Wednesday, November 28, 2012

80s Animation Month: Starchaser: The Legend of Orin (1985)

It's difficult to talk about Starchaser: The Legend of Orin without acknowledging the fact that it's a massive rip-off of George Lucas's Star Wars movies (particularly Episode IV). Don't get me wrong, there's some original elements and ideas to it but they are buried under a mountain of very familiar characters, story and action beats. I guess the director and writer were hoping no one would notice? Or maybe they were pressured by the studio into making it like Star Wars in order to guarantee success? Needless to say it didn't work out and the film flopped. While ripping off someone else's work is hard to defend you've got to admire their skill a little. I mean, just look at George Lucas's own attempt to replicate the Star Wars phenomenon with the distinctly lacklustre prequel trilogy. It's a lot harder than it looks.

So Starchaser
is set in on the planet Trinia in a galaxy far, far away. Our hero Orin (Luke) lives in an underground mining community digging up precious crystals for the evil overlord Zygon (Darth Vader) and his robot soldiers. One day Orin finds the hilt to a sword (lightsaber) and decides to dig his way to the surface. He runs into zombie cyborgs and is rescued by Dag (Han) a rakish smuggler and his female robot companion Silica (C3PO). They all travel in Dag's ship The Starchaser (Millenium Falcon) to a rough town full of criminals (Mos Eisley) where Orin is again rescued by the Governer's Daughter Aviana (Leia). Aviana explains that Orin's sword hilt is a relic from an ancient order of guardians called Ka-Khan (Jedi Knights). Orin and his friends team up to break into Zygon's base (Death Star) and save his people.

I'll say this. Starchaser isn't a terrible film. It's got a reasonably brisk pace and it's full of action sequences. Okay, it is a big rip-off but there's quite a lot of fun playing 'spot the similarities'. You could easily make a drinking game out of it. Like all the other 80s animated films I've covered, this too is surprisingly bleak and creepy at times. There's cyborg zombies who want to harvest Orin for his limbs, Orin's grandfather gets whipped around the eyes by a laser whip, Dag spanks his female robot and reprogrammes her to be more subservient and Zygon even strangles Orin's girlfriend to death during their escape early on. The film never really establishes a stable tone at any point. It goes back and forth between childish sentimentality and disturbing adult elements which makes the film very uncertain as to who it is aimed at.

And this is only compounded by the fact the animation style is very similar to a Saturday morning cartoon (which surely confused the audience even more at the time). The film was originally released in 3D but sadly you can only get it on a plain old 2D DVD. They use a lot of (obviously) early computer animation to draw the spaceships which sticks out a mile but I guess these were the major bits that were going to be converted into 3D. The rest of the animation is a pretty flat and uninspiring but there are a few impressive sequences, particularly the enormous firey portal where the miners dump their harvested crystals. As well as having a shaky tone the film also has a pretty weak story. The characters just seem to jump from place to place with little sense of a storyline unfolding.

The dialogue is also clunky in the extreme. I mean what kind of speech is this? "Thousands of years ago on some obscure planet a primitive chess computer was the first inorganic mind to beat men. In a few hours I will be calling checkmate in the last such game the humans and their kind will ever play." Interestingly the film was written by Jeffrey Scott who wrote a lot of episodes of the animated 'Dungeons and Dragons' TV show. I used to love that show as a kid and this film definitely has a little of that same vibe. Despite it being set over several planets and having loads of characters, it still feels very TV-ish rather than Cinematic. It's derivative and forgettable rather than original and memorable.

All in all,
Starchaser is an okay movie. Again, I think it would mostly appeal to someone who grew up in the 80s and wants a trip down memory lane. Surprisingly, it's been recently announced that a studio is looking to remake this film in live action! That should be very interesting, particularly given the fact that Disney has recently bought Lucasfilm and is aiming to get a new trilogy in the cinema soon without Lucas at the helm. Perhaps the new Star Wars and Starchaser will go head to head! Now that would be awesome to see.


