August 26, 1983
In my opinion the most unusual and most accomplished of the summer of ’83 fantasy movies – which admittedly just means it’s better than KRULL, PRISONERS OF THE LOST UNIVERSE, YOR – THE HUNTER FROM THE FUTURE and HERCULES – is Ralph Bakshi’s FIRE AND ICE. An animator for Terrytoons in the ‘50s and ‘60s, Bakshi had knocked the animated feature game off its axis with the independent, adults-only movies FRITZ THE CAT (1972), HEAVY TRAFFIC (1973), and COONSKIN (1975) before pivoting to fantasy specialist with WIZARDS (1977) and THE LORD OF THE RINGS (1978). He had even been attached to direct Oliver Stone’s script for CONAN THE BARBARIAN, the movie that (directed by John Milius) made these sorts of sword and sorcery movies big business for a while.
Bakshi says he lost the gig by telling Arnold Schwarzenegger he’d have to lose weight, so I believe he was expecting to do it in live action, not animation. But his films from this period kind of split the difference between mediums – LORD OF THE RINGS and then AMERICAN POP (1981) made heavy use of rotoscoping, basically filming a version of the movie with actors for the animators to draw over frame by frame.
After a decade of working on the fringes and breaking all the rules, Bakshi was becoming exhausted by the endless struggles with meddling producers and insufficient financing. And it occurred to him that this genre of movies like CONAN and THE BEASTMASTER was largely based on his old friend Frank Frazetta’s painted covers for the Robert E. Howard paperbacks. So it seemed like a good commercial idea would be to go to the source, Frazetta himself, to translate that world to animation.
FIRE AND ICE was a close collaboration. Frazetta is credited alongside Bakshi as producer and creator of the characters, and reportedly they worked together through the casting sessions and the live action shoot, in addition to (obviously) the designs. The screenplay is by veteran comic book writers Gerry Conway and Roy Thomas (of Marvel’s Conan title and later CONAN THE DESTROYER), based on Frazetta-type settings and characters. For example there’s a mysterious warrior called Darkwolf, who twice poses like Frazetta’s famous 1973 painting Death Dealer (also famous as a Molly Hatchet album cover), though here his face is hidden by a Space-Ghost-esque cowl instead of the shadow of a horned helmet.
The movie takes place “Long ago, at the end of the last great Ice Age,” after an evil queen named Juliana (Eileen O’Neill; voiced by Susan Tyrrell [FORBIDDEN ZONE], also the narrator) “arose in the North” and wanted “to extend her realm to all the regions of the known world.” To make it easier, she and her shitty sorcerer son Nekron (Sean Hannon, “Prison Inmate #1,” BORN AGAIN; voiced by Stephen Mendel) captured the remaining ice area, called Ice Peak, and magically launched a giant glacier to the south, forcing the rest of humanity to flee to a warm volcano region ruled by generous King Jarol (veteran cowboy actor Leo Gordon) from a fortress called Firekeep.
Nekron has long white hair and lavender skin, is skinnier than the other men in the movie, and sits on a menacing throne making o-faces as he does his black magic. It’s probly fair to say he’s gay-coded (especially when he’s not attracted to the female lead), but it’s more just like he’s the antithesis of the macho barbarians who are the protagonists of Frazetta paintings. He will turn out to have some sword skills, but he’s not the bulging-he-man-holding-a-battle-ax-in-one-hand-and-a-guy’s-neck-in-the-other type. He slinks around and does his dark-side-of-the-force-esque magic by gesticulating.
Juliana sends a delegation of spooky hooded figures to Firekeep to demand surrender, but King Jarol and his tough guy son Taro (William Ostrander, CHRISTINE) tell them to stick it up their ice, snow fuck themselves, etc. The negotiators imply future incriminations, but in fact they were there to distract the king while the boss’s “subhuman” warriors kidnap his voluptuous adult daughter Teegra (Cynthia Leake, Days of Our Lives; voiced by Maggie Roswell, later of The Simpsons).
Teegra is like a Disney princess in two senses: she has a pet panther, and she’s introduced complaining about her father not letting her be a warrior like her brothers. But the panther is immediately killed and her fair point about gender roles is kind of weird since she never shows any aptitude or interest for being a warrior. You gotta assume that was meant to balance out the fact that the movie is gonna ogle her body like no cartoon has ever ogled a body before; if the term “the male gaze” had not been invented yet it would’ve suddenly come into existence the first time this was projected. It’s about as horny as a sexless, PG-rated movie could possibly be.
Teegra wears a bikini for the entire movie, and the lines lovingly caress every curve of her body. There’s a weirdly high number of scenes where she’s laying around sleepily like the opening of LOST IN TRANSLATION. She escapes the subhumans by sexily bathing in front of them to make them stupid, and there are always reasons for her to stick her butt out, for example when she kneels down to kiss the cheek of her dead brother. I haven’t seen every animated movie ever made, but I’m confident this is the one most specifically designed to appeal to booty lovers.
