Monday, April 6, 2020

Reeling Backward: "Fire and Ice"

Teegra encounters Otwa

"Fire and Ice" has more cheek than redeeming qualities.

This 1983 fantasy cartoon from director Ralph Bakshi and producer/illustrator Frank Frazetti received a PG rating from the MPAA despite being a virtual non-stop parade of nearly-bare butts and breasts. It's basically "Heavy Metal" with less blood and a thin sheen of material to cover up the good stuff.

It's one areola away from adulthood.

The movie has a lot of cool elements, but is still just a half-step above total garbage. The animation detail is pure Saturday morning cartoon quality, and some of the voice work is not much better. It's 81 minutes long but feels like it could easily lose 20 by excising the overlong shots of people running here or there.

And "Fire and Ice" goes into an excessive amount of unnecessary slo-mo, particularly as the camera leeringly lingers over female bodies in a way that seems designed to be juuuuuust palatable fare for 12-year-old boys.

The film combines elements of both "low" and "high" fantasy -- the former being more closely aligned with Conan and his ilk and the latter with hobbits. When you say high fantasy, think kings and wizards and powerful magic and world-ending stories. Low fantasy is more like a Dungeons & Dragons campaign, with bloodier quests for individual glory.

There was a brief heyday of fantasy movies in the late 1970s and early '80s, including some pretty gory fare with "Conan the Barbarian," "Excalibur," "Heavy Metal" and so on. As I've previously opined, I think the roots of its destruction were sown when they tried to extend fantasy filmmaking into family-friendly spheres.

Movies like 1982's "Beastmaster" skirted right along the hard edge of the PG rating, with plenty of blood and even (brief) bare breasts. "Fire and Ice" is close in line with that aesthetic, with lots of bloodless deaths and a female lead who spends most of the movie essentially nude.

Written by Gerry Conway and Roy Thomas, the story setting is a prehistoric world where everyone wears fur loincloths, and that's about it. They wield knives and spears and other basic weapons, though a few of the more advanced people have swords and axes.

There appears to be two tribes of people, the subhuman minions of the evil lord and the slightly more upright free folk; think Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons. Adding to the implicit racial discomfort, the "good" people all have brightly Caucasian skin while the subhumans are drawn in distinctly duskier tones, with somewhat indistinct/generic facial features.

As he had with his "Lord of the Rings" movie, Bakshi opted to film much of the movie in live action and then transfer it to animation through a process called rotoscoping, where artists trace over the figures frame by frame. The idea is to capture a more naturalistic movement than free-form animation, but in my opinion it usually doesn't work very well.

Bakshi often had separate actors perform the live action and voice parts, including all three leads: the young, untried warrior Larn (voice by William Ostrander, action by Randy Norton); Teegra (Maggie Roswell and Cynthia Leake), the T&A princess/damsel in distress; and Nekron (Stephen Mendel, Sean Hannon), the powerful sorcerer and villain.

The land is divided between the frozen mountainous north and jungle-ish south kingdoms, with their headquarters in Icepeak and Firekeep, respectively. Nekron is using his powers to slowly advance his glacier over the land, and demands that the fire king, Jarol (Leo Gordon), subjugate himself completely. He refuses, and Teegra, his daughter, is kidnapped as blackmail.

The power dynamic up north is curious. Nekron is represented as a fairly common archetype in fantasy: the albino-ish weakling who harnesses great unnatural powers. He goes into a sort of rolled-eyes palsy whenever he is exerting himself magically.

Nekron is the son of another magic-user, Juliana (voiced by Susan Tyrrell, who also provides the narration), who taught him his arts only to be surpassed by him. They have a contentious relationship, with her supporting his imperialist ambitions but working to manipulate him.

For example, it is her idea to kidnap Teegra to offer her as a bride to Nekron. He haughtily refuses, even expressing disgust at her appearance which, along with some not-terribly-subtle swishiness in his mannerisms, points to other proclivities.

Though physically scrawny compared to other prehistoric males, Nekron enjoys personally dueling his enemies, using his magic to halt their blows or crush their bodies.

The running time of the movie is largely taken up with what I refer to as "process" storytelling. It puts an emphasis on slavishly following every step along the way of a journey or undertaking rather than giving us the highlights.