Wednesday, November 21, 2012

80s Animation Month: Heavy Metal (1981)

Heavy Metal is a bit of an anomaly for 80s Animation Month because unlike Fire and Ice, Rock & Rule and Starchaser (next week's entry) it wasn't a flop and actually managed to turn a profit. Okay, it wasn't anything stellar but it doubled its $9 million budget. This may have been down to the fact that it was based on an existing (though quite niche) comic book. 'Heavy Metal' magazine started publishing in 1977 and initially reprinted translations of a French comic book 'Metal Hurlant' before they started using their own artists and writers. The magazine was known for its provocative artwork which often feature topless or scantily clad female characters in sci-fi settings. I read several issues as a teenager and I've got to say, though the art was superb, the stories were very forgettable. Still it gave a platform for a lot of great artists such as Moebius and Milo Manara.

The plot
of the Heavy Metal film is difficult to describe in detail. Essentially, it's an anthology film of short stories. The film begins with an astronaut returning to earth with a glowing green orb. When he gets home the orb kills him and terrorises his daughter by telling her weird and wonderful sci-fi/horror stories. These stories include Harry Canyon - a futuristic noir thriller about a cab driver caught up with criminals (GREAT), B17 - a horror short about a World War II bomber crew who get attacked by zombies (CREEPY), Den - a bizarre story about a nerdy kid who is turned into a musclebound hero and sent to a far off planet (WEIRD), Taarna - a short about an alien female warrior fighting off a barbarian invasion (NOT BAD) and many other, lesser, stories.

For once this isn't a kids film that has a couple of inappropriate elements; the makers clearly pitched this at grown ups. I think aiming it directly at adults was probably another reason this did okay at the cinema, the audience knew exactly what they were getting. One interesting thing to note is that this film was produced by Ivan Reitman, of Ghostbusters, Stripes, Meatballs fame, and featured a lot of famous Canadian actors voices such as Eugene Levy, John Candy and Harold Ramis (most of the Second City cast is here). Sadly Reitman's involvement doesn't mean its a laugh riot though. In fact I'd almost say it's a little dull and dry in places. The anthology nature of the film means that most stories are over before they've begun.

Like the comic, the artwork is great but the quality varies from short to short. Again, there's some use of rotoscoping which gives the characters fantastically realistic movements but it's not used in every segment. The stories are okay but none of them really wow you. I did enjoy the Harry Canyon story though because it fused the classic film noir cliches (femme fatales, world weary protagonists) with a futuristic setting (not unlike Blade Runner). The whole futuristic cab driver angle definitely reminded me a bit of The Fifth Element but that's to be expected given that both films were paying homage to Moebius' ultra detailed line drawings. I also enjoyed the Den story because it was a funny tale of literal wish fulfillment.

The whole tone of the film is quite juvenile
. There's a fair bit of sex, breasts and cursing but I guess that's just an accurate reflection of what the magazine is like. It plays a lot like some 13 year old boy's daydream and while I enjoyed the dynamic, let's-try-everything nature of the film I didn't think it ever found its groove. Speaking of grooves the soundtrack almost made up for the film's other shortcomings. They roped in a lot of great bands (none of which I would really call "heavy metal bands" ironically) including Devo, Blue Oyster Cult and Cheap Trick (again). I'd recommend the film to anyone who is a fan of these bands or just that era of 80s music.

So ultimately,
I found that Heavy Metal didn't quite live up to it's bold tagline "A Step Beyond Science Fiction". I think the concept of an sci-fi anthology film is a great idea and it's been mooted for a few years that either David Fincher or Robert Rodriguez might oversee a new Heavy Metal anthology. I'm not adverse to eroticism or juvenile storylines in science fiction but I hope whatever filmmaker does take on the new project remembers to have some decent writing to go with all those boobs.

