Review: 'Rock & Rule' (DVD)

Mystical stage performers, mutated street animals, and demon raising, all set in a futuristic rock-and-roll world. And this is a traditionally animated production?

Mok (voiced by Don Francks) is a legendary rock star beginning to fade away in a post-apocalyptic world; he searches for a special voice that can unlock a gateway into a hellish dimension and raise a powerful being for his own purposes. Omar (voiced by Paul Le Mat) is the lead singer of an up-and-coming local band, but he’s also in competition with his bandmate and girlfriend Angel (voiced by Susan Roman) for the lead position. When Mok discovers that it’s Angel’s voice he needs, Mok steals Angel away to “Nuke York” with her bandmates (and boyfriend) in hot pursuit…

Talk about a blast from the past! The first fully-animated production to come out of Canada, 1982′s Rock and Rule, had its humble beginnings as a feature called “Drats” produced by a then little-known company called Nelvana. The concept was that street animals had survived armageddon and mutated to take the place of humans: dogs, cats, and rats. With ideas on becoming “Disney North,” the idea of using music as part of the film and story instead of merely the soundtrack was inspired. Starting with the recordings first and working their way back to the images paid off in a big way.

Unfortuantely, a lack of planning and “too many cooks” involved with the creation and shaping of the production took its toll; whole finished scenes were cut and rewritten, characters and voices changed, and the entire studio had to be moved amid production. Eventually, the film ran out of money and was basically shoved out the door “as-is” and given less promotional support than Brad Bird’s Iron Giant. The most obvious problems that resulted are continuity and missing bits from the dialogue (back up singers who say nothing, dialogue with no one speaking it) and hints at a grander finished product if more time and money had been available.

For what Nelvana squandered in cash, it also innovated pre-CGI techniques by combining computerized motion-control systems with mutliplane cameras, allowing models and special effects to be combined with animation the way Disney blended live-action and cartoons (which the mutliplane systems were originally built for). To create seemless animation for solid objects, actual models were built, painted white, blacklined for guides, then filmed moving on a white background to create instant cels. Unlike Lucasfilm working on the original Star Wars, all the hard work and unique techniques didn’t have the same happy ending.

What did make the final cut was the overall imagery of a shadowy world where music literally makes a difference, infused with a soundtrack by Cheap Trick, Blondie, Iggy Pop, and Lou Reed (the lead singers of Cheap Trick and Blondie provide Omar and Angel’s sing voices, while Pop and Reed takes turns as Mok). In a time where MTV was just getting started, Rock & Rule was a combination of Road Warrior setting and heavy metal lifestyle that hasn’t been duplicated since, although the closest (and much more poorly animated) cousin was the original Heavy Metal (which Nelvana was given a shot at but passed on in favor of “Drats”).

The Rock & Rule DVD is a love letter to fans at a glimpse of non-Disney animation before Disney animation became popular again. It stands as a testament to the effort put forth for the scope of such a production together, even if it never realized its true vision.

(a two-skull recommendation out of four)

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