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Fire and Ice

Fire and Ice(1983)

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Before anime invaded the mind-space of American youth, sword and sorcery entertainment was limited to Conan the Barbarian and a few hyperactive upstarts like The Beastmaster. Western animation came up with a few oddities such as Heavy Metal but the only cel-and-ink animation director to return repeatedly to the genre was Ralph Bakshi. Fritz the Cat had won Bakshi major attention while simultaneously popularizing and trivializing Robert Crumb's underground Comix, and the rather unpleasant Heavy Traffic and Coonskin populated their cartoon worlds with vulgar exaggerations of street hustlers.

The prolific Bakshi then turned to sword and sorcery with Wizards and a feature made from the first two books of Lord of the Rings. Both were underwhelming sagas of good versus evil that borrowed heavily from the graphic style of pulp illustrator Frank Frazetta. For this third and final foray into barbaric magic, Bakshi collaborated directly with the legendary artist. The result is 81 minutes of core Frazetta content - cartoon violence and pre-pubescent eroticism.

Synopsis: Ice sorceress Juliana (Model, Eileen O'Reill; voice, Susan Tyrell) drives her demonic son Nekron (Sean Hannon [M], Stephen Mendel [V]) to push onward with a cascading ice avalanche to conquer the world. But one domain to the south resists, the Land of Fire. Independent fighters Larn (Randy Norton) and Darkwolf (Steve Sandor) make mincemeat of Nekron's subhuman warriors while struggling to keep fire princess Teegra (Cynthia Leake) from falling into Nekron's clutches.

Fire and Ice wasn't marketed exclusively for children, but kids comprised most of the audience for this weak fantasy. It was given a PG rating despite its non-stop mayhem and near-nude leading lady, a Bettie Page-like nymph who never receives a bruise no matter how roughly she's treated. Generic sword and sorcery tales have an unlikely blonde hero struggling against awesome forces of evil to regain his rightful throne; Fire and Ice has a royal interlude or two but spends most of its time in repetitious battles between tight-lipped heroes and scores of Frazetta-inspired troglodytic foot soldiers. They fight in swamps, in trees, on mountaintops. The luscious Teegra, clad only in a few square inches of silk, is kidnapped, rescued, and recaptured. The non-storyline is almost prophetic in its prefiguring of the appeal of the video game...I tell you, killing those demons/aliens/storm troopers is hard work.

Among animators, Ralph Bakshi's movies are discussed much less than his use of the rotoscope. Rotoscoping is basically the tracing of pre-shot live-action characters to generate animated figures, and Bakshi was the target of scorn when he copied shots from Sergei Eisenstein's Alexander Nevsky to serve as armies of goblins for Wizards. That artistic 'borrowing' aside, it must be remembered that rotoscoping was being done as soon as animation was born, and that Walt Disney often rotoscoped live-action figures to create characters such as Snow White.

Bakshi's carefully cast 'actors' performed all the fighting and other action for a film camera, and then were carefully traced into traditional ink 'n paint animated characters. It's not as easy as it looks to render an acceptable graphic from a traced figure, and Bakshi's animators added many details along the way. Traditional animators use exaggeration and emphasis to communicate through their creations; the 'human' animals in Bambi are a prime example of this. The characters in Fire and Ice are embellished with added detail but remain 'xeroxes' of realistic action. Locking animated characters into the physical limitations of what live-action 'models' can perform seems a waste of graphic possibilities. In Fire and Ice Bakshi uses animation as a special-effects tool, to create a stylized realist world instead of one based in fantasy design. With today's computers, live-action movies do exactly the same thing, but instead of tracing live action they record it in a way that it can be manipulated through computer-generated imagery.

Fire and Ice appeals to young boys who delighted at staring at the grim muscle bound warriors and erotically-charged nubile damsels in Frank Frazetta's sex-and-action pulp illustrations. The ferocious heroes are devoid of any thoughts beyond the next knife thrust or axe blow, and the wet-lipped heroine quivers fetchingly but remains chaste throughout. The film is yet another adult feature too infantile to be taken seriously, a kiddie entertainment comprised almost exclusively of content inappropriate for children.

Blue Underground presents Fire and Ice in a deluxe two-disc set that wisely zeroes in on Frank Frazetta as the hero of the hour. The enhanced transfer brings out the consistently pleasing color schemes in the dark forest settings while revealing a rather high level of animation dust and flecks in the image. They plague every scene, as if the animation cameraman smoked a cigar and had no ashtray. The audio tracks have been remixed in a full selection of DTS and Dolby stereo configurations. The arresting DVD box sleeve is a lenticular 3D representation of the film's poster artwork.

The prolific Ralph Bakshi uses his commentary to praise his coworkers and discuss his collaboration with Frazetta, who appears to have been limited mostly to character and costume designs. Bakshi defends the languishing art of cel animation that, along with most traditional optical effects, has been superceded by computer work.

A making-of featurette is a surviving VHS dub of a work print with temporary voiceover and has many examples of live-action shooting. A single second of traced footage appears to take just as much work, perhaps more, than traditional animation. Bakshi's artists even do a few seconds of slow motion for a sword fighting scene. In a new interview featurette, Bakshi lauds his friend Frazetta and waxes nostalgic at the memory of 'interviewing' hundreds of nude models and actresses to play Teegra. An extensive stills gallery accompanies the original trailer. The oddest extra is a gushy set of 'Diary Notes' from actor Sean Hammon, who modeled the evil Lord Nekron. The subjective account uses phrases like, "My tryst with cinema."

A second disc contains a full feature docu called Frazetta: Painting with Fire that would seem to have more potential for multiple viewing than the main event. Amid a generous helping of Frazetta works -- everything from advertising art to movie posters -- are interviews by noted comic artists and writers Dave Stevens, William Stout and Bernie Wrightson. Bakshi is on hand along with director John Milius, whose Conan movie comes straight from the center of the Frazetta universe. The director and producer of the docu contribute a commentary as well -- giving us the feeling that DVDs will soon be recording commentaries to comment on earlier commentaries.

For more information about Fire and Ice, visit Blue Underground. To order Fire and Ice, go to TCM Shopping.

by Glenn Erickson