“No one dared guess at the outcome of a meeting on the field of battle between Fire and Ice.”
Meet Ralph Bakshi. Long before The Simpsons, South Park, Adult Swim, and the anime invasion, Bakshi attempted to blaze new trails with his own brand of cartoons for grownups. His work was loaded with mature humor, harsh violence, and in-your-face sexuality. But in an age ruled by Disney and Hanna-Barbera, corporate suits and—sadly—ticket buyers considered animation for children only. Despite critical acclaim and a sizable fan following, mainstream Hollywood success still eludes him.
Meet Frank Frazetta. Even if you’re not familiar with Frazetta’s name, you’re familiar with his art, or artwork inspired by it. You know the ones: An impossibly chiseled, loincloth-wearing muscleman stands atop a small mountain of skulls and dead bodies holding a metal sword that’s larger than most sixth graders. Lounging at his side, with one arm clinging to his leg, is a beautiful, voluptuous woman wearing the tiniest of tiny metal bikinis. With his numerous fantasy paintings such as these appearing on paperback covers throughout the ’60s and ’70s, Frazetta rewrote the visual language of fantasy adventure stories, and hints of his style are still evident in fantasy art and filmmaking today.
Meet Fire and Ice. With animation by Bakshi and designs by Frazetta, the animated action epic seemed like a sure-fire hit. Although it didn’t click at the time, it, like most of Bakshi’s work, developed a following over the years, to the point where it’s now an extras-laden DVD from the brilliant minds at Blue Underground. Release the lava!
Deep within Ice Peak, the sinister Nekron uses dark magic and his amazing mental powers to conjure up giant glaciers from nowhere. He then sends them across the land to destroy any kingdoms that do not do his bidding. As one monstrous glacier moves closer and closer to the peaceful Fire Keep, it wipes out a small village along the way. The only survivor of this onslaught is Larn, a young warrior eager to do the right thing for his people. Meanwhile, Nekron sends some envoys to discuss peace with the king of Fire Keep. These “envoys” are really his henchmen, the ape-like Subhumans. They make a mockery of the king and run off with his scantily-clad daughter, Princess Teegra. Out in the wilderness, Teegra manages to escape. She and Larn both have violent run-ins with the Subhumans before meeting, and even flirt a little. But the Subhumans are relentless in their hunt. Fortunately for our heroes, the mysterious masked man Darkwolf is there to help them out, and to kick butt whenever necessary. Eventually, their adventures lead them to a confrontation with Nekron inside Ice Peak, but what chance do these three have against his godlike powers?
The story here is simple but effective. The evil unstoppable enemy with an army at its beck and call threatens a smaller peaceful community. There’s a young hero who, in the midst of a personal tragedy, gets caught up in events larger than himself, and who eventually ends up with a resourceful princess in peril and a mysterious rogue. As the stakes get higher and higher, many epic battles are fought. And in the end, the fate of the world rests on our hero’s shoulders. But in this case, sticking to the basics is what works, because we’ve got an entire strange world to explore here.
The plot is more or less divided into two parts. The first stays with Larn, Teegra, and Darkwolf as they are lost in the wilderness, hunted by the Subhumans. This half sometimes has a “running around in circles” feeling, as the three are constantly in and out of danger every time the enemy shows up. But this also gives Bakshi and Frazetta a chance to throw in all sorts of fantasy adventure trappings, such as a giant lizard attack, a monster at the bottom of a lake, and an encounter with a mysterious sorceress. The second half moves the action inside Nekron’s lair, and is much more plot-driven. It’s here that the stakes are raised, and we discover just how evil and powerful Nekron really is. It’s also here that the action scenes get bigger and grander, with an extended swordfight between Larn and Nekron, and swarms of flying Dragonhawks battling it out with Subhumans.
As far as characters go, we never really explore what’s in their heads, because we and they are too busy keeping up with all the action. Instead, this is minimalist character development, in which we learn just enough about each one to understand them, and then we trust the performers and animators to take it from there. We know Larn has lost his family, we know Teegra wants more out of life, we know Nekron has mommy issues, and we know Darkwolf can kick butt. And, really, for a film like this that’s all we need to know.
Why am I being so forgiving when it comes to thin plot and character work? It’s because the action and the visuals make up for it. The fights are especially brutal, with every punch or sword slice looking like it hurts, and plenty of blood gets spilled. The whole movie is alive with movement and color, especially during more outlandish scenes with flying monsters and giant lizards, not to mention the lush, otherworldly backgrounds. Although sexuality doesn’t directly figure into the plot, Teegra and Larn do spend the entire movie wearing as little as possible. Some might make arguments about the importance of artists such as Frazetta studying human anatomy, and depicting it as accurately as possible. But one look at some of the many seductive poses Teegra strikes throughout the movie reveals that sexiness is just as vital to the film as it is to Frazetta’s paintings.
