Rock & Rule Movie Review
While every year audiences thrill to a bigger and better computer-animated film from Pixar, Dreamworks' underdogs, or some trashy flash-style anime, the days of true film animation -- cell drawn, sweat mixed -- are long gone. The only place to find simple, subtle animation in the U.S. these days is on the festival circuit, at animation road shows, or on DVD and video. While Europe still has a lingering and diverse animation appreciation (The Triplets of Belleville was a minor hit), Japan still rules the roost. Miyazaki's Howl's Moving Castle broke yet another record for box office turnout.
It may come as a shock to younger readers, but in the '60s, '70s, and early-'80s, animation was actually considered experimental territory. Animation was dangerous and provocative, audiences were whipped into frenzy by classics like Ralph Bakshi's Coonskin. Before the wonders of Star Wars, the progenitor of blockbuster, effects-driven cinema, audiences were astounded by the creativity and imagination of animated films like Eiichi Yamamoto's Belladonna, Forbidden World, and the poorly timed Wizards. It was the Golden Age of animation, when sophisticated animation graced the movie screen instead of being unceremoniously dumped onto video rental shelves or late night TV. And like all Golden Ages it came to an end. No trumpets sounded to herald the fall of animated film, it just limped its way out of existence, ground to dust by the whiz bang of computer animation.
Having created numerous animated shorts and provided animation for several, smaller features, Canada's independent Nelvana studio decided to branch out and make an animated feature film of its own in early 1980. Using their short film, The Devil and Daniel Mouse, as inspiration, Clive Smith, Michael Hirsch, and writer Patrick Loubert began work on what would eventually become Rock & Rule. It began life as Drats!, a film aimed at a much younger audience but quickly became a much more ambitious and darker project. Completed in 1982, the film was dumped into only a few American theatres where it foundered and vanished. (A reedited version called Ring of Power was even foisted upon disinterested audiences.) It wasn't until the movie was released on VHS in 1984 that it found a die-hard cult following.
Rock & Rule is set in a post-apocalyptic future (ah, the '80s) where rats, cats, and dogs have all evolved (via some bizarre genetic mutation not explained) into anthropomorphic rats, cats, and dogs. These creatures have rebuilt the cities of man and have set up a society almost identical to 1980s America, complete with overweight cops that hassle teens, ego-gorged rock stars that travel in dirigibles (well, maybe that's a little different), dance clubs, and tattoo parlors. The film concerns a band (songs by Cheap Trick) that simply hasn't found its way. Tensions are high as the band members try to accommodate the views and styles of two dramatically different front people, guitarist/vocalist Omar (voiced by Paul Le Mat) a charismatic though snide young rat and keyboardist/vocalist Angel (voiced by Susan Roman) a gorgeous, angel voiced siren (her songs are sung by Debbie Harry). Bassist Stretch (voiced by Greg Duffell) is a stereotypical pothead (though his drug consumption is only hinted at) while drummer Dizzy (voiced by Dan Hennessey) is a cubby intellectual. When Mok (voiced by a growling Don Franks, songs by Lou Reed, and drawn to resemble a certain Rolling Stones front man), the famous and feared rock god, comes to Ohmtown and hears the Angel's voice, he realizes that it is the voice he's been searching the country for. Mok is trying to raise a demon from the fiery pits of Hell and to do so he needs "the" voice, a special voice. (His rationale for this endeavor is never really clarified. It's obvious that Mok is crazy and that power (he is a super rocker) has corrupted him body and soul, but his desire to have the demon wreck havoc seems arbitrary. Apparently, when cats and rats and dogs evolve into rat sapiens, cat sapiens and dog sapiens this kind of thing happens.) Mok kidnaps Angel, luring her in with a record deal, and it's up to Omar, Dizzy, and Stretch to save her and stop the release of the demon.
