Rock & Rule (1983)

Sometimes you just have to wonder what audience they had in mind when they made a film.

Don’t get me wrong, this is a dazzling effort, full of great beauty and technical wizardry.  But exactly who did they think was going to go see it?

One suspects they may have been inspired by Heavy Metal, which came out a year earlier.  Or, we should point out, the news of Heavy Metal, as this film must have been well underway before the better-known film tanked at the box office.

But it’s such an odd mix that one can’t exactly figure out where to file it.  It is more tense and violent than a family film would have been at the time, but not enough so to distinguish itself.  It does deal with adult issues, but without the generous display of boobs that distinguished “adult” cartoons like those of Ralph Bakshi.  Then there’s the villain, Mok (who looks like Mick Jagger, and was originally named “Mok Swagger” before the lawyers got involved), who keeps doing impossible things, which he calls “magic” while at the same time crediting his mastery of science.  And, of course, the film’s intro invokes a handwaving reference to an apocalypse that destroyed the world, but the future it portrays resembles a crumbling and decadent extension of our own, rather than something built fresh from the ruins.

In one of the film’s strangest moves, we are also given an explanation  to explain why this world is populated by anthropomorphic animals (mostly of the Walt Disney, barely anthropomorphic “dog face” variety):  the apocalypse supposedly killed all of mankind, leaving only the dogs, cats, and rats behind to mutate into beautiful dog-nosed girls with lush curves.  Or nightclub managers, if you weren’t so lucky.

Mok’s master plan reflects this same curious mix, as, in his search for ultimate power, he is using his supercomputer to create a program to summon a demon.  Or is it just a powerful being from another dimension?  It is hard to say, as they want to have it both ways.

But what is true is that the demon, when it arrives comes in a burst of animation unlike anything seen in the film up to that point, which reminds me strongly of the work of underground animator, Bill Plympton.  Not that this is the only time they indulge in unusual animation styles, as they mix in all sorts of very different looks (particularly for Mok’s big production at the end, and the children’s show one of the villains watches) and even some computer animation (the first in an animated feature – and three years before The Great Mouse Detective, which is often called the first).  Even the drawing style varies a bit –  there’s a police car which looks like something Moebius drew back in the 70s, as it has his thin line and minimal coloring, against well-shaded painted backgrounds.

As you’d expect, there’s a lot of Rock, from Cheap Trick, Debbie Harry. Iggy Pop and Lou Reed.  But it all fits in better than the music in Heavy Metal, and the rest of the background music works far better with it – even using some of the themes from the songs.

One of the best parts of the film is that the relationship between the two leads is complex and human, with a hero who is selfish, driven by his desire for fame, and jealous of his girl’s sucess, who must overcome all this to achieve true love.  And yet, even with all the flaws he started with, we still know that he loves the girl, even if that love becomes stronger by the end.  This is nicely human, and is all too familiar from real life.  However, it is also something that just doesn’t fit in with a family film.

It’s just one more way that this film manages to be none of the above.

Canadian animation studio Nelvana sunk a lot of money into this one, but then failed to do an adequate job either promoting or releasing it.  It barely made a ripple in the theaters and the studio nearly went bankrupt.  Instead, they went into making children’s television cartoons instead, which I don’t mind as they would make the incredible Adventures of Tintin series a decade later (and, unlike Spielberg, get it right).  It does seem a shame, however, that no one noticed:  they created a strange and unique vision, a Rock n’Roll fantasy/SF epic that refuses to follow the saccharine sweetness of the pack.

But, at least, thanks to the wonders of late night TV, videos and now Youtube, it has found the strange audience it seems to have been made for, and a small collection of fans.

Perhaps that’s the best one can expect from something this strange – and beautiful.


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