Ralph Bakshi Retrospective Part 8: Fire and Ice

by tigermanifesto

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Though Bakshi had worked with other screenwriters before––on American Pop in particular––and made his most famous films adapting others’ work, he preferred to exercise tight personal control over his films. Fire and Ice, a 1983 sword and sorcery film in the vein of Edgar Rice Burroughs and the Conan books, is the only one of his films that is specifically catered to fit another person’s sensibility. Which is to say that this film finds Bakshi largely facilitating fantasy painter Frank Frazetta’s aesthetics. Frazetta’s art is instantly recognizable––

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Mush!

––and the film basically translates his favourite situational tropes and character archetypes into animation.

Though Bakshi and Frazetta are credited for characters and story concepts, the script was written by yet another pair of fantasy aficionados: Marvel Comics writers Gerry Conway and Roy Thomas. AKA one of the men responsible for inventing The Punisher and another who introduced Conan the Barbarian to the world of serial art. Produced at a time when fantasy was becoming more acceptable in Hollywood––think Willow, Conan, Beastmaster, Heavy Metal––Fire and Ice is emblematic of the same pulp fantasy values found in many of its contemporaries.

As expected, the film’s storytelling is economical. An evil ice king named Nekron and his scheming mother are bringing about an apocalyptic ice age by magically pushing glaciers further south, obliterating peoples Nekron finds inferior along the way. Now the ruler of the volcanic kingdom far to the south finds himself beset by this creeping sheet of ice, a situation made worse when Nekron’s cronies abduct his daughter Teegra while visiting under the pretence of a diplomatic mission. Meanwhile Larn, the last survivor of a race of warriors destroyed by Nekron’s glacier, flees south and swears revenge on the frigid invaders. Hanging on the fringes of this setup is the mysterious wandering warrior Darkwolf, who ends up being the supreme heavy of the plot. We also have racialized orc-like “subhumans,” witches, and a natural history museum’s worth of wild monsters.

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With such a simple setup, the execution has to be more than competent to avoid the film becoming redundant. Luckily, the screenwriting and editing are extremely efficient. Ponderous conversation scenes are held at bay and our various players get most of their characterization from actions instead of explicitly talking about their attributes. None of the characters have a conventional arc, with their personalities and strengths more or less set at the beginning. The plot tests each character but it doesn’t perform any alchemy with them. This decision fits the structure of the plot, which is a straight-ahead revenge/action fantasy without a lot of intrigue or thematic subterfuge.

Teegra is an excellent example. As daughter of the king of the fire lands, she resents the fact that her brother and her country are off at war while she is stuck in the palace being tutored. Her attitude, oddly enough, is not too dissimilar from Fritz the Cat’s in this respect. Craving action, she ends up kidnapped, thrust into situations for which she is not prepared, and forced to adapt to survive. Though she at first extends Nekron a peace offering when brought before him to be his sex slave, she shows no real compunction about using violence to defend herself, though her agency within the plot is severely limited by the fact that she is often drugged, carried off, or imprisoned and waiting for someone to rescue her. Though she demonstrates her capabilities during the course of the film and has a certain romantic tension with Larn, neither of these are of primary importance. And Larn and Darkwolf arguably undergo less dramatic change since they’re simply fighting on terrain they’re already quite familiar with.

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Given that, the fulcrum on which this film works or breaks is our interest in the heroes’ fight against the Big Bad Ice King, Nekron. We’re interested in their kinetics, their physical clashing with one another, their competition. Our cold blue villain wrests firm control of every scene where he appears, bearing on the audience with a strange charisma. A cruel and uncaring soul, Nekron sees the world from a spiteful and instrumental point of view, only interested in causing pain to his enemies and using other beings for his own ends. Our filmmakers define his villainy both though his rather obvious genocidal glacier rampage and through their portrayal of his sexuality/lack thereof. Depravity is here defined through his lack of sexual interest in Teegra, whom he wants to rape only out of hatred for her brother and kingdom rather than for pleasure. His close and exclusive relationship with his mother and lack of interest in women distinguish him from blonde, virile Larn, who sports a ropey ponytail but demonstrates an obvious desire for and closeness to Teegra. This is both a form of queer coding and a neat way of establishing that he has had a stunted development, thinking in the most callous and childish way and treating the world like a play room or toy box.  The fact that one of his powers beyond controlling masses of ice is his ability to telekinetically manipulate others’ bodies, turning them into his literal puppets who kill themselves and others for his amusement.

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From beginning to end, the film looks excellent, particularly on Blu-ray. Painted backdrops (some done by actual demon Thomas Kinkade himself!) establish realistic settings but are also dramatically heightened with visible paint lines and impressionistic vistas. Character cel animation is generally well-integrated with these backdrops, and though the film lacks the teeming crowd scenes from Lord of the Rings the rotoscoping is still smooth and well-staged. Compared to the somewhat clunky and simplistic action scenes in Rings this represents a step up. This is no more evident than during an aerial chase sequence where Darkwolf and Larn ride dragon hawks into Nekron’s lair while dodging projectiles. This sequence, animated by Aeon Flux creator Peter Chung while the latter was working at Disney, is thrilling and complex, showing off the advantages of animation’s free “camera” in staging highly physical and detailed movement.

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Fire and Ice is not one of Bakshi’s more ambitious or experimental films. There are none of the stylistic flights of fancy that he would take even during Lord of the Rings, and his trademark collage aesthetic is totally absent. He sublimates his own sensibility into Frazetta’s style, enabling a highly cohesive but less wild kind of filmmaking. Its appeal is completely tied to one’s appreciation of pulp fantasy, and its economical storytelling is both an asset and a reason why it packs relatively little thematic weight. It’s not Bakshi’s most exciting work, but it’s one of the most immediately satisfying if you’re a fan of the genre in question and can stomach its regressive politics. It’s a well-oiled machine of a film and, it turned out, Bakshi’s last for nearly a decade.

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