[29 August 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Frank Frazetta and Ralph Bakshi were two highly influential icons from the ‘60s and ‘70s. The former, through his paintings and cover illustrations, literally redefined the look and feel of the fantasy genre. The latter, both beloved and controversial, took cartooning in a more complex and adult direction, formulating such cult classics as Fritz the Cat, Heavy Traffic, and Wizards. As the ‘80s began, the popularity of the sword and sorcery pulp category was at an all time high, and Bakshi wanted to continue exploring the realm. While his adaptation of The Lord of the Rings had proven problematic, bringing Frazetta’s beef and cheesecake conceits to life seemed like a perfect post-American Pop challenge. Oddly enough, it would be the last film the animator would director for nearly a decade.
At its core, Fire and Ice is really nothing more than a battle between elemental good and evil, hot and cold representing each dramatic conceit, respectively. In the allegorical tale, evil Queen Juliana has raised her son Nekron to be a master of the dark arts. Through pure manipulation of will, he can control a massive glacier, sending it roaring across the fertile lands of this unnamed world. Destroying everything in his path, our villain uses an army of Neanderthal like “dogs” to do the rest of his unholy bidding. In the volcanic region of Firekeep, King Jarol is worried. Unless some manner of peace treaty can be reached with the advancing forces, his dominion is doomed. Nekron demands absolute subservience, and when Jarol refuses, the wicked warlord kidnaps his daughter, Princess Teegra. It is up to a drifter named Larn and his partner/protector Darkwolf to step in and save the day.
Let’s get the bad news out of the way right up front - those who hoped that Blue Underground would release both Fire and Ice and the previous two disc DVD bonus feature, the brilliant Frazetta documentary Painting with Fire, as part of this otherwise fantastic format upgrade will be gravely disappointed. True, the main feature is still offered here in all its uncut glory, and the Blu-ray version looks amazing. It’s colorful, detailed, and showcases Bakshi’s unique approach to animation brilliantly. But that 2003 in-depth exploration at the life and work of the storyline’s source and artistic inspiration (Frazetta did collaborate on the project helping with character and costume design) is no longer part of the packaging. Sadly, it turns a previous must-own into something of a casual curiosity.
Indeed, there will be many who take one look at Fire and Ice, compare it to the current crop of computer-aided animated films, and wonder why anyone would champion such a visually awkward approach. At this point in his career, Bakshi was exploring the possibilities of rotoscoping, an old process by which live action footage was “drawn over” to create a more realistic sense of cartoon movement. Having embraced the technique in full for his adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s famous trilogy (that film covers about the first book and a half), he would literally hire actors, put them through their paces on film, and then turn said material over the animators. Painstaking and problematic, rotoscoping produced what Bakshi called “painting in motion.” In retrospect, it was a perfect match with Frazetta’s epic illustrations.
Yet there is also something clunky and incomplete about the look, a lack of fluidity and finesse that will leave some fans feeling cold. Bakshi does everything he can to liven up the proceedings, giving characters like Nekron the full blown psycho bad guy treatment. There is also a heavy undercurrent of sexuality and machismo present, the characters truly connected to their physicality and form. The one thing you can definitely say about Fire and Ice is that Bakshi and his illustrators really emphasize the functionality of form, putting all aspects of the human (and other) body to expert use.
In addition, the narrative does contain enough twists and turns to keep us engaged. Certainly there are times when Larn’s lack of skill and Teegra’s tendency toward always being recaptured grows old. We like a little variety in our plotting, to see our characters grow, learn, and improve. Here, without Darkwolf’s constant interference, we’d have nothing more than happenstance and failure. Toward the end, when Nekron lets the full force of his evil come alive, Fire and Ice definitely finds its footing. The stand-off is handled very well indeed and the acting really emphasizes what’s at stake. While lacking any known names, the voice work here is strong overall, Bakshi getting the best out of everyone involved.
Still, Fire and Ice will feel like a slight disappointment, a blood and bodice filled misfire that occasionally looks like a corrupted episode of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. Indeed, rotoscoping limits what can be done within the narrative. If Bakshi didn’t film it, it couldn’t be illustrated, and while rare hand drawn elements like the Dragonhawks provide a moment of artistic freedom, everything else is truly locked into the approach. Indeed, one of the reasons Bakshi remains a well-regarded if marginalized figure within the world of animation is his rebellious desire to do things in ways both inventive and aggravating. He’s been accused of being a racist and a revolutionary. Luckily, he’s on hand here to guide a fairly informative commentary track, as well as a Q&A on working with Frazetta. There’s also an old Making-of featurette which explains the rotoscoping process more fully.
Newcomers to Bakshi’s world will probably be less than impressed with what goes on here. Yet in some ways, Fire and Ice and the way in which the film was made highlights the growing changes in animation throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s. It many ways, it can be seen as a precursor to the mainstream acceptance of anime, the Japanese conceit that combines detailed realism with visionary ambition to accentuate the plotting and character performance. While Frazetta is a minor player here (made even more so by the Blu-ray’s lack of Painting with Fire), his imprint remains strong within Bakshi’s bravado turns.
While Fire and Ice is less of a classic and more of a oddity, it definitely delivers what it promises. Sadly, it would signal the last full length animated feature the filmmaker would ever produce. Bakshi would go on to make the Gabriel Byrne/Brad Pitt/Kim Basinger live action combo Cool World, but he has yet to return to the artform that made him famous. Like Frazetta, he seems locked into a time when FM radio provided a potent backdrop for misspent youth and adolescent angst. No matter how serious the connection to speculative fiction or fantasy, both men will be remembered for the nature of their artistry. Fire and Ice is a perfect example of why.