For another review of Heavy Metal check out The Film Connoisseur's perspective


Wednesday, November 14, 2012

80s Animation Month: Rock & Rule (1983)

Rock & Rule came out in 1983, the same year as Fire and Ice, and suffered pretty much the same fate as that film. It was a commercial flop which I think can be linked to two factors. Firstly, like Bakshi's film, it pushed the envelope perhaps a little too far for a kids film by having one or two scenes that involved implied drug use and devil worship! Secondly, the film's distributor, MGM, didn't give it much promotion on release (perhaps because they were concerned about these elements). It's a shame because it's a really underrated film. It was the first major release by Canadian animation studio Nelvana, who went on to do several children's TV shows like Inspector Gadget and Care Bears, and the artwork is really top notch.

The film is set in a post
apocalyptic future where humanity has been wiped out. The world is now populated by highly evolved cats and dogs who more or less resemble us both in terms of appearance and culture. The film is focused on small struggling rock band headed up by lead guitarist Omar (Paul LeMat) and vocalist Angel (Susan Roman). A mysterious aging rock star called Mok attends one of their shows and instantly recognises that Angel possesses "the voice" so he drugs the band and whisks her off Nuked York (get it?) to play in his reunion concert. Omar and the band recover and set out to rescue Angel and find out exactly what Mok plans to do her special "voice".

First off, the music is this is sublime. There's about 8 or 9 songs in the whole film from a mixture of artists and bands. Cheap Trick do all the songs for Omar's band, Debbie Harry sings all of Angel's songs while Mok's are divided between Iggy Pop and Lou Reed. It's not really a musical though, because the characters don't spontaneously break into song, it just has a lot of scenes of the two bands performing on stage. I was kind of taken aback by how catchy and memorable the songs were. It's a shame that the film's poor box office meant that a soundtrack was never released but there are plenty of bootleg versions floating around on the net if you're interested.

The story and artwork of Rock & Rule are pleasingly quirky. There's some wonderful post apocalyptic vistas and I really liked the Don-Bluth-gone-bad designs of the characters. I don't know that we really needed the whole explanation at the start of the film about everyone being mutated cats and dogs. It's not like Disney ever had to explain why Mickey Mouse could talk, but I guess it's only a small point! The film has a pleasingly subversive take on the music industry. Mok obviously representing an aging, failed artist desperate to climb back into the limelight by any means necessary. And the film definitely toys with the idea that music is the new religion. There's also a great extended gag where Mok drugs Omar and the band, using a glowing orb, and they turn into mellow folk band for a short while.

Like Fire and Ice, the short 75 minute running time doesn't allow for much more than a simple A to B plot. We also don't really get much character motivation and Mok, in particular, is a complete mystery to the audience. He seems to just want to destroy the world for... well, no apparent reason. I think I would have liked the character more if they could have fleshed out his reasons. I enjoyed the fact that the Angel character was written as a strong female character. Despite the fact she spends much of the film chained up she is anything but a damsel in distress and ultimately turns out to be a far better hero than Omar.

Overall Rock & Rule is a lot of fun and deserves some critical reappraisal. This film really didn't deserve to flop so hard at the cinema. It must have been a bit of sore point for Nelvana going from making this subversive cartoon to making the Care Bears. But I guess money talks. Despite a couple of story flaws it is a wonderful mix of catchy music and eclectic artwork. I think anyone who was a kid in the 80s would really enjoy discovering this on DVD (speaking of which there was a great 2 disc version that came out a few years ago from 'Unearthed DVDs').

For another review of Rock & Rule check out The Film Connoisseur's perspective 


Wednesday, November 7, 2012

80s Animation Month: Fire and Ice (1983)

The 80s were a great period for animation. I think basically what happened was that Disney really reduced the amount of animated films it pumped out during the late 70s and early 80s while it tried to diversify into more live action work. As a result there was a gap in market for other animation studios to come in and offer a bit of an alternative to Disney's sugary sweet musical films. Much of the groundwork for this shift had been started a decade earlier with Ralph Bakshi, an animator whose work on films like Fritz the Cat and Coonskin had challenged the perception that cartoons should only be made for kids. The decade also saw a rebirth in the fantasy genre with the success of Conan, not only in the Arnold Schwarzenegger movies but also the very success Marvel comic book adaptations. Fire and Ice should have been a resounding success given the time it was released but sadly it failed to hit it off with audiences.

