Throughout his animation career, Ralph Bakshi has been regularly lambasted for two things: content that was ahead of his time, and animation that looked years behind it. America was slow to recognize the market for animation made for adults, and Bakshi's '70s movies were a revelation, from his sexually explicit, profane, violent urban pictures (Fritz The Cat, Heavy Traffic, Streetfight) to his ambitious fantasy movies (Wizards, Lord Of The Rings). But small budgets and shaky backing invariably forced Bakshi to cut corners with his animation, and occasionally to resort to visual cheats like rotoscoping, which made his films lumpy and inconsistent. For 1983's Fire And Ice—Bakshi's last theatrical feature until 1992's Cool World—Bakshi went with rotoscoping all the way, creating the most visually consistent film of his career. But just as his techniques were improving, his conceptual vision was falling behind.
Fire And Ice was a collaboration with fantasy artist Frank Frazetta—like Bakshi, a Brooklyn boy made good, but (at least, according to Bakshi's commentary on the new Fire And Ice two-DVD deluxe release) a little astonished at his own success. Frazetta provided the character designs and the high-fantasy setting, while Bakshi filmed the entire movie with live actors on a cavernous sound stage, then slapped lush color and detail over his footage. The result is surprisingly realistic for an animated film of the time, but it's also as visually stiff and staid as any cut-rate sword-and-sorcery film, and just as formula-bound. The story concerns a necromancer (creatively named Nekron) whose glacial powers are freezing the world, making way for his army of grunting troglodyte warriors. The last holdouts against him live in a kingdom surrounded by lava, setting the stage for the titular elemental clash. Early on, the trogs kidnap the lava-kingdom's scantily clad, generously endowed princess Teegra, and much of the rest of the film concerns her endless escapes and recapturings, as well as her encounters with a similarly scantily clad, muscular blonde warrior named Larn, and his mysterious benefactor Darkwolf.
Fire And Ice suffers from weirdly languorous pacing, even during the fight sequences, which drag almost as much as the Frazetta-painting-posing sessions between them. Its characters are bland and its plot feels like it was generated during a game of Fantasy Mad Libs. So most of what it has going for it is the unusual visuals, with their detailed design and hypnotic gliding smoothness. But Bakshi's animation renders Frazetta's heavily shadowed, sinewy art to paint-by-numbers flatness. And everyone involved seems to be taking the whole project far too seriously. In the DVDs' most hilarious special feature, Nekron's live-action body double Sean Hannon reads from his impossibly pretentious production diary: "Ah, swordfights! It would seem I am destined throughout my career to ever keep the handle of my sword warm…" Unfortunately, Fire And Ice feels like it was assembled by a parade of Hannons, all convinced they were creating High Art. Instead, they were assembling a comfortable mediocrity—possibly Bakshi's least-flawed film, but also his least flavorful.