OK, let’s talk some Dungeons & Dragons before we dig into the film review proper. It’ll help you understand the background which makes it possible for me to so love a film like Fire and Ice as much as I do. It’s also one of those inevitable subjects, and it’s best we get it out of the way now. Geeks and nerds will always bring it up. For us, D&D is sort of like heroin is to skinny rock stars. You go through a period of brief flirtation, end up heavily addicted to the point where it destroys your social life, and you sit around, all high on your drug, saying things that seem deep and philosophical to you but are really just idiotic, like, “Man, what if you put a Portable Hole inside a Bag of Holding?” or, “Man, wouldn’t it be cool if Gary Gygax was here right now?”
Then you go through a period of recovery, followed by a relapse, then finally get clean and spend the next thirty years talking about how you “used to do heroin” or “used to play D&D” to whoever has the misfortune of being in a position to have to listen to you. Possibly the only thing worse than people telling you stories about when they were stoned and stared at a wall for seven hours, or people reading you their erotic vampire fanfic, is crusty old farts telling you about how they used to roll the twenty-sided die — and yeah, try sidling up to someone in a bar one night and asking them if they’d “like to roll the twenty-sided die.” You’ll be lucky if your potential mate-date doesn’t yell, “Blee yark!” in your face and take you back to their keep on the borderlands to show you their collection of smoky crystalline dice that they store in a leather pouch they bought at last year’s medieval festival.
Speaking of which, when did it become acceptable to show up to medieval fairs dressed as an elf? Since when did that become an acceptable historic recreation of the times? I mean, a sprite or a kobold I could understand, but an elf? For that matter, when did camouflage pants and combat boots become acceptable attire? For God’s sake, man, where’re your jerkins??? I think if you’re going to dress up for a medieval fair, you should have to meet some minimum standard of historical accuracy. At the very least, you shouldn’t be able to wear a long Fruit of the Loom t-shirt with a belt cinched around it. It should be like dining at a fancy restaurant. You don’t have proper attire? Well, sir, please don this complimentary King Henry VIII robe. OK, hoi polloi I can excuse, but the people who actively take part in the festival events? It just doesn’t seem fair to me that some guy went out and forged his own full suit of plate mail armor, and then the guy next to him bought two rolls of Reynolds Wrap and a sheet of poster board.
I’m just saying that if you are dressing up for the Renaissance Festival, at the very least you should have to invest in a pair of those tan rawhide Robin Hood boots that were popular with the pickup-driving guys when I was a kid. The person who makes their own armor should be able to use his Morning Star of Clobberin’ +3 on anyone who shows up to a medieval fair wearing their normal clothes, but with a cape thrown on. I mean, this is why Civil War reinactors don’t give you guys no respect, man.
So where was I? Sorry, I can get pretty worked up when a topic is this important. So yeah, like many other nerds, I dabbled in the black art of D&D. Funny, in retrospect, how hysterical people were over the evil of the game. If you remember, D&D was going to either turn us all into devil worshipers (also fond of just throwing cheap cloaks over their street clothes instead of going all the way and putting on red Danksin unitards) or it was going to cause the youth of America to become so lost in this amazing world of make-believe and fantasy that all concept of the real world would disintegrate, leaving us with a society full of people wearing fake elf ears and cheap cloaks. Hmm. I guess they were right, after all.
My flirtation with this world full of dungeons and dragons began at an early age thanks to the fact that an old boyfriend of my mother’s happened to be one of the early employees at TSR, so he funneled me a steady stream of the old basic and advanced box sets that came in the red and aquamarine boxes respectively. I guess I was in fourth grade when we put together our geeky little campaign, though back then D&D was considered less dorky and more dangerous, sort of like how video games were dangerous, then became dorky, and now are back to the point where thug kids host video-game related public access cable shows about them. For the most part, we’d gather at a friend’s house, cheat on our character sheets for a while, consult various charts, then play the game for half an hour (usually Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, because we liked to equip our characters with lasers and such) or so before retiring to play outside or watch a movie.
Four times out of five, the movie would be a barbarian movie not entirely dissimilar to the game of D&D we’d just abandoned in mid-campaign. Actually, there was a 97% chance that the movie would be Beastmaster. But we’ve covered that territory before, so if you need to hear jokes about Beastmaster and watching barbarian movies, go back and read one of our previous sword and sorcery movie reviews.
Somehow, the animated Ralph Bakshi feature Fire and Ice managed to slip through the cracks, though I can’t imagine it didn’t make the early 1980s cable TV rounds. It’s perfect late-night HBO fare. If I’d seen it back then, I would have embraced it whole-heartedly and probably proclaimed it the best thing I’d ever seen. Or something to that effect. Alas, it was never to be, and although Heavy Metal was inescapable at the time, Fire and Ice remained unseen by me until the recent DVD release allowed me to go back and see how Bakshi’s sword and sorcery cartoon had aged over the years.