(The way she awkwardly stands back up and gains her footing at the end of that shot is something that would usually be trimmed but is kind of great here just because when have you ever seen that in animation?)
The objectification is undeniable, and though all the men are wearing loin cloths or thongs they’re never displayed as lustily. Still, I would argue that there’s a certain honesty to it. Frazetta liked to paint sexy ladies, his fans like looking at them, the movie gives them ample opportunity for that. To me it’s more organic than in HEAVY METAL and never as embarrassing, but maybe that’s just because the drawings are way better.
Teegra isn’t helpless. She meets the hero of the movie, a refugee warrior named Larn (voice of Randy Norton, BUTCHER, BAKER, NIGHTMARE MAKER), by stealing meat from his campfire. He kinda looks like a svelte cousin of He-Man with a long braided ponytail. They squabble a little and then flirt, which is interrupted when he falls in the water, almost gets eaten by a giant octopus, and has to poke its giant eyeball out.
That’s the kinda shit that happens around here. You travel through the rocky areas between evil castles and temples, you get attacked by giant lizards, giant wolves, giant pill bugs. But you get by.
Unfortunately, while they’re separated she gets re-kidnapped. That’s when Larn meets Darkwolf (Steve Sandor, HELL’S ANGELS ’69), who has his own vendetta against Nekron and Nekron’s mom. Larn is muscular and a fighter, he’s far from the weiner heroes I’ve complained about in some other fantasy movies, but Darkwolf immediately outshines him, and you get the sense that Larn wants to be Darkwolf when he grows up. Larn could be some form of fantasy fulfillment for the average viewer but then he becomes the starry eyed fanboy excited to hang out with his big brother. It seems like an act of kindness that Darkwolf lets him be his sidekick and they fight subhumans and throw rocks together and stuff.
Eventually Larn and Darkwolf and Jarol’s army attack the ice fortress on dragonhawks (pterodactyls). They fly in, they get rocks thrown at them and arrows shot through them. Like the HERCULES movie released the same day, the climax is a flood of molten lava that supposedly makes things better (in this case by melting the glacier).
The way Bakshi communicates a change of the status quo at the end is really funny to me. Larn and Teegra wake up on the ground after the collapse of Nekron’s kingdom of evil icy business. They look up and see Darkwolf on a horse on top of a mountain in the Death Dealer pose. He smiles at them and they smile back. There’s no fucking way they could see each other’s expressions from that distance, but that’s the magic of cinema. Then Larn turns and notices a subhuman crawling out of the water, in serious pain, so he picks up a big rock and is about to crush its skull, as casually as swatting a fly at a picnic. Teegra stops him because “No, it’s over, don’t you see? We have to start over.”
He seems kinda confused but he throws the rock away, smiles, and they walk a little ways and kiss. The end.
Typing the word subhuman feels gross. Darkwolf calls them “Nekron’s dogs,” which I thought was his way of insulting them, but later Nekron also calls them his dogs. They serve the same purpose as orcs in LORD OF THE RINGS but they’re more like neanderthals than fantasy monsters, and they’re notably darker skinned than all the other characters. I also couldn’t help but notice that Teegra (the movie’s embodiment of feminine beauty) is quite a bit lighter than her Native-American-looking brothers. These choices raised my eyebrows, but I will say in the movie’s defense that the subhumans’ features don’t look like racial caricatures, that its ideal of manliness Darkwolf is also darkly complected, and that the villainous Nekron is the whitest (or at least lavenderest) of them all, and talks about “disposing of undesirables” like a nazi. Most importantly, the story’s themes are surely anti-imperialist. If we have to compare it to real world conflicts it seems to me the bad guys are closest to Europeans conquering South America. I stand with Firekeep.
Anyway, good for Teegra, getting Larn not to bash a guy’s brains in for being subhuman.
As a young Bakshi devotee, FIRE AND ICE was never one of my favorites from him, but it has grown on me over the years. I don’t remember looking down on rotoscoping as much as some people do, but it was definitely less appealing to me than “real animation.” Some people feel it’s a lazy short cut, and the movie opening with 2 1/2 minutes of credits over black, then another minute of Susan Tyrell narration over Frazetta pencil drawings before the animation finally starts, does make it feel a little cheap at the beginning. But I think this is a great looking movie, and a great use of this technique. The movie is so dependent on detailed moving anatomy, with all these bodies on display, that it just wouldn’t have looked as good otherwise. And much like today’s best uses of motion capture, it combines the skills of the animators with the physical performances of the actors. Like, we can see that Larn is a good runner and that Teegra is not – she moves just like a non-athlete forced to run around barefoot in unfamiliar territory. Great animators can and do create these types of performances from scratch, but doing it this way gives it a specific and distinct level of realism.
