Thursday, August 2, 2012

Cult Thursdays: Fire and Ice (1983)

     Swords 'n' sorcery? More like lags 'n' lethargy...

     Ralph Bakshi’s got to have one of the most eclectic filmographies out there. He started out his film career with Fritz the Cat, the notorious “X” rated cartoon movie more famous for its sex and violence when it should really be remembered as a pretty great treatise on America in the 1960’s. Bakshi followed that mini-milestone up with Heavy Traffic and Coonskin, where he continued pushing buttons and boundaries in animated form. Then the director took a severe left-turn and put out Wizards, a sci-fi/fantasy epic that was about as far-removed from his more street-level early work as you could get, while still keeping Bakshi’s own special blend of absurdist social commentary. After Wizards, Bakshi alternated between the fantastic and the real - getting the first crack at adapting Lord of the Rings, to boot. Then the ‘90’s rolled around, and Bakshi made Cool World and everything sort of fell apart. Still, for my money, Bakshi’s got one of the best and most diverse filmographies around.

    Frank Frazetta… Well, if you’ve never heard of him, you surely have felt his influence - even if it’s only in passing as you walk by the fantasy section in the book store, or the heavy metal albums in the music store. Frazetta is one of a very precious few artists (in any medium) to achieve such a wide-spanning, all-encompassing influence - calling him a legend almost doesn’t do him credit. He defined fantasy and science fiction for not just a generation, but forever more thereafter, and his depiction of action and horror and horror practically leapt off the page. It wasn’t long before Hollywood came calling, and in the sixties and seventies Frazetta enjoyed a career painting movie posters. Frazetta was interested in getting more involved with filmmaking, and upon meeting Bakshi (who was a fan of his work), the two set out to make an animated fantasy film that would capture the majesty of Frazetta’s paintings.

    The film we wound up with… wasn’t quite that. The ultimate truth is that images like this...

...or this...

…just aren’t possible to truly capture in live-action or animation - especially given the time it was made and the amount of money Frazetta and Bakshi had to work with. Rotoscoping over live performers, Bakshi here predates much of the motion capture technology that CG animators use today. The rotoscoping doesn’t really get as detailed or frantic as Frazetta’s paintings, but provides nice, fluid movements during the film’s many action scenes. The result is something not unlike the movements of Kong in the original King Kong, giving the characters an otherworldly, dream-like sense of movement.

    Fire and Ice tells the story of an all-powerful wizard - Nekron - who uses ice magic to take over the world, bringing him into direct contact with the people of the volcanic lands. And that’s about all there is to it. The plot lacks the wicked satire of Fritz the Cat and the sheer imagination of Wizards - there is a lifelessness here that you don’t see in any other Bakshi films. Which is especially disappointing, since even Bakshi’s harshest critics could never throw “lifeless” as a criticism against the director’s work. It’s all so barren and basic - everything you need to know about the film is in the title. We get some pretty basic Frazetta heroes and villains, such as the main character Larn, who has the build and athleticism of Tarzan or John Carter. There’s really not much to Larn other than that he’s a pretty good fighter - he lacks the definition of even the blandest of fantasy heroes.

    Equally bland is his lover-to-be Teegra, the princess of the volcanic kingdom who is captured early on by Nekron’s men. She wears an itty-bitty bikini the entire length of the film (one scene she remarks to Larn how cold she is - well, duh woman! You ain't wearing no clothes), showing off the famous curves Frazetta gave all his ladies. Despite her wardrobe, it is nice that - although a damsel-in-distress - Teegra is able to off a few of Nekron’s baddies along the way - she's never completely useless, unlike some other characters in the film. The only other thing I can think to say about Teegra is that she runs funny, keeping her arms straight down at her sides. It took me a while, but I finally figured out that, had the live model portraying Teegra for the rotoscoping moved her arms whilst running, her boobs would have surely come spilling out of the teensy bikini.

    The other main character is the masked barbarian Darkwolf, sort of the Batman version of Conan. Darkwolf is the bad mother-shut-your-mouth of the film, and any time he’s on-screen the film seems to come alive. Sadly, he’s not really all that important to the “story,” and flits in and out of scenes for no discernible reason or motive. Still, watching Darkwolf implant his axe into an enemy’s skull is one of the few pleasures the film provides.

    Which brings me to another point: for all the action and titillation, Fire and Ice remains fairly chaste. The battles are largely bloodless, and while we see plenty of Teegra and Larn thanks to their thongs and loincloths, they never do much other than make googly eyes at each other. I’m not advocating exploitation for exploitation’s sake, but I hold strongly to the opinion that if you set out to make a trashy movie, you might as well go all out with the trash. It’s clear the filmmakers’ wanted to go in a more family-friendly direction, but the end result is neither all that family-friendly nor truly adult - merely the fevered wet dream of a fourteen-year-old boy. The film never wanders into R-rated territory, and as a result just sort of sits there like a flaccid… Well, you get my drift.  

    Still, despite its faults, the animation is nice and there are some truly remarkable shots throughout - including references to Frazetta’s most famous paintings. Fans of Frazetta or Bakshi should at the very least give it a look.

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