Tuesday, September 15, 2009

FIRE AND ICE (Blu-Ray)

Like many former adolescent D&D geeks of my generation, I have a warm spot in my cinema-addled heart for Ralph Bakshi's FIRE AND ICE (1983), an animated sword & sorcery adventure inspired by the works of, and made with the participation of, famed fantasy illustrator Frank Frazetta.

With a screenplay by Marvel Comics veterans Gerry Conway and Roy Thomas (who also penned CONAN THE DESTROYER), FIRE AND ICE is a simple, straightforward tale of good and evil. You've got the fey, evil sorcerer Nekron and his mother Juliana on the bad side, and the handsome barbarian Larn, the bodacious princes Teegra and the enigmatic warrior Darkwolf (an archetypal Frazetta icon) on the side of good.

Nekron and his mom live in a palace of ice, where he uses his magical powers to push a great glacier across the face of the world, crushing villages and cities beneath the heavy ice. The only power that can stand against him is Fire Keep, home of good King Jarol, his son Taro and daughter Teegra. Juliana sends a squad of her son's subhuman foot soldiers to abduct the princess in an attempt to force Jarol into surrendering, but they're not particularly bright kidnappers, and she soon escapes. The nearly naked nymph wanders the wilderness until she meets Larn, whose home and people were destroyed by Nekron. Eventually, Nekron's goons recapture Teegra and Larn teams up with the Clint Eastwood-esque barbarian, Darkwolf, to rescue her and defeat the momma's boy badguy.

If you've ever read any sword & sorcery novels or comic books, you won't find any surprises here. But the simple story and shallow characters service the action scenes well enough, and give Bakshi's animators and artists plenty of opportunity to bring many of Frazetta's most famous tableaus to life. The pre-digital animation relies heavily on rotoscoping, a process in which live action footage is traced and enhanced by animators. With FIRE AND ICE, virtually the entire movie was shot in live action on a blank soundstage directed by Bakshi and Frazetta himself, and the footage used as a basis for the animation. This results in smooth character movement, and gives the action scenes a certain verisimilitude.

Blue Underground's new Blu-Ray upgrade of the title is astonishing, with a sharp 1080p hi-def, 1.78:1 widescreen transfer that brings new luster to this 26-year-old adventure epic. Colors are vibrant, and the print appears to have been further cleaned up digitally since its DVD release a few years ago. Blue Underground provides several different audio options, including 7.1 DTS-HD, 7.1 Dolby True-HD, and 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround EX.

The disc also includes a rambling but informative commentary track by director Bakshi, a video interview with Bakshi as he talks about his relationship with Frazetta, a great behind-the-scenes still gallery, and a video diary narrated by actor Sean Hannon, who played Nekron in the live action footage.

The real gem among the supplements, though, is a vintage behind-the-scenes featurette (unfortunately culled from an old VHS source, so the picture quality isn't very good), THE MAKING OF FIRE AND ICE. Made at the time of the film's production, the featurette gives a great look at Bakshi's process in making the film, and includes plenty of the original live action footage, which reveals just how closely the performers resembled the hand-drawn characters. It also details Frazetta's close involvement in the production, from providing character and background designs to coaching and directing the movement of the live action performers.

For fans of classic adventure animation, sword and sorcery epics, Bakshi or Frazetta, picking up this disc is a no-brainer. Highly recommended.

BUY: Fire and Ice [Blu-ray]