Saturday, March 24, 2012

Classic Animation Theater : "Heavy Metal" (Part 1)

Heavy Metal
Distributor: Columbia Pictures
Studio: Guardian Trust Company, Canadian
Film Development Corporation and Famous Players
Individual Segments Created By TV Cartoons, Halas and
Batchelor Cartoon Films, Atkinson Film Arts, Haines-Camron,
Votetone, Boxcar Films and Wally Bulloch-Anicam
Director: Gerald Potterton
Producer: Ivan Reitman
Original Release Date: August 7, 1981

What happens when you throw science fiction, fantasy, animated erotica, a soundtrack filled with late 1970s hard rock, poor rotoscoping and bloody violence into a blender? You get Heavy Metal, an omnibus animated anthology film from 1981 that went from a success to a cult classic over the years.

Heavy Metal is based on various stories that appeared in the magazine of the same name, a magazine that was the American version of a French science fiction anthology magazine called Metal Hurlant. It was discovered by publisher Leonard Mogel, as he was launching National Lampoon in France. The first issue hit shelves in April of 1977. Combining compelling stories with great artwork, Heavy Metal seemed perfect for an animated film adaptation. Animation could tell stories like this in ways a live action film couldn't. Just think, an adult animated film featuring six science fiction/fantasy segments all set to a hard rockin' soundtrack...

By the way, did I say "adult" animation? Well, Heavy Metal isn't really "adult". Sure, it's R-rated and it's got loads of violence, nudity and language in it, but it's not necessarily a mature animated film. This is basically an Adult Swim cartoon, but in the early 1980s. It's juvenile as hell, and the film certainly doesn't hold up today, but why is this an important film in animation history? How could a mindless, sophomoric film be such a notable work in animation history?

One must remember that the late 1970s and early 1980s weren't exactly a great time for animation. Sure, Disney had blown up the box office with The Rescuers and The Fox and the Hound, but other studios' efforts came and went at the North American box office. What's interesting about some of these efforts was that they were unique. Films like Watership Down, Metamorphoses and Allegro Non Troppo were experimental and unlike anything else at the time of their release and tried to prove to audiences that animation is an art form for adults.

As Disney fell back on repeating themselves after Walt Disney's passing in 1966 and until Don Bluth came along in the mid-1970s, it was time for other studios to compete with the Mouse House. Films like Yellow Submarine and Ralph Bakshi's films started getting adults into animation again, at a time when adults were viewing animation as "kiddy stuff". These films were successful at the box office, thus giving Disney some competition. The adult interest in animation also made the 1969 re-release of Walt Disney's Fantasia a success, as the film finally turned a profit nearly 30 years after its initial release. Disney ultimately wised up later on, but the adult animation boom somewhat kept the art form alive in the 1970s along with the success of their films. Animation wasn't going to die, even if the public who once admired animation had turned their backs on the medium. So, with that said, does Heavy Metal succeed as a film? Or is it just an experimental piece worth remembering for the ambition alone?

Heavy Metal begins with a story called "Soft Landing". An astronaut, Grimaldi, flies through space in a badly rotoscoped 1960 Corvette and lands on Earth. He comes home to show his daughter something he found on his journey. As he opens the case containing that "something", his daughter watches in excitement. All of a sudden, that "something" kills Grimaldi and corners the little girl. It's a floating green sphere... Actually, it's the sum of all evil: The Loc-Nar. It speaks to the girl in an eerie voice provided by Percy Rodriguez.

The Loc-Nar tells the little girl six stories about its influence on societies in the past, the future and all over the universe. Why? We'll find out at the end of the film. Basically, this storyline functions as a mere string to connect the six different stories. The writers did not go the Fantasia route with this anthology film. Again, the story isn't anything special here, thus you can just ignore it and enjoy the individual segments.

The first story the Loc-Nar tells is the dystopian crime story, "Harry Canyon", an original story written by the film's screenwriters, Daniel Goldberg and Len Blum. The title character is a cabbie (voiced by Richard Romanus) in New York City in 2031. New York has become "the scum center of the Earth", as Canyon puts it. We get a taste of Canyon's everyday life, and all is the way it usually is until Harry picks up an attractive woman (voiced by prolific voice actress Susan Roman) who is being chased by thugs. He takes her to his place, has sex with her, and the next day she's gone. The girl is the daughter of a man who discovers the Loc-Nar, only to be killed by thugs who are after it, lead by a man named Rudnick. (Voiced by another prolific actor, the late Al Waxman) The girl offers to sell the Loc-Nar to Rudnick, but she fears the gangster. Canyon offers to go with her and keep her covered if he gets 50% of the take. All goes well. The girl sells the Loc-Nar to Rudnick and returns to the cab. The Loc-Nar kills Rudnick. Then she reveals that she's going to kill him and take all the money. Harry kills her with the backseat disintegrator (which he uses to kill those who try to take his money) and takes off.

