Conan the Barbarian created something of a dilemma for Hollywood's evil overlords. Its hard R rating was part of its appeal, but it also kept a huge portion of the marketplace -- namely prepubescent boys -- from plopping down their hard-earned milk money. The Beastmaster was the first film to capitalize on that omission with its more family-friendly fantasy, but it suffered from the low budget and cheesy effects that were part and parcel of fantasy films at the time.
Enter Ralph Bakshi, whose unique animation style carried a magic bullet for a number of issues. He could create larger-than-life vistas on a fraction of the budget, far more convincing than any special effects were capable of at the time. He could deliver adult sensibilities without violating the PG rating, giving kids a little taste of forbidden fruit while still maintaining the bounds of good taste. He was one of the only filmmakers of any stripe with a track record in fantasy at the time, having directed the thoroughly loopy Wizards and an ambitious, aborted version of The Lord of the Rings. And he had a genuine source of inspiration in artist Frank Frazetta, whose muscle-bound subjects formed the template for Conan as well.
The results were a youthful D&D fanatic's wet dream, lavishly stylized and unencumbered by the nagging necessities of plot. Fire and Ice evinces Bakshi's glorious technical expertise, along with his limited grasp of narrative and the kind of nonsensical storyline that doesn't matter a whit until you're old enough to vote. And for a kid gazing resentfully at that little "R" underneath Arnold Schwarzenegger's physique, it constituted a dream come true.
Of course, that dream looks a lot more threadbare when seen through adult eyes. The world of Fire and Ice is amazing; the story much less so. In the days of prehistory, a dark sorcerer named Nekron sets out to conquer the world, using a glacier as a mobile fortress and primitive ape-men as an army. He's opposed by a wise king who dwells in a volcanic castle (hence the title) whose daughter Teegra becomes the resident damsel in distress. Her would-be rescuer? Larn, a hunky blonde villager who sees his community wiped out by Nekron's forces. Under the tutelage of the mysterious Dark Wolf -- a warrior with his own never-explained grudge against the wizard -- he fights to save Teegra and the world for shirtless primitives everywhere.
The universe becomes Fire and Ice's biggest draw, pulled seemingly whole cloth from Frazetta's paintings and embodying the lush savagery for which he became famous. Magic exists, but it feels dangerous and wild, like the endless jungles that Larn must travel through to reach his goals. The odd prehistoric reptile still exists, defying the evolutionary odds and happy to devour anyone, good or evil, who strays across its path. The constant lethality becomes exhilarating, especially when you add Bakshi's flair for movement and action.
Would that the story could keep up with it. Instead, Fire and Ice strings together a series of interesting set pieces with only perfunctory connections to each other, then presents it to us as a functional narrative. It works only fitfully at best, and the lack of proper dramatic tone proves lethal at times. Bakshi also struggles with proper character development, leaving everyone as a vague cardboard figure with little in the way of personality or history. Dark Wolf gets the worst of it: Bakshi dotes on him, but often makes him obtuse instead of mysterious, which causes all kinds of problems when he starts banging into the other characters. But the rest of the animated "cast" does little better, saddled with silly dialogue and a script that treats them like serviceable props instead of viable human beings.
No one who knows the director's work will be surprised at such shortcomings. Bakshi was always more artist than filmmaker, and Fire and Ice suffers badly under that distinction. It works best as a paperback fantasy cover brought to live, all sinewy motion and epic conflict disconnected from any proper frame of reference. In that sense, the film is a wild success, though the bar drops precipitously if you approach it from any other perspective.
Still, as 80s barbarian flicks go, it holds its own pretty convincingly... if only because it fully conjures a universe that other movies had to infer with cheap sets and silly costumes. Animation still holds an edge over live-action in creating such vistas, and indeed the modern use of CGI in non-animated movies is basically an admission of defeat in that arena. Fire and Ice stands as ample proof of the trend, created in an era when the contrast was much sharper, and earning whatever distinction it currently carries as a result