For example, when Larn is scaling the side of a mountain, rather than just showing him starting, a couple shots a long the way, maybe he nearly slips one time and then he's at the top, "Fire and Ice" will show us the whole, boring ascent.

So it ends up feeling like we're watching a bunch of dull, time-filling footage. It's also used for a lot of shots of Teegra, who initially wears a flimsy bit of cloth on her upper and lower body that is torn away by the subhumans. Underneath is comically tiny thong underwear and two triangles of cloth that just cover her nipples.

It's a triumvirate display of cleavage, sideboob and underboob.

Teegra writhes and stretches prodigiously to show off her assets. She also has the most hilarious running style I've ever seen, with virtually no arm pumping at all. She keeps her hands slightly in front of her and out to the sides -- as if to ward off any chance of her bosom being momentarily blocked from view.

William Ostrander plays Taro (voice and action), the princeling son of Jarol who is sent by his father to negotiate with Nekron for Teegra's release, with the full knowledge this will result in his certain demise. When informed of his son's death, Jarol has virtually no reaction at all, which makes him seem almost as hard-hearted as his nemesis.

Elizabeth Lloyd Shaw (voice and action) plays Roleil, a witch living in the woods who briefly captures Teegra. She has a giant, dimwitted servant named Otwa (Micky Morton), and it seems like the start of an interesting side plot until they're both slain by Nekron's minions a few minutes after meeting them. The "sexy witch interlude" is another hallmark of low fantasy.

Entering the story fairly late in the game is the mysterious figure of Darkwolf (Steve Sandor, voice and action), the mightiest warrior in the land. He stumbles across Larn after his village is destroyed and becomes a sort of mentor/protector figure, without ever saying very much. Darkwolf wields a two-bladed battle ax and wears a wolfskin headdress with glowing green eyes. He's also the only character who doesn't have his ass hanging out the entire time.

Darkwolf seems quite consciously to be a ripoff of Conan, and indeed it's he who has the final faceoff with Nekron, not Jarol or Larn. In his last shot he's seen slouched over a horse holding his ax in clear imitation of a famous painting Franzetti did that later became the cover for the debut album of Molly Hatchet.

It's worthwhile to note that in the end, the heroics of Larn and Teegra and Darkwolf are all for naught. All along King Jarol has a plan to release the massive river of lava he keeps dammed up within his keep and use it to utterly destroy Icepeak. He only delays doing this while his children are in the northern domain (and presumably for hesitation to destroy all the lush land in between).

In this sense, the fire king never truly feared the icy invasion as he knew he had the equivalent of a nuclear bomb in his pocket.

A couple of other notable sequences: Jarol has a small force of "dragonhawks," which resemble pterodactyls, which are ridden by his elite warriors. Larn and Darkwolf use them to infiltrate Icepeak for the final showdown with Nekron, and most of them are killed.

I also loved the brief scene where Larn encounters a graveyard spirit who lends him assistance when she learns he seeks vengeance on Nekron, who slew her and the rest of her village. She has a mostly skeleton head with a few wisps of long hair and some flesh still covering her upper torso, and there's a vaguely flirty air about her interactions.

It reminded me of the interrogation of a half-corpse in "The Return of the Living Dead," one of my favorite horror movies.

I had hopes for a little light necrophilia but, like the witch interlude, this communing is over just when it gets interesting.

"Fire and Ice" had a budget of about $3 million in today's dollars, so it was a pretty low-rent affair. That's reflected in the slapdash-looking animation with very little shading or texture. Larn in particular looks like he could've leaped right out of a newspaper comic strip.

Contrast the bland look of the film with its awesome poster, which looks like the cover of a Conan novel with a bit of anime style thrown in. What if the whole movie had looked like that instead of a lame Johnny Quest cartoon, I couldn't help but wonder.

Plans were laid for Robert Rodriguez to remake "Fire and Ice," with Bakshi's blessing but not his involvement. But nothing has emerged in the last six years.

'The fading of magic into mythology' is perhaps the most pervasive theme in fantasy storytelling. My only hope is that the future of fantasy cinema doesn't follow this as well. We had a brief golden age in the early '80s and early 2000s, with some trashier efforts along the way.

It's time for this genre to be brought back from the dead, for good.

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