The plot to
Fire and Ice is pretty simple. The evil Queen Juliana and her son Nekron are invading innocent towns and villages up and down the land and have their sights set on taking over the last remaining outpost, the kingdom of Firekeep. The reason they are so unstoppable is that Nekron is a sorcerer and can create enormous ice glaciers with his mind that easily crush anything in their way. Queen Juliana sends a small group of her soldiers to Firekeep to request the king's surrender but it turns out this is just a rouse and the soldiers end up kidnapping the king's daughter Teegra. The resourceful princess however manages to escape and teams up with Larn, a survivor of one of villages Nekron destroyed. They race through the jungle but Teegra ends up getting recaptured. Larn then teams up with the mysterious warrior Darkwolf and the two of them take the battle to Nekron's ice palace.

Honestly, I think it's pretty clear why Fire and Ice flopped. It's not a bad film, far from it. I really, really enjoyed both the story and animation. The major problem is that though the fantastical story is simple and child appropriate, the characters are drawn aren't. Princess Teegra spends almost the entire film clothed throughout in nothing more than the smallest of small bikinis that wouldn't look out of place on a Playboy cover - and the film still somehow managed to get a PG rating! There were a lot of kids films in the 80s that pushed the envelope in terms of content but while a bit of extra violence or swearing seemed to go over okay with audiences, semi-nudity clearly didn't. Even I've got to admit I probably wouldn't want to let anyone under 14 watch this.

The thing is the slightly lurid clothing choices of the characters wasn't just some crazy decision by the director, Ralph Bakshi. The artwork is all based on designs by Frank Frazetta, the artist who drew virtually all the classic covers for Robert E Howard's Conan books. As such it's wonderful to see Frazetta's illustrations finally come to life. There's maybe a little less detail to the characters than he would usually use in his paintings but the style is still very much recognisably his work. The artwork gives the film a slightly hazy, dream-like atmosphere. The backgrounds in particular are painted in very soft focus while all the characters in the foreground are stark and bold.

The film also employed the technique of rotoscoping, whereby by the director filmed live actors quickly doing all the scenes and then essentially had the animators trace over the top of them. I've always been a little confused as to why this process is always frowned upon by critics. Sure, it's cheating a little but given that the characters are all meant to be human (or human-like) I was fine with it. It meant that the film captured a lot of little human details - not unlike Andy Serkis's motion capture work as Gollum in Lord of the Rings - that might otherwise have been missed.

could maybe call the story a little underwhelming - it's more or less was one long chase sequence - but I think the writers understood archetypal structure of fantasy literature very well. Roy Thomas, one half of the writing duo, had spent most of the 70s and 80s writing Marvel's comic book adaptation of Conan and his love of Howard's stories is very evident. I particularly enjoyed the character of Dark Wolf, who is essentially the Han Solo of the movie. He first pops up more than halfway through the film, never takes off his bear skin helmet and only speaks a handful of words. He was a brilliant supporting character, full of mystery, and made the perfect counterpoint to the more bland leading hero, Larn.

All in all, Fire and Ice is a pretty good little movie. Times have changed now and I think the introduction of anime to the West have given audiences a broader perspective on violent and subversive animation. I still don't think the film would do well at the cinema but as a piece of 80s nostaglia for 30-somethings it's a heck of a lot of fun. Like watching a violent, sexy riff on He-man. Word is that Robert Rodriguez is looking to actually remake Fire and Ice at some point in the future and it will be interesting to see what kind of film he makes. Given his work on Sin City I think (and hope) it will be an attempt to adapt Franzetta's work as live action.

For another review of Fire and Ice check out The Film Connoisseur's perspective at:-