There have been many attempts to recreate Frazetta’s style on film, the most obvious being 1982’s Conan the Barbarian. But Frazetta’s work is so larger-than-life that animation really is the route to go, and Bakshi knew this. Most of the action in the movie was created with rotoscoping, a primitive ancestor to today’s motion capture animation, and a favorite method of Bakshi’s. A group of actors dressed in full costume—or lack thereof—acted out the entire film in front of a plain white background. Animators then took each frame of film and drew Frazetta’s characters over them, endowing them with the artist’s signature exaggerated anatomy. The result is that the characters have a specific, highly realistic way of moving, including the misshapen Subhumans. Having actual stuntmen perform the fight scenes gives the action some amount of realism not often seen in other animated films. Today’s discerning viewers might be able to tell in an instant how it was done, but the rotoscoping nonetheless gives the film a unique feel all of its own. When Larn is running from the Subhuman, the way he holds his arms back and pumps his legs furiously is not usually how a cartoon character looks while running, and yet because his movements are so fluid, there’s no question that he’s a trained warrior who knows how to get out of these hairy situations.
But Frazetta is not the only famous artist whose work is on display in the movie. The Dragonhawk attack, one the movie’s most dynamic action scenes, was animated by Peter Chung, who went on to create Aeon Flux for MTV. There were only two background artists for the entire film. One was James Gurney, who later created the Dinotopia series of books, which then became a short-lived TV phenomenon. The other background artist was none other than Thomas Kinkade, whose paintings of quaint, nicely-lit cottages have found their way into almost every home in this country. There are even stores in malls that sell nothing but prints of his work. We wonder what Kinkade’s billions of fans will think when they learn he studied at the feet of “pulp artist” Frazetta.
Picture quality is hit or miss. Grain is evident throughout the movie, and in some scenes the background takes on a “splotchy” look, like how a napkin might look after you leave a fried chicken wing sitting on it for too long. This is most likely due to the film’s age rather than the digital transfer. Still, flaws in the picture are never so glaring that they overcome the action on screen. Much better is the sound quality. The 5.1 and 2.0 tracks are both decent, but the DTS is the real standout here. A good example as any is Chapter 9. It starts out with Teegra alone in the wilderness, and various sounds of distant crickets or chirping birds come out of all the speakers, so you feel like you’re right there in the forest. Then, when Larn encounters a pack of vicious Hell Hounds, their growls and deep rumblings come not just from the bass but from all around you, giving you a trapped, claustrophobic feeling.
Kicking off the extras on Disc One is a commentary by Bakshi, in which he goes into detail about both the rotoscoping technology and his good working relationship with Frazetta. Never one to be shy about his opinions, Bakshi also discusses the current state of animation, and where he feels some big companies might have made some bad decisions. The featurette was recorded in 1983, and it shows its age with poor picture and sound. A note from Blue Underground at its start urges viewers to think of it more as a historical relic than an actual “making-of” documentary. But it’s still worth watching for the glimpses it gives us of the original live action footage. “Bakshi on Frazetta” is a brief interview in which the director further elaborates on the artist’s talent and their friendship. In “Sean Hannon’s Diary Notes,” the actor who played Nekron in the live action footage reads from his on-set diary, going into detail what it was like to be there, as well as the positive experience he drew from being in the film. Hannon also reveals the original ending, cut from the final version of the film. A still gallery provides a few more looks at the live action sets and costumes, and the original trailer is also included.
The second disc in this limited edition is more than just a bonus feature; it’s a full-length stand-alone film, 2003’s Frazetta: Painting With Fire. Here you’ll get to know almost everything you need to know about the man and his work. It covers the basics of his career, why his work is so influential, and his own personal history. Bakshi is here again for another interview, along with director John Milius, actress Bo Derek, musician/weirdo Glenn Danzig, and artists Bernie Wrightson, Neal Adams, Dave Stevens, Brom, Kevin Eastman, and several others. Where the documentary really shines, though, is in exploring Frazetta’s personal history, including his youth, his devotion to his family, and his brush with death during the ’90s. If it weren’t for his paintings, Frazetta would be an ordinary guy, and this film shows that even an ordinary guy’s story can be an interesting film if told in the right way. Picture quality on the documentary is excellent, and the 2.0 surround is decent, with no immediate flaws. And there’s more. An audio commentary with director Lance Laspina and producer Jeremy J. DiFiore is an engaging listen, revealing just how much hard work and attention to detail went into the project.
Imagine if Disney had made Fire and Ice in 1983. Some of the cool elements of the film might have survived, such as the Dragonhawks flying through Nekron’s lair. But we can speculate that Larn and Teegra would have been younger, less mature, and with more clothes. The Subhumans might have become comic relief, acting more buffoonish than threatening. And instead of a human killing machine, Darkwolf could have devolved into a kindly old sage, offering a combination of wise advice and slapstick cowardice. And let’s not forget the Broadway-style ballads and the cute, fuzzy animal sidekicks. Instead, Bakshi and Frasetta play it straight, sticking to the basics of a sword-and-sorcery action flick, with animation merely being their medium to tell it. If you’re longing for some good fantasy adventure the way they used to make them, look no further than Fire and Ice.