Who could’ve guessed that two stickball-playing street kids from Brooklyn (one from Brownsville, one from Sheepshead Bay) would grow up to become legendary animator Ralph Bakshi, director of Heavy Traffic and Lord of the Rings, and legendary fantasy artist Frank Frazetta, whose paintings graced the covers and overshadowed the contents of hundreds of pulp novels? It only made sense that later in life they would join forces to make a movie together. The really remarkable thing about this inevitable meeting of the minds is that the movie these two extraordinarily talented artists made was so…well…god-awful.
Bakshi got a bad rap early in his career as some kind of “pornographic cartoonist” after his 1972 R. Crumb feature Fritz the Cat received an X rating from the MPAA. What people forget is that Fritz wasn’t rated X for its sexual content, which was comparatively tame. It received that deadly X not for any of its content, but for its format. It’s a realistic film in which characters swear, use drugs, and have sex, the same as in any other movie of the era. Some characters are racist, others are sexist, some are low-rent criminals, and violence has consequences, again…same as any other film. But when you put all those things in a cartoon and populate it with cute and fuzzy animals (well, some cuter than others) then you’ve crossed into the forbidden zone. What kind of evil, subversive hippie trick is this? You might fool the kids into thinking it’s another Disney picture, and they’d come out all corrupted and addicted to heroin.
After making a string of realistic, contemporary urban films that, brilliant as they were, left him labeled not only a pornographer, but a racist, a sexist, and a drug pusher, in 1977 Bakshi took a radical jump to the other end of the spectrum with his post-apocalyptic fantasy film Wizards (by now the swearing, the bloody violence, and the hints of sexuality only earned him a PG). A year later he solidified his family-friendly geek cred with his truncated animated version of Lord of the Rings. After a return to a milder realism with American Pop and Hey Good Lookin’, he had the idea he’d like to team up with fellow Brooklynite and fantasy king Frank Frazetta.
Frazetta, the Geek Rembrandt, was a realist in his own right, a hyperrealist even, but it was a realism based on an alternate universe, one filled with wizards and monsters and muscle-bound warriors and voluptuous maidens and voluptuous warrior maidens, lots of broadswords and axes, and even more corpses. Putting their two minds together should have resulted in the ultimate animated geek extravaganza.
Bakshi knew from the beginning that given his trademark rotoscoping technique and the technology at hand, bringing the cover of one of those Edgar Rice Burroughs or Robert E. Howard paperbacks to life was an impossible dream. Frazetta’s paintings were too rich, too detailed, and it would take far too long given the film’s budget and schedule. Instead, what he needed to do to pull it off was in essence animate a Frazetta comic book. So after sitting down with Frazetta and picking a few iconic characters from the paintings, it became a matter of building a story around them. To this end he brought in fantasy comics writers Roy Thomas and Gerry Conway.
Here’s what they came up with. So there’s this evil queen named Juliana, see? But an evil queen with sense of humor enough to name her son “Nekron.” Now, how did she think that would go over in the schoolyard? Not very well, apparently, because he’s an adult now and still living with his mom. But he is a wizard now so that’s something, and an evil one to boot.
The first sign that the movie is in deep trouble comes when we learn that Nekron and his mom are in the process of conquering the entire world. They plan to do this by sitting in their ice fortress to “The North” while sending out a magic glacier that will destroy everything in its path. . Okay, think about that one for a minute. How long is the timetable on this operation of theirs? I mean, glaciers move, what, an inch a year? We learn the glacier has just wiped out a small village, but how the hell long did it take? Hundreds of years at least, depending on how small the village was. They must’ve wiped out seven or eight generations of the most stubborn people on earth who didn’t have the damn sense enough to just, y’know, MOVE when they saw the glacier coming.
Well, all right, it being a magic, evil glacier it moves a bit faster than most. It also seems that most people, not the ones in that village, but everyone else, did have the sense to get out of the way and move to more temperate climes, specifically a fortress to “The South” built around a volcano and known as Firekeep.
So let’s get this straight—we’re dealing with people who fled in panic from a glacier, and moved into a place built around a volcano? We’re clearly not dealing with the brightest bulbs here. It seems a nice desert or something would’ve served pretty much the same purpose without the added threat of impending death, but we’ll forget that for the moment. That glacier, see, is headed straight for Firekeep now, which leaves me thinking Nekron hasn’t really thought this whole thing through very well. Maybe his mom should sit him down and show him Frosty the Snowman to give him some idea of what he’s getting into here. But—oh, never mind. We’re only about thirty seconds into the movie at this point, and this could get out of hand very quickly.
So you got your beefy, well-toned hero Larn out for revenge. You got your kind and wise king of Firekeep, Jarl. You got the king’s beautiful daughter Tegra (she’s the one with the really big boobs). You got an army of sub humans. There’s a kidnapping, a long quest, some prehistoric monsters, and battle scene after battle scene after battle scene. You got “dragonhawks” and Tegra all naked and guys with names like “Darkwolf (who are these parents?), and precious little dialogue to confuse matters any further. What the hell else do you want?
Maybe all this helps to explain why it took me four or five tries before I was finally able to sit through the entire film.
Despite the insipid story and the endless barrage of clichés, there are some worthwhile things here. As a work of art, as an example of cell-by-cell, hand-painted 2-D animation, Fire and Ice is remarkable, a dark, brooding, and sinister world as rich as the paintings that inspired it. Bakshi’s rotoscoping is as beautiful as ever, and here in particular the battle scenes (which make up a good half of the film) are magnificent and brutal and bloody. The artwork in general is top notch. In fact all the backgrounds throughout the film were painted by two friends just out of art school, one of whom went on to become Thomas Kincaid, the most banal and therefore most popular and wealthiest artist of his time.
Even more interesting to me was the Susan Tyrrell connection. Tyrrell narrated Bakshi’s Wizards, and I think that’s when I first started developing a big crush on her. She of course never appeared on screen, but that husky, throaty, smoke-scarred voice of hers was all I needed to hear. She returns here in a more central role as the evil queen Juliana, and that voice still works more magic than any of the characters on the screen. Beyond that, star Randy Norton (who plays Larn) had a small role in Night Warning, the early ‘80s Tyrrell horror vehicle. And Leo Gordon, the busy character actor who plays good King Jarol also appeared with Tyrrell in Big Top Pee-Wee. Why, it’s almost like a family reunion!
Thinking back on Wizards, the big difference between Fire and Ice and Bakshi’s earlier films (with the possible exception of his Lord of the Rings) is that those other films were pointedly and unmistakably Bakshi films. They had not only a certain style, but a tough, street smart attitude and a sense of humor and a feel that were uniquely his. Even a fantasy film like Wizards still featured hookers and mutant Nazis and dirty jokes.
Fire and Ice, on the other hand, is less a Bakshi film than a righteous and sober homage to Frank Frazetta. Not that he doesn’t deserve such a thing, but here it’s a little stiff, a little self-important, and a little empty-headed. For all the hacking and stabbing, it feels like Bakshi was restrained here, as if he wasn’t allowed to crack a joke during the entire production. Maybe this wasn’t the heavenly match it seemed at first, and maybe Frazetta’s work would be better served if it stayed on the canvas, where his characters seem much more lively.
You know what really killed this film, though? What really kept it from becoming the ultimate animated geek extravaganza it was meant to be? Quite simply, Heavy Metal beat it to the punch two years earlier.