Fire and Ice (US - BD)
Gabe takes a butane torch to Nekron's face and wins the war for Team Fire...
Animator turned minor animation mogul Ralph Bakshi will always stand out in my mind as an innovator despite the fact he never made a genuinely ‘good’ motion picture. Bakshi deserves a lot of credit for dragging American animation kicking and screaming into a more adult arena, though ironically enough his actual films are largely juvenile in their treatment of adventure, sex, and humour. Bakshi’s early directorial work was indelible on the face of American pulp culture, including post-hippy sardonic-festivals like Fritz the Cat and Heavy Traffic, and fantasy features like Wizards and Lord of the Rings. Bakshi’s later work ( Wizards in particular) owed a clear debt to the fantasy art of painter Frank Frazetta.
Some folks might not be familiar with his name, but almost all of us are very familiar with his genre defining work, work which fantasy art, writing, and film has owed a great debt for half a century. The 1982 success of two Frazetta inspired films (Don Coscarelli’s Beastmaster and John Milius’ Conan the Barbarian) partially led to the first official collaboration between the two men, on an ‘80s animation fan’s dream project – Fire and Ice, the story of a tyrannical wizard named Nekron and his battles with a brave young warrior named Larn, a beautiful princess named Teegra, and a mysterious loner named Darkwolf. Like all of Bakshi’s work the promise of greatness wasn’t delivered upon, but the final product stands as probably the most impressive piece in the director/producer’s catalogue.
Fire and Ice’s animation looks a bit crude, even for the time, but Bakshi’s animators and technicians were stuck working with a fraction of a major studio budget. Details are minimal, character designs are inconsistent, and frame rates are all over the place, but what the production lacks in polish the artists mostly make up for in dynamic movement. Bakshi often depended on rotoscoping live-action reference, but it often just appeared shaky, and in a worst case scenario like Lord of the Rings, it was downright ugly. Fire and Ice, for what it’s worth, is Bakshi’s most impressive film from a technical animation standpoint, save perhaps a few scenes in American Pop. The camera movement, the character movement, the three dimensional representation of space, and even the use of slow motion all serve to impress beyond the use of realistic details. Had the budget permitted a second painting pass for simple cell shading the animation may have gone down with a more positive reputation.
I could discuss the clear sexism, misogynism, and racism, but I understand the point of the exercise, which was to encapsulate Frazetta’s indelible painting style, which was often clearly sexist, misogynistic, and racist (frankly speaking, the Teegra animation is pretty damn sexy). There are few films in history that are this slavish to their source material (even if the sex and violence has been tamed to a hard PG rating), which oddly enough was entirely built upon images rather than a narrative. That’s the film’s problem in the end. Naysayers can bitch and moan about the cheap animation, use of rotoscope, and less politically correct elements, but they clearly don’t ‘get’ the material if this is all they can manage. Sadly, Frazetta’s wordless and still paintings speak volumes more than Fire and Ice’s tepid, ever-rolling, script. Wizards was a pretty dull film overall, but it had a story to tell, and somewhat memorable characters, with somewhat reliable traits and emotions. Had the more technically successful aspects of Fire and Ice been mixed with a less simplistic, and frankly dumb plot, more than a handful of cult fans would probably remember the film as a true classic.
Blu-ray isn’t particularly kind to low budget animation. Imperfections in each cell are suddenly crystal clear, including inconsistent colours between moving and non-moving parts of a character’s anatomy, xerographic sketchiness, and a whole lot of dirt. Without a Disney sized re-mastering budget it’s all but impossible to delete all the white flecks of imperfection that stick to the acetate, so we can’t really blame Blue Underground for this ‘problem’. There are no problems with the transfer outside of artefacting damage done to the original source material – no compression noise, no real edge enhancement, and no blooming colours. The colours are fairly brighter than the already fantastic DVD release, especially the lighter reds, which pop without bleeding or any edge jaggies. The 1080p transfer is most valuable for the utter clarity of the film’s colourful, expressionist background. In hi-def the difference between the cell animation and the acrylic painted backgrounds is ever more obvious, but again, looking back at the film it wouldn’t be Fire and Ice without these stylistic choices, and ‘shortcomings’.
