Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Thursday, September 6, 2012

Director Report Card: Ralph Bakshi (1983)

8. Fire and Ice
After the brief, underseen respite that was “Hey Good Lookin’,” Bakshi returned to the rotoscoped fantasy genre with 1983’s “Fire and Ice.” However, it’s not all bad news. The film was a collaboration between Ralph and iconic fantasy artist Frank Frazetta. Frazetta’s style influenced the entire film and adds a lot of flavor to what otherwise might have been a forgettable film.

Because, as far as the story goes, this is Fantasy Clichés 101. You’ve got an evil sorcerer, in a massive icy fortress, determined to take over the world. You have a beautiful, scantily-clad princess kidnapped by the villain. You’ve got a brave, young, Aryan hero fighting off hordes of dark-skinned orcs, determined to avenge the destruction of his village. You’ve got a fair and partial king trying to negotiate with a mad tyrant. You’ve got a bad ass barbarian warrior with a battle-axe who kills a bunch of monsters. There’s a witch who lives in the woods. Hell, the movie even manages to squeeze in a dragon or two. “Fire and Ice” unabashedly wallows in fantasy clichés. If it wasn’t made in eighties before deconstructive irony was invented, I’d say it was an intentional throwback to an old school style.

But the movie is nice to look at. Yes, the film is rotoscoped. However, there is a big difference in the way the animation technique is done here and the way it was handled in “Lord of the Rings” or “American Pop.” The majority of the animation is traced over live actors. However, it’s not just color and outlines dancing over real people. There’s a level of detail and attention put into faces and bodies. Good example: The orcs of the film aren’t just guys in store-bought costume shaded in black ink. They actually look like cartoon characters, each one with an unique design and personality. (I sort of hope that Bakshi was intentionally making up for “Lord of the Rings” here.) The film uses the life-like motion and fluidness that rotoscoping affords, without looking too horribly cheap. Only a few times do running characters look like a group of badly traced over actors. Otherwise, it’s smooth sailing.

The movie is nice to look at in other ways. The epic landscapes of glaciers, jungles, stone ruins, giant piles of dinosaur bones, and stone castles are all beautifully painted. Unlike some of the earlier films, the characters never look separated from the backgrounds and move around in them naturally. The character designs are fantastic, especially since they are ripped directly from Frank’s paintings. Frazetta’s stock style of sinewy heroes in loincloths with knives and big axes and curvy babes in slinky bikinis translate well to animation. Every one of the characters in the film appear to have a unique design, from the main cast to the minor battlefield fodder.

The characters in the film are obviously archetypal. Considering the simple story, this isn’t too much of a problem. Princess Teegra is your typical fantasy damsel-in-distress, friend to all living creatures (Except the monsters she has to kill in self-defense), who is willing to extend the olive branch even to the film’s psychotic main baddy. More importantly, the movie focuses on her mostly naked body more then anything else. The character’s first scene involves a gratuitous pan up and down her curves, there’s a flirtatious dive in cold water (Three guesses as to how I know the water’s cold), and more then three lovingly rendered close-ups on her string-bikini clad ass. There’s plenty of beefcake in the movie too, as you’d expect from classic fantasy imagery. There’s almost as much ass cheek from lead hero Larn as there is from the heroine. Larn isn’t a bad character and has decent chemistry with his love interest. In particular, I like a scene were he pretends to be a monkey while flirting with her. Another scene, a frolic through ancient ruins, is nice too, especially the way she bounces off a bridge unharmed while the same bridge crumbles under Larn’s feet.

The poster boy of the film is Darkwolf, the barbarian warrior. Darkwolf is essentially Wolverine in a fantasy setting, from cutting down hordes of enemies, to wearing a pointy-eared mask, right down to the way he sniffs out his prey. He has no real personality. Darkwollf has a desire to take down the film’s villains but we never find out why. Truthfully, he’s a bad deus ex machina, showing up out of nowhere to save the real hero from adverse circumstances no less then three times. However, he’s still a total bad ass who kills a lot of people. This film proves that a bad ass doesn’t have to be a compelling character in and off themselves. Badassitude is simply measured by the character repeatedly doing awesome things. This might not come as a surprise to some of you. The film smartly doesn’t overuse him.

There’s a few other elements at work I like. The performances are pretty good, especially Susan Tyrell as the villain’s conniving mother. The only voice performance that puts me off is the guy who played Teegra’s brother, who is oddly flat and unconvincing. Despite obviously being a fantasy, the movie is set “after the Ice Age.” The dragons in the film are obviously patterned after dinosaurs, with the mountable ‘dragonhawks’ clearly being pterodactyls. It wouldn’t be a far dot to connect to say the orcs are simian evolutionary throwbacks of humanity. If it wasn’t for the obvious use of magic, I’d be willing to say the film actually takes place in the distance past of humanity, or at least in some alternate timeline were humanity walk side-by-side with dinosaurs. It’s a fun setting, anyway. I do like the score, even if it's typical for both the fantasy and action genre. The scene of Larn struggling with the cephalopod monster in the lake is a fantastic sequence, recalling images I’m certain I’ve seen on Conan and Tarzan paperback covers, probably ones painted by Frazetta. I also like the surprisingly pacifistic ending.

The brisk fantasy style, not to mention the brief 83 minute run time, works in the film’s favor, with a few exceptions. The villain of Nekron is the opposite of compelling. Like a lot of fantasy villains, he is a pale, white-haired psychopath who is repulsed by woman but gets really excited when he has a shirtless sword fight with the film’s hunky hero. Why is he so damn evil? Why does he want to freeze the world in ice? You got me. How can he psychically torture people’s flesh? Magic, I guess. His mother, who cluelessly presents her son with the film’s captured princess, is even more thinly defined. At least when the bad guy dies, there’s a good reason why his fortress collapses around the fleeing heroes. (Lava is a good reason.)

There’s other issue too. Midway through the film, we are introduced to a red-headed, equally curvy witch living in the woods. She has her ogre son, who has a face like the “Star Trek”-salt sucker, rescue the princess from the orcs just to give her back. This character is an unrelated tangent of the film, a subplot that goes nowhere. Yeah, it’s cool later when her skeleton pops back up later, still displaying the character’s physical quirks. But the character contributes nothing to the film. Likewise, a late period invasion of the villain's lair, with the heroes riding on dinosaur-back, is cool but doesn’t really go very well for anyone. I can’t help but wonder if these sequences were added to pad the film out to feature length.

“Fire and Ice” isn’t going to change the world or anything. As far as the genre goes, it’s about as standard as standard can be. That’s not necessarily always a bad thing though. The film is perfectly entertaining and succeeds one-hundred percent at what it sets out to do. There’s not a whole lot of Bakshi here. The villain being another ruthless fascist is the sole director’s trademark present. Still, it’s better then Bakshi’s “Lord of the Rings” while covering much of the same ground. It’s an easy recommend to fans of non-ironic eighties fantasy and would probably make a pretty awesome triple feature with “Heavy Metal” and the same year's “Rock & Rule.” It's a movie that, if nothing else, lives up to its awesome poster art. [Grade: B]


Sean Catlett said...

Exploration of fantasy tropes -- a genre picture -- to be sure. Pushed to a mighty fine limit I say.

And don't worry, when Robert Rodriguez remakes it, whitey will be the villain and Danny Trejo will be Darkwolf.

Bonehead XL said...

I could actually see that working. Though half of the budget would be spent on CGI-ing his tattoos away.