In brief, Fire and Ice is the animated feature film equivalent of trying to buy saucy fantasy comic magazine Heavy Metal at age thirteen, praying that the B. Dalton check-out clerk doesn’t realize that the magazine is a veritable horn o’ plenty of naked chicks riding dragons around acid-trip landscapes that look like something the guy down the street would have airbrushed onto the side of his custom van. And then, if you do manage to score, you have to forever hide the torrid tome amongst your copies of Dragon magazine for fear that the big-breasted zebra-striped woman on the cover might otherwise arouse parental suspicion, resulting in them just happening to randomly open the magazine to one of the naughtier Guido Crepax stories.
Ralph Bakshi is a director and artist who was at the forefront of a lot of innovative new ideas, but he was always at the forefront in a way that would only facilitate his ambitions crashing and burning, only to have someone else basically hatch the same idea a few years later with great success. Bakshi first made headlines by directing a raunchy cartoon for adults named Fritz the Cat, forever destined to be picked up by accident by aging vaudeville fans who mistake it for Felix the Cat. At the time of the film’s release, the concept of cartoon movies for adults, packed full of cursing, drug use, and sex, was pretty alien, and it’s likely that more than a few ill-informed parents took their screaming, crying broods out for a fun day at the cartoon movie only to discover after the lights went down that they were in a grindhouse theater full of guys in raincoats jerking off to anthropomorphic cat women (if you’ve been to an anime convention lately, you’ve seen that some things never change).
Soon thereafter, Bakshi decided that what he wanted to do with his time was make an animated adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic Lord of the Rings trilogy. To realize his vision, Bakshi would rely on a technique called rotoscoping — that is, filming live actors, then tracing the artwork over them. Bakshi’s ambition was admirable, but it was a fair leap across the chasm from ambition to realization, and The Lord of the Rings failed to make the jump. The film is an uncomfortable mish-mash of questionable character design (ugly gap-toothed hobbits, Boromir the Viking, Aragorn the Navajo), impressive animation, and shocking lapses in the quality of rotoscoping that results in frequent shifts from animation to live-action actors who look nothing like their animated counterparts horsing around against heavily tinted backgrounds. It also didn’t help that funding was a major stumbling block, and Bakshi ran out of time and money two books into the three-book adventure.
Undeterred, Bakshi forged boldly forward, sticking to the fantasy formula for Fire and Ice, which was released in the immediate wake of Conan the Barbarian’s success and the launching of the sword and sorcery trend that delighted us for so many hours when we’d grown tired of using our imaginations to slay trolls and other beasts lurking in the pages of the Monster Manual and beloved Fiend Folio. Where Lord of the Rings held the promise of Bakshi merging his adult-oriented artwork with the world of Tolkien, the hook for Fire and Ice was that it was an artistic collaboration between Bakshi and one of the most famous pulp artists of all time, Frank Frazetta.
Frazetta rose to prominence as one of the most in-demand artists of the heyday of pulp fiction, gaining particular notoriety for his illustration of Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories, and while you can’t exactly claim that he invented fantasy artwork, he certainly defined it for quite some time, up until the point when Haji Sorayama started drawing hot, naked robot chicks and Boris Vallejo picked up the fantasy art gauntlet. But Frazetta was The Man for decades, creating a style that showcased beefy, axe-wielding barbarians in furry loincloths and big-breasted, big-booty women in tiny, tiny magical bikinis. It would seem, at least in the early 1980s, that his artwork would be a good match for Ralph Bakshi’s animation style. Something more adult-oriented, full of gibbering goblins, bare-chested barbarians, and buxom babes. Working from Frazetta character designs and the basic template of a fantasy tale as defined by decades of pulp fiction, and plagued as always by budget short-comings and a general lack of interest from audiences, Bakshi gave us Fire and Ice.
Fire and Ice involves a clash of two cultures. First, there is the evil, skinny blue guy Nekron, who would be played by David Bowie if this was a big-budget, live-action film. Nekron lives in a land of ice and glaciers and dreams of making the rest of the world as dismal and bleak as his North Dakota-esque ice kingdom. Standing in his way is the king of Fire Keep, who has harnessed the power of the volcanoes that surround his kingdom. Nekron’s scheming mother devises a plan to kidnap Teegra, the hot big-booty daughter of the king of Fire Keep, and thus force him to negotiate a surrender. But being evil, Nekron’s minions are mostly sub-human goblins who don’t seem to be very good at much of anything other than riding atop advancing glaciers while hooting and waving clubs. Teegra escapes (using the ever-effective “look at my nipples while I writhe about in the water” method of escape), gets captured, escapes, get captured, so on and so forth.
Meanwhile, a hunky barbarian named Larn survives Nekron’s attack on his village and takes to wandering the land, killing goblins whenever he happens to come across them. He and Teegra eventually hook up, and then a dude named Darkwolf, in a big wolfhead hood, shows up to do some damage as well. The whole thing ends with a wild assault-by-dragon on Nekron’s icy fortress.