Once again, Blue Underground goes a little overboard in the audio format field, including a DTS-MA 7.1 track, a Dolby TrueHD 7.1 track, and a Dolby Digital EX track. The DTS-MA track is the way to go, and on my system I can’t tell any difference between the two Dolby tracks. Low budget animation doesn’t exactly lead to the most impressive and aggressive soundscape, but thanks to an exciting and brassy score from composer William Kraft, and a couple of entertaining action scenes the track is not a wash. Directional effects are minimal, but there are a few creature effects that move throughout the channels, along with some ambient noise, and some echo effects, especially within the ice palace. The impact of some of the punches, kicks, and weapon hits is occasionally ridiculously bassy, and some of the action sound effects are more than a little flat, but volume levels are pretty consistent, and the score doesn’t overwhelm anything important. Dialogue, which is used sparingly, is surprisingly natural considering the age of the tracks, but occasionally sounds a little inconsistent with the tone and warmth of the rest of the track.
Blue Underground wind on audio and visual levels, and for simply releasing the film on Blu-ray, but they lose huge points for not including the documentary feature Frazetta: Painting with Fire, which was part of the special edition DVD release. The documentary is actually better than the film, and eternally re-watchable. People that own that DVD release will want to hang onto it for that reason, though the rest of the disc’s extras are present here.
The commentary track, featuring Bakshi and the director of Painting with Fire, Lance Laspina, who acts as moderator and interviewer. Bakshi apparently has a bit of a chip on his shoulder concerning criticism he’s received over the years for his dependence on the rotoscoping process, and he spends a lot of time defending the process. He clearly compares the process to modern computer animation in live-action features, and the comparisons are very fair. The problem is that this subject takes over too much of the track, and other subjects are slightly overshadowed. Despite his chips, Bakshi is a particularly endearing fellah, and is full of interesting technical information on the processes of animation, and even more interestingly, producing ‘adult’ animation in the days before Anime hit in the United States.
‘The Making of Fire and Ice’ (13:30, SD) is a period featurette ‘rescued’ from Bakshi’s personal VHS copy. It’s valuable from the standpoint of behind the scenes footage, including some of the live action source material, but it’s no replacement for Painting with Fire, which included some of this footage. ‘Bakshi on Frazetta’ (8:00, SD) is an interview with the film’s director/producer waxing about his friend the artist. This footage was shot for Painting with Fire, and features a lot of overlap with the commentary track. ‘Sean Hannon’s Diary Notes’ (14:00, SD) is a reading of actor Hannon’s (Nekron) actual on-set diary notes. Hannon describes the ridiculous process of filming the live action sequences, which he compares to a mix of pornography and THX 1138. Overlong, but pretty funny. The extras are finished out with a 13:00 behind the scenes photo gallery (with option descriptive subtitles), and the original theatrical trailer in HD.
Fire and Ice still isn’t a great film, but it’s surprisingly easy to revisit on semi-annual occasions, and a fine time capsule for the state of ‘adult’ animation in the early 1980s. Robert Zemeckis arguably succeeded in exacting Frank Frazetta’s paintings in animation in the super-expensive and technologically advanced Beowulf, but Fire and Ice carries a definitive charm. I’m very disappointed that this Blu-ray release doesn’t include the fantastic Frazetta: Painting with Fire documentary, but the other extras are pretty solid, especially the buoyant audio commentary, and the A/V presentation is as good as we can possible expect from the dated, and frankly never excessively impressive source material.
* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray release.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Some material may not be suitable for children
Release Date: 25th August 2009
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master 7.1 English, Dolby TrueHD 7.1 English, Dolby Digital EX English
Subtitles: English SDH, English, French, Spanish
Extras: Director Commentary, The Making of Fire and Ice, Bakshi on Frazetta, Sean Hannon's Diary Notes, Still Gallery, Trailer
Easter Egg: No
Director: Ralph Bakshi
Cast: Randy Norton, Cynthia Leake, Steve Sandor, Sean Hannon
Genre: Action, Adventure and Animation
Length: 81 minutes
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