Is there a more appropriate director for a live action version of Fire and Ice than Robert Rodriguez? One imagines him being perfect and, had he made this decision ten years ago, might have been able to offer the role of Teegra to Salma Hayek, perhaps anatomically ideal yet almost certain to refuse such an exploitative part now. Boo.
But back to 1983 we go, and a collaboration between Ralph Bakshi and Frank Frazetta to produce the animated Fire and Ice. Made at a time when Conan and Beastmaster had proffered a certain, fleeting vogue onto the fantasy genre, in particular yarns involving barbarians, the relatively high budget Fire and Ice was an easy sell. With little of the literary baggage that came with Bakshi’s adaptation of Lord of the Rings, along with Farzetta’s artistic credentials, the project promised to be lean, action-based and tonally mature. As we now know, it was also something of a flop. Perhaps the world wasn’t ready for a cartoon aimed at the teenage market, certainly at a time when, in the west, animation was solely for children and couldn’t – however hard it tried – replicate the charms of Tanya Roberts or a young Arnold Schwarzenegger kicking ass and dressed in very little.
Not that commercial failure makes Fire and Ice a bad film. Its 81-minute running time cuts out much of the meaningless exposition, ponderous dialogue scenes and wallowing in its gorgeous artwork. Instead, we get a breathless affair that pitches us into the thick of the action and never lets up. As though screenwriters Roy Thomas and Gerry Conway agreed that the plot was so obvious and threadbare that there was just no point in indulging it, Fire and Ice’s characters are given the barest of back stories. After a standard issue narration about the evil witch Juliana and her son, Nekron, we open with a village being attacked by a glacier. It turns out Nekron is a sorcerer capable of moving vast quantities of snow and ice using only his mind. The lands overcome by his glacier are absorbed into the Ice empire, and only the ruler of Fire Keep, King Jarol, stands in his way.
Juliana dispatches evil-looking envoys to treat with Jarol, but this is a feint, because at the same time her sub-human pawns are kidnapping the king’s daughter, Teegra. This is to force Fire Keep into capitulating, but unfortunately for Juliana the Neanderthals are even stupider than they look and quickly they allow the princess to escape. Before too long, she’s teamed up with the film’s principal good guy, Larn (a barbarian whose village is destroyed by the glacier), who offers to return her to Fire Keep. But there’s more, including the irregular appearances of Darkwolf, a bemasked warrior who holds an unspoken grudge against Nekron and who turns up now and then to help Larn. These developments are thrown in amidst lengthy action sequences, made all the more fluid and realistic via Bakshi’s deployment of Rotascoping. This technique involved filming live actors performing the scenes before the artists drew each frame; it doesn’t always work, but the animation – in particular the fight scenes – is a cut above anything else made at the same time, though the ‘Making of’ documentary contains amusing footage of actors having at each other with axes in car parks. Essentially, it’s a primitive technique, adopting the same principles that would be repeated years later – at great expense and containing about the same level of charm – with Robert Zemeckis’s Beowulf.
Such a fast-paced actioner has its downside. The characters are really little more than ciphers, either unambiguously good (Larn), evil (Nekron), or with hidden depths that the film never hints at revealing, as in the case of Darkwolf whose motivation for helping Larn is frustratingly unexplored. Sean Hannon, the actor playing Nekron, kept a diary during the film’s production and intimated that Darkwolf is nothing less than the sorceror’s father, now fuelled by bitter vengeance at the ruin his son his swathed across the land. But all this is cut from the final version, which makes Darkwolf both enigmatic and irritating.
Elsewhere, Fire and Ice’s cult status is surely mired in the fact it could be called Quest of the Underclad. It’s here that Frazetta’s influence over the production becomes clear. The fantasy genre owes a debt to Frazetta, though his typical image – an impossibly muscled warrior sitting on a pile of corpses beside his micro-kinied love interest – denied it much respectability before the Lord of the Rings films showed it didn’t have to be this way and brought it back into the mainstream. The great artist’s brushstrokes dominated the brief early eighties fantasy output, however, not to mention reminding this writer of a number of garish book covers that ensured certain novels could never be read in public. Larn wears little more than a loincloth in Fire and Ice. Fair enough. He’s a barbarian. But the realisation of Princess Teegra is staggering; the very image of voluptuousness who floats though the film in the tiniest of outfits and has a chest and backside the camera clearly loves, there’s something very wrong about her, coupled with a lingering sense of unfairness that it’s Jessica Rabbit who appears most prominently in the polls of sexiest cartoon babe. As it happens, she’s eye candy and so’s Larn (lamer than he looks) for much of the story, whilst it’s left to Darkwolf to keep the action moving.
Romance between Larn and Teegra is inevitable, though nothing much happens before their chaste kiss at Fire and Ice’s closing moments. Beforehand, there’s some delicious – and really quite daring – ambiguity about Nekron’s appetites. He certainly shows little interest in Teegra’s ample charms, but that isn’t true for the extremely welcoming sorceress who looks after her for a time… All this is hinted at rather than made clear, which is reasonable enough within Fire and Ice’s PG constraints and years before it could have gotten away with more.
A shame it didn’t do better on the whole. The animation is a marked improvement on Bakshi’s own Lord of the Rings and the brisk running time ensures Fire and Ice never outstays its welcome, even if cutting out the fat leaves very little for viewers to actually care about. Its relative obscurity makes the Rodriguez update something to look forward to, for shamelessly obvious reasons.