Movie: Animation, like most forms of entertainment, goes through periods that can only be regarded as feast or famine, with little in between to appreciate. Nowadays, releases that are computer generated are in vogue (for good reason too, many of them are…well…"Incredible") but aside from recent advances my comment holds up pretty well throughout the history of movies and televised entertainment. One period of relative feast, to the point it could almost be described as a renaissance of sorts, was in 1983; the year of Star Wars: Return of the Jedi and the little known animation wonder Rock & Rule. Most animation during this period was relegated to Saturday morning cartoons and music videos but there were other shows worth checking out too. One of the more interesting for me was a little classic by the talented Ralph Bakshi called Fire & Ice. Today's review of the movie will be for the two disc limited edition although I'd be lying if I said I knew of a single disc version coming out any time soon for those unwilling to spring for the whole release.
The movie was simplicity itself with an evil magician, Nekron (played by Sean Hannon), controlling the element of Ice to appease his mother's desire for conquest. Set in a primitive time of barbarians, swords, and sorcery (like Conan the Barbarian), the world is an uncertain place except that Nekron is not a force to be trifled with. He concentrates his efforts on moving large glaciers to destroy the fortifications of his enemies and only a single kingdom, Fire Keep, remains standing. Nekron sends emissaries to take over peaceably (it was never explained why, especially given his thirst for conquest) but they are rebuffed by the leader of the people, King Jerol. Nekron's primitive minions are told to kidnap the king's daughter Teegra (the curvy hotty on the front DVD cover) and the next thing you know, a couple of warriors are attempting to save her, Larn and Darkwolf. Neither knows the other and they represent a significant age gap (the primitive Batmanish Darkwolf is old enough to be Larn's father) that comes into play later on in the movie.
The movie eventually has the inevitable showdown between the forces of good versus the forces of evil but it all moves at a fairly breakneck pace due in large part to the short length of the movie. Without spoiling it too much for you, consider that the stereotypes and clichés of the genre were all present in abundance but the magical part for me was that the direction by Ralph Bakshi was combined with the incredible talents of Frank Frazetta, the leading graphic artist in the field (along with Boris Vallejo and a handful of others). If anything, the true value of the movie itself was in how these two geniuses' were put together to provide an almost surreal vision that could have greatly benefited from a plot and more traditional story. That said though, for all the shortcomings of the movie and lack of financial success, it remains as the best example of the process of rotoscoping to date. For those unfamiliar with the technique, it has live actors move through the motions of the characters caught on film. The artists then use the shots as a series of cels by which to form the framework for the animation; drawing over the still frames with whatever action is needed. The process is notable for a lot of labor intensive production but also a realistic manner in which the characters move (lending some mighty spooky attributes to the creepier villains). In short, Mr. Bakshi was one of the few willing to use this process and it lent a distinctive air to his movies, however financially unsuccessful they may have been.
In terms of the movie itself, the flaws were many and appeared to come from budgetary issues more often than not. The movie almost seems like a rough cut that's missing most of the dialogue as though funding ran out but the action sequences worked on several levels that more traditional animation couldn't touch. I only wish Mr. Bakshi had been given a larger budget in which to truly provide whatever vision he may have had (he alludes to it during the commentary) but as a stand alone project, I've long like the movie, flaws and all. There were many times when one of the characters would look like the artist missed a chunk of cels with the character looking distorted as a result. The lack of anything even resembling a decent plot impacted the replay value too but fans of anime will find this historical example far superior to many "classics" on some level of another so I'm still going to rate it as Recommended.
Picture: Fire & Ice: 2 Disc Limited Edition was presented in the original 1.78:1 aspect ratio, thankfully in anamorphic widescreen (unlike the previous VHS and laserdisc versions which were full frame only). The movie being over twenty years old, it looked its age more than Rock & Rule but still within acceptable parameters. There were some areas that could've used better editing, others where the print scratches got slightly out of hand, and still others where the original film elements appeared to be slightly off kilter with colors not quite right or the jumpiness of missing frames. Still, I saw it on laserdisc, still have my VHS copy, and recall seeing it in a small theatre back in the 1980's so I can safely say it hasn't looked better in my experience. I saw no compression artifacts added in by the DVD mastering process and those of you possessing a bootlegged copy will be wholly justified in obtaining this one on DVD.
Sound: The audio was presented in a variety of remixed sources, including the original 2.0 Dolby Digital stereo, a 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround EX and a 6.1 DTS-EX track (I don't have a 6.1 set up but it seemed pretty fricking good to me otherwise). I'm a fan of cleaned up tracks where the original is enhanced but I also can't dismiss the newly revised versions as some purists do. Each track added value and while the separation between the elements wasn't as nicely done as a modern release and the dynamic range wasn't anything special either, I think those of you interested in what can be done to such a movie with modern technology will find the modernized tracks well worth listening to.
Extras: Fire & Ice: 2 Disc Limited Edition had some sweet extras that I really didn't anticipate. On the first disc, there was an audio commentary with Ralph Bakshi providing some of the historical background needed to put the movie into perspective. There were personal anecdotes where he really shined but also some dead space where he droned on about something of little importance to me so your mileage will vary. There was also a decent "Making of Fire & Ice" special that added some replay value for me, providing a great lesson in the rotoscope process as well as some of the cast (which changed from time to time). Mr. Bakshi also had a short bit on Frank Frazetta where the director glowed when discussing the talented illustrator. A unique extra about the movie's production was a set of diary notes written by actor Sean Hannon (Nekrod) when the movie was made, with him reading the notes aloud with some interesting visuals. I applaud his foresight in making said notes, even if he didn't do a lot of work afterwards (a shame too). There was also a trailer and a lengthy photogallery with subtitles and notes attached to complete the first disc.
The second disc was primarily a documentary on the life of Frank Frazetta called Frazetta: Painting With Fire. This has been released in a double disc format with a horde of great extras so fans might want to invest a few bucks in the complete DVD release of that one but it had a lot of artists and family members (among others) discussing his life's work. There was also an audio commentary by director Lance Laspina and producer Jeremy J. DiFiore with each adding some suitable comments that admittedly leaned towards a fanish viewpoint but given the scoop of the man's works, it'd be tough to find someone with an unbiased view towards the incredibly talented artist. Both discs were wrapped up in a 3D case with a double sided cover to lend a special look to the DVD set.
Final Thoughts: Fire & Ice: 2 Disc Limited Edition was not without numerous flaws but it had so much to offer in terms of historical value that I'd be remiss in saying it was the sum of its limitations. The story was basic and uncluttered; the look of the movie very distinctive, and the animation process used provided something that may never be seen again. Fans of anime will likely find this one a must have given the nature of the project but don't expect something quite as eye pleasing or emotionally grabbing as some of the more recent movies that are enjoying tremendous success since Fire & Ice was never made for a large audience as much as the fans of the sword and sorcery genre that still appear to be fairly large to this day.
If you enjoy anime, take a look at some of the recommendations by DVDTalk's twisted cast of reviewers in their Best Of Anime 2003 and Best Of Anime 2004 article or regular column Anime Talk