail is for diehard Frazetta fans only, as is the commentary track.

Fire and Ice may not quite live up to the great promise of Frazetta’s dazzling cover artwork, but its innovative animation and refreshingly mature action are sophisticated enough to entertain fantasy fans teenage and up. It’s probably a bit too intense for young children, even the desensitized Wiggles generation. Speaking of which, I wouldn’t mind seeing Darkwolf teach those guys a lesson or two. Perhaps starting with the riddle of steel and ending with some long, painful division.

Fire and Ice is in stores today from Blue Underground.

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