The Loc-Nar then tells the story of "Den", based on Richard Corben's stories of the same name. A geeky boy named Den (voiced by John Candy, who provides a lot of voices in this film) finds the Loc-Nar in his backyard and experiments with it. The experiment sends him to a fantasy world, where he becomes a muscular man. He saves a young girl named Katherine (voiced by Jackie Burroughs) from being sacrificed to the Loc-Nar, who was also from Earth and has sex with her. That was inevitable. A gang of creatures show up and take Den and Katherine to their ruler, but the two are split up.

The ruler, Ard, has Katherine encased in glass in a deep sleep. Ard wants Den to get the Loc-Nar for him, and in return he'll get the girl. If he refuses, he and the girl will die. He travels with some of Ard's freakish goons to the queen's castle where the Loc-Nar is, only to  get caught by the queen herself. Instead of having Den killed, the queen allows Den to have sex with her in order to satisfy her. The queen plans on letting him live if he does so, which he does. ("18 years of nothing and now... Twice in one day!")

To the queen's horror, the Loc-Nar is stolen. She tries to have Den killed, but Den escapes. Ard has the Loc-Nar and attempts to perform a sacrifice, on Katherine! Den arrives and saves her. The queen and Ard fight over the Loc-Nar, until lightning strikes. Den gets a chain and gets the lightning to kill Ard and the queen. Den rejects being a ruler of the world and just rides away on a giant insect with Katherine.

The third story is "Captain Sternn" (based on stories by Bernie Wrightston), set in outer space, where the Loc-Nar is picked up by a gimpy man named Hanover Fiste. (Voiced by prolific voice actor Rodger Bumpass) The criminal Captain Lincoln F. Sternn (voiced by Eugene Levy) pleads "not guilty". He tells his lawyer he has an angle, and that angle is Hannover Fiste. He has the man glorify him in the court, but the Loc-Nar makes him say the opposite. Hannover then turns into a gigantic Hulk-like monster and gives chase to Sternn. Sternn ultimately reaches a dead end, until he decides to pay Hanover. Hanover goes back to his normal shape and loses his rage, but the sleazy captain pulls a lever and sends Hanover to his death.

Next up is my favorite segment, "B-17". Based on Dan O'Bannon's original story, "B-17" is more of a horror tale than a fantasy. It has a very eerie Twilight Zone-esque feel to it. We see B-17 Bombers at night, bombing Germany. A damaged B-17 bomber with two surviving pilots (Skip and Holden) heads back home, but the Loc-Nar hits it. This happens when Holden checks on the crew, only to find them dead. As he works his way back to the front of the bomber, he is killed. Skip overhears the chaos and realizes that the dead pilots have become zombies. Skip evacuates the bomber and lands on an island. Thinking he's safe, Skip walks around until he finds himself surrounded by zombies as the island is covered with destroyed aircraft.

After this segment comes one of the funniest in the film, "So Beautiful, So Dangerous". (Based on the story by Angus McKie) Essentially a stoner comedy told through animation, a Pentagon stenographer named Gloria (voiced by the late Alice Playten, who has provided voices in several other animated projects like most of the cast in this film) has the Loc-Nar, but she is sucked up into an alien airship. A robot (voiced by John Candy) on board the ship walks off with her with the two alien pilots take off. (Named Zeke and Edsel, voiced by Harold Ramis and Eugene Levy) There really isn't much of a story in this one. The aliens get high off of Plutonian Nyborg and the robot has sex with Gloria. Then the segment ends where the aliens reach a space station and Gloria tells the robot she will only marry him if they have a Jewish wedding.

Last but not least is "Taarna". Here, the Loc-Nar reveals that he is telling the girl these stories because she might be the future that could destroy him. Like "Harry Canyon", it's an original story but it's very much like the stories in the magazine. A volcano in another world erupts (due to the Loc-Nar) and turns a nearby tribe into a race of barbarians that sack a nearby city. The elders of the city summon Taarna, the last of the Taarakians. Taarna eventually arrives, but the city is pretty much done for.

Taarna and her bird are then captured. They are to be killed by the leader of the barbarians, but Taarna escapes and faces the leader in a climactic duel. After she defeats the barbarian leader, she sacrifices herself to the Loc-Nar. (Whose is inside the volcano) The Loc-Nar is defeated, in all its forms. As the Loc-Nar is about to explode, the young girl escapes from her house. The Loc-Nar's demise destroys the entire house. The girl is now alone, but Taarna's mount shows up out of nowhere. She happily rides the giant bird away. Taarna's spirit has been transferred to her.

In the next part, I'll pick apart the different segments of this film and analyze the animation, the writing and the overall quality of the segments.

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