I also think it adds a sense of weight to the action. You can tell they had real stuntmen jumping onto things, somersaulting, performing fight choreography. And it made it possible to do cool slow motion shots of the subhumans jumping into Teegra’s window to kidnap her.
To be clear, this is not just “tracing.” Show me the live action footage, I wouldn’t know where to draw on it. And it’s only reference, anyway. If you see photos of Cynthia Leake modelling Teegra you can see that they exaggerated her curves and changed her face to give her the pinched eyes of the women in Frazetta’s art.
There’s also an undeniable artistry to the background paintings. I love that you can see the brush strokes, even the texture at times. We’d describe the look as “realistic” as opposed to cartoony, but it’s still impressionistic. Some of the background painters include James Gurney, who later created the Dinotopia books, and Thomas Kinkade, the controversial “Painter of Light.” The two coauthored The Artist’s Guide to Sketching in 1982, maybe while they were working on this.
One of the oft-repeated bits of FIRE AND ICE trivia is that Aeon Flux/Chronicles of Riddick: Dark Fury creator Peter Chung worked on it. Though the coffee table book Unfiltered: The Complete Ralph Bakshi by Jon M. Gibson and Chris McDonnell is pretty light on FIRE AND ICE info, they did talk to Chung. He said he’d taken a job animating dinosaurs (dragonhawks, I assume) over a competing offer from Disney because Bakshi and Frazetta were two of his heroes. But he felt so insecure about his work that he left for Disney after a month. A few weeks later Bakshi’s company called to see if he could do layout for the climactic dragonhawk attack, so he did it at night after his other job. “It felt like a second chance to impress them, and I went all out, creating a shot, which to this day, is the single most elaborate camera move I’ve ever done.”
FIRE AND ICE got mixed-negative reviews, generally praising the visuals but dismissing the story as dull and the objectification of Teegra as laughable. Fair enough. 20th Century Fox gave it a limited release on only 89 screens, so it opened in 19th place (below even THE GOLDEN SEAL). Its per screen average was higher than most of the wider releases, but according to Box Office Mojo it ultimately made $760,883 worldwide, and the budget was reportedly $1.2 million.
Neither Bakshi or 20th Century Fox did another animated feature until 1992 – for Bakshi it was COOL WORLD (his last) and for Fox it was FERNGULLY: THE LAST RAIN FOREST. Other misbegotten nice-tries they’ve released over the years include THE PAGEMASTER, TITAN A.E., MONKEYBONE, and EPIC. They also released WAKING LIFE, a movie I really hated but can acknowledge was another interesting use of rotoscoping.
I don’t know if FIRE AND ICE can quite be considered a beloved cult classic, but I think as it kind of grew on me it also kind of grew on the world. Improved transfers on DVD and then blu-ray definitely helped, and as time passes it stands out more and more, because every year since 1983 is another year of animated features not at all like FIRE AND ICE. Maybe the only exception is THE SPINE OF NIGHT, a 2021 movie clearly inspired by it, telling a sword and sorcery tale through modern rotoscoping (hand drawn on computers). I’m sorry to sideswipe that DIY passion project, but it’s a good example of what “tracing” looks like, as opposed to Bakshi’s great animators using live action as reference. I had trouble getting past that, but I should try again some time, because it’s a cool idea and I know some people like it.
In 2010 Robert Rodriguez (DESPERADO) announced on Ain’t It Cool News that he’d acquired the remake rights to FIRE AND ICE from Bakshi. Rodriguez had befriended Frazetta and had him do a poster for FROM DUSK TILL DAWN, but was only able to close the deal shortly after the painter’s death. In 2014 Deadline reported that Michael De Luca of Columbia Pictures had signed with Rodriguez to make the film as the possible start of a franchise. The script was by Tom Donnelly & Josh Oppenheimer (SAHARA, A SOUND OF THUNDER, DYLAN DOG: DEAD OF NIGHT, CONAN THE BARBARIAN remake), though Rodriguez said he was “actively interviewing to hire A-list writers to do another pass.”
The project was described as live action, not mo-cap, but Rodriguez said it would look more like Frazetta’s paintings than Bakshi’s version was able to. Comparing it to his other adaptation of a famous artist, he said, “SIN CITY reflected Miller’s two-dimensional plane and had an abstract very graphic quality to it, while Frazetta’s is this heightened reality, or rather layers of unreality that create a dream like reality you can get lost in, with an adventure film right out of his imagination,” he said.
Of course, nine years later there’s no word of the remake. De Luca left Columbia to be CEO of Warner Bros. Motion Picture Group, and the project is not listed on IMDb.
Bakshi, however, did manage one licensing feat for the 40th anniversary of the film. Earlier this month Dynamite Comics published the first issue of a prequel comic book series from writer Bill Willingham and artist Leonardo Manco. It sounds like it tells parallel stories about Teegra (with her not-yet-murdered panther), Larn and Darkwolf’s lives before the events of the movie. Larn lives!