It is by no accounts a perfect film. Bakshi relies once again on the technique of rotoscoping, realized here in infinitely better fashion than in the awkward Lord of the Rings. Although this is once again a film made by first filming live-action actors on a soundstage, then animating over the top of them, there are no points at which we just get tinted footage of the live-action actors. The actual animated look is consistent, and the rotoscoping provides for very fluid and realistic movement of the characters. Unfortunately, Frazetta relies heavily on moody shading and lighting, and in that sense, Bakshi’s animation falls flat — literally. There’s no real attempt, save for one or two scenes, at creating a sense of depth or lighting. Bakshi just doesn’t have the time and resources to achieve such detail, and thus Frazetta’s characters look less like Frazetta creations and more like Bakshi’s character designs from Lord of the Rings, but better looking. There’s also a funny part in one of the DVD extras where Frazetta explains that he always assumed that somewhere out there were women who looked like the women he drew, at least up until the process of rotoscoping, and thus needing to find a real woman to serve as the actress base of his design for Teegra, the booty-shaking daughter of the good king of Fire Keep.
Although it fails to capture the nuance of Frazetta’s original artwork, Fire and Ice still boasts pretty good if standard artwork. It reminds me of how much I miss the look of hand-drawn animation. Computer-assisted artwork results in really smooth, really slick lines and shading. By comparison, something like Fire and Ice — which was really a stylistic throwback even upon its initial release — looks likes a series of animated sketches, with bolder outlines, rougher around the edges. But I really like that raw look, though I have nothing against the more refined lines of modern animation. The backgrounds are also highly stylized, almost impressionist, which means they look cool and were easier to draw. With more time and better technology, Bakshi might have been able to realize a more fully developed style of animation for this film, with more inventive lighting and shading, resulting in something that looks less like a bigger budget version of The Herculoids. But he didn’t have those things, and the end results are still enough fun for me to forgive him.
In fact, the entire film was completed by just a tiny handful of artists working from Frazetta’s character designs and Bakshi’s live-action stars, which makes the TV cartoon quality moments excusable and the more richly realized moments truly impressive. One of the artists was none other than Peter Chung, who animated the dragonhawk finale and would go on to create his own scantily-clad, impossibly-proportioned heroine some years later when he wrote and animated a show called Aeon Flux.
The acting is, at best, workmanlike, but it suits the style of the film. None of the live-action actors were anyone especially accomplished, unless you count an appearance on Glen Larson’s Buck Rogers to be an accomplishment. Steve Sandor, who provides the voice of Darkwolf, is probably the most experienced actor of the bunch, having logged countless hours working on pretty much every television show that was made from Star Trek on. Luckily, the dialogue doesn’t demand much of anyone, so they all glide by pretty easily and without anything really sticking as a particularly bad acting job, though a few huffs and puffs during running scenes are looped in a little too loudly.
The script by Gerry Conway and Roy Thomas (the duo also worked on the script for Conan the Destroyer, and both together and separately, worked on a number of famous cartoon TV shows, including The Transformers and GI Joe) is pretty paint by numbers pulp fantasy. It doesn’t do anything you don’t expect it to do, and each of the characters depends on you recognizing a familiar pulp archetype. There is no back story for anyone. We have no idea who any of these people really are, or why they’re doing what they do. We don’t know who Nekron really is. We have no idea why Darkwolf shows up and joins forces with Larn. The extras tell us that an original draft of the movie explained that he was Nekron’s father, but that never shows up — nor is it even hinted at — in the finished product. The thing is, none of the characters really need a complicated (or even simple) back story, because the dependence on the target audience’s familiarity with stock pulp characters gets the job done. Nekron does the things he does because he’s bad. Larn is good. Darkwolf is cool and mysterious. Teegra is scantily clad (even for a fantasy film princess) in a thong and flimsy bikini top and has jiggling boobs and booty cheeks. If you need any more information than that, then you’ve missed the point of this type of throwback story, which is to show guys in loincloths beating up goblins, intercut with leering shots of Teegra’s ass as she crawls through the swamp.
I would imagine a movie like Fire and Ice appeals to a very select population of people. It was a failure upon its initial release, though like most Bakshi films it built up a cult following after the fact. Measured against modern fantasy films that take advantage of cutting edge computer animation, something as modest as Fire and Ice can’t really measure up, but you’re sort of making a mistake if you pit a small-budget pulp fantasy movie from 1983 against something of that stature. Older fantasy fans, however, will probably find a lot in Fire and Ice that appeals to them, especially if they favor old-style pulp storytelling and artwork. I thoroughly enjoy Fire and Ice, beginning to end, and find it consistently entertaining and fascinating, not to mention beautifully realized despite the typical Bakshi-project budget constraints. It’s a lot more enjoyable and successful as a piece of animated filmmaking than Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings, and the influence of Frazetta, while not completely realized, adds even further to the old-fashioned pulp novel feel of the movie.