Rock & Rule saw a very bumpy road to completion. It was a Herculean undertaking making an animated feature film like this outside of Disney or the Asian powerhouses. With a limited staff and a limited budget it is incredible that the film was made at all. What's more incredible is that it works. The animation is top notch, the special effects (daring in their kitchen sink technique) stunning and the story... well, we'll talk about that later. What fans of Rock & Rule know, and what new viewers soon come to learn, is that you don't love this movie for its plot; you love it for the shaggy little monstrosity that it is. You love it 'cause it's such a ballsy and tenacious picture.
It is clear from the opening 15 minutes of the film that Smith, Hirsch, and Loubert never really knew which direction that wanted Rock & Rule to take. It starts with a text crawl and a voice over that tells us the back story in a very Tolkien-esque style. What follows veers, sometimes shockingly, from middling kiddie humor to frighteningly strong adult behavior. The most striking moments in the film, in terms of these polar extremes, are those sequences involving the Rollerskating Schleppers and Club 666.
For the kiddies, we are presented with the Rollerskating Schlepper siblings, court jesters in the house of Mok. Oddly disproportionate, these bumbling oafs (and a sis) carry out Mok's dirtier deeds. Of course, they also fall all over each other and generally act like total tools. An attempt to bridge the gap between the earlier, innocent Drats!, and the more adult Rock & Rule, the siblings are only clunky distractions. It's hard to imagine just who would find these idiots amusing. Certainly not anyone watching Rock and Rule over a few bong hits.
At the opposite end of the spectrum is 666, Rock & Rule's detour into candid, sexual imagery. When their search for Angel takes them to Nuke York, Omar, Dizzy, and Stretch find themselves at Club 666, an anti-gravity bar and dance club. It is a psychedelic wave of neon and writhing bodies. What is surprising is the amount of nudity, if not shown outright certainly hinted at, in this sequence. Let's just say there's a lot of jiggling going on and our heroes take in an eyeful. The whole club sequence actually typifies the final half of the film as it moves steadily onwards towards more adult material.
Much of Rock & Rule's imagery and character development can be traced back to The Devil and Daniel Mouse, the aforementioned short film included on Unearthed Cinema's exquisite two-DVD Special Edition release. The Devil and Daniel Mouse concerns the plight of two down on their luck folk singers, mice naturally. Jan longs for the instant gratification of money and stardom, while Daniel Mouse, is fine with barely scrapping by until they make it big. The devil comes into play and Jan gladly signs her soul over to reap the benefits of the big time. She becomes a Janice Joplin-esque folk goddess but on the eve of her biggest concert the devil comes back to collect. Daniel, still wandering the forest, must save her.
What works magnificently in The Devil and Daniel Mouse is the way in which the music is threaded into the story, most notably when Jan becomes a star. And Rock & Rule, while fleshed out, is book ended by sequences of performance that give the film its drive. (In fact, many theatres advertised Rock & Rule as a music film or a concert picture like Wattstax.) While I've never been a Cheap Trick fan, their music works. Lou Reed is at his best with Mok's "My Name is Mok" but Debbie Harry's addictive "Angel's Song" is the highlight. With the resurgence of post-punk on the airways, the soundtrack to Rock & Rule certainly feels contemporary.
Where Rock & Rule falls flat is plotting. The film is less a coherent story than a series of episodes and several of the transitions appear to have been lost in translation. (We hear talk of Mok's first attempt at raising the demon with Angel's voice but nothing is shown.) This is not at all surprising, when one learns that the film didn't have a complete script when it began. In fact, the script was tweaked throughout filming. When you're working with live actors on malleable shoots that's okay, but when you're dealing with hand painted cells it becomes noticeable and problematic. That being said, with a film like Rock & Rule, plot is wallpaper - the attraction to the film is the images and the post-punk chic.
Unearthed Cinema has released Rock & Rule in a collector's edition two-disc package that includes two different versions of the film, The Devil and Daniel Mouse, several vintage "making of" documentaries, commentary tracks and numerous other bits and pieces. It is an exquisite DVD release, meticulously detailed and gorgeously packaged and may just be the finest animation DVD release of the year. (There is also a less expensive special edition single disc release.)
Rock & Rule is a masterpiece of outré animation and wildly ambitious vision and remains a triumph in animated feature film.
Sing your heart out, baby.