By the early 1980s, director Ralph Bakshi had made a name for himself as one of the leading figures in adult-oriented animation. From his debut with the raunchy and X-rated "Fritz the Cat" in 1972 to the ambitious adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings" in 1978, Bakshi helped to bring American animation out of the kid-friendly Disney bubble and demonstrate that it could be used for more sophisticated, socially and politically relevant subject matter. In 1982, he decided to team up with friend and artist Frank Frazetta, who was known for designing the sumptuous covers and illustrations for various fantasy novels and comic books, including the "Conan the Barbarian" series. Hot on the heels of the live-action adaptations of "Conan the Barbarian" and "The Beastmaster" that same year, Bakshi and Frazetta hatched the idea for an animated sword-and-sorcery film based on themes and characters from Frazetta's paintings.
The resulting film, "Fire and Ice," proved to be nowhere near as groundbreaking as Bakshi's earlier movies, nor as visually brilliant as Frazetta's artwork, but it built up a loyal following in the years to come, especially once it reached the home video market. Set during a war between two mythical kingdoms, Icepeak and Firekeep, the film tells a rather generic story of epic proportions. The main protagonist is Larn, a young warrior intent on defeating Prince Nekron of Icepeak, who is using his supernatural talent of creating giant glaciers to destroy the surrounding villages. Princess Teegra of Firekeep is kidnapped by Nekron's people, but she escapes and encounters Larn. With the help of a mysterious horseman known as Darkwolf, they make their way to Nekron's icy castle to end his reign of terror.
Like many action fantasy films of the time, "Fire and Ice" seems to be primarily concerned not with plot but with anatomic eye candy. Virtually every character parades around nearly nude, covered only where absolutely necessary by prehistoric thongs and bras that are about three cup sizes too small, and so the sculpted bodies of both heroes and villains become the main visual focus. The animated characters were created through the rotoscoping technique, a process by which live actors are filmed performing and their movements later traced onto animation cells. Rotoscoping was by no means a new innovation, dating back practically to the dawn of animation, and Bakshi used the technique on his three previous films, "Wizards" (1977), "The Lord of the Rings," and "American Pop" (1981). His employment of the technique on this film succeeds insofar as the characters' movements are fluid and naturalistic, but little creative license was taken to embellish their features (with the exception of accentuating Teegra's breasts and butt). Unlike Frazetta's recognizable character types, with their exaggerated muscles and three-dimensionality, the animated figures look flat and rather simple by comparison. While the intent was to make them more realistic, the characters are ironically rendered even more cartoonish because they appear to be exactly what they are: tracings of three-dimensional figures rather than original creations.
Naturally, with so much attention given to their physiques, the characters are deprived of interesting personalities. The romance that develops between Larn and Teegra lacks spark, and the heroes are so vapid that it is difficult to latch onto their quest for victory. The only character who generates any real interest beyond the physical is Nekron, whose anger and frustration seem to be brought about by his nagging mother's attempt to find him a bride, his utter disdain for beautiful women, and his seemingly erotic fixation with Larn. There seems to be a lot going on in his mind, but the film never exploits this as much as it should, choosing instead to remain firmly rooted in Larn and Teegra's shallow (and conventional) relationship.
With its thin story and detached characters, "Fire and Ice" is ultimately more interesting as a technical exercise than as a narrative feature. The final 20 minutes or so do generate some well earned excitement, but up to that point the film is mostly slow and uneventful. The overall design of the film has not aged well, and like its live-action counterparts, the movie is distinctly a product of its era. For that reason, it holds some nostalgic appeal, and the general campiness (a slow-motion sequence of Teegra screaming and being flung over a "subhuman's" shoulder evokes the spirit of a low-budget 70s exploitation film) adds a certain unintended quaintness to it. But, its ambiguously gay villain notwithstanding, "Fire and Ice" just doesn't hold the weight, either visually or thematically, that its two creators probably hoped it would.
Blue Underground's Blu-ray transfer of "Fire and Ice" is expectedly very good. Mastered in full 1080p high definition, the 1.78:1 widescreen image looks as sharp and clear as it probably ever will. It should be noted that the original image contains lots of white speckles and some occasionally rough-looking pencil strokes, so this will not look as brilliant or as perfect as, say, a Disney Blu-ray release. Blue Underground has done a fine job, with colors appearing rich and vibrant. Any deficiencies you may see are most likely attributable to the look of the film itself.
The English soundtrack is delivered in alternate 7.1 DTS surround, 7.1 Dolby Digital True HD, and 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround EX tracks. As with many of Blue Underground's releases, this seems a bit much for such a limited original source, although the surround is utilized well, especially during battle scenes. There is no major discernable difference between the two 7.1 tracks, but they both sound fantastic. Optional English, English SDH, French, and Spanish subtitles are provided.
All of the special features here originally appeared on Blue Underground's 2-disc limited-edition DVD release from 2005 and are all presented in 480i standard definition. Sadly not retained from that edition (which is still available as of this writing) is the feature-length documentary "Frazetta: Painting with Fire."
The features begin with an audio commentary track by producer/director Ralph Bakshi. The commentary was recorded in interview form, with Lance Laspina, director of the Frazetta documentary mentioned above, asking questions throughout. There are some occasional awkward moments as Laspina isn't always quick to think of questions while Bakshi's answers are often defensive, but there is enough information to make this worth a listen, especially for Bakshi's fans.
Up next is the 13-minute "Making of Fire and Ice," a vintage featurette that gives us a look at each step of the animation process. A title card explains that the original film or tape elements for this feature could not be found, and so they used Bakshi's personal VHS copy. As a result, picture and audio are pretty weak, but they are fortunately overcome by some interesting behind-the-scenes footage of the live-action shooting and brief interviews with painters James Gurney (writer and illustrator of the "Dinotopia" series) and Thomas Kinkade, who painted the gorgeous backgrounds for the film.
An eight-minute interview with Bakshi discussing Frank Frazetta follows.
The most unusual feature is "Sean Hannon's Diary Notes," a 14-minute segment in which actor Sean Hannon, who served as the live-action model for Nekron, reads excerpts from a diary that he kept during production. Complemented by behind-the-scenes photos, this is a surprisingly fascinating extra, as Hannon's diary entries are eloquent and detailed. It is even more surprising that Hannon did not provide the voice of Nekron himself given how dramatically charged his readings are.
A photo gallery with optional descriptive subtitles and the film's theatrical trailer round out the extra features.
"Fire and Ice" has its loyal following, but for those not brought up on this particular style of animation or on 80s sword-and-sorcery adventures, the film will have limited appeal. The Blu-ray transfer is solid, although owners of the 2-disc DVD set may want to hang on to that documentary.