If you grew up watching television in Canada during the last 45 years, chances are you’ve seen the animated work of Nelvana Studios. From Care Bears, Magic School Bus, and Pippi Longstocking to the more recent Detentionaire and Mysticons, the Toronto-based company has kept kids of all ages entertained with countless episodes of animated adventures. Given their current target audience, it may come as a surprise that their output of their earlier days in the 70s and 80s was considerably darker, bolder and often aimed at an older audience. Case in point, the first English-language* animated feature entirely produced in Canada: Rock & Rule.
Conceived as a spin-off of the similarly-themed Nelvana short The Devil and Daniel Mouse, the film transports the audience to a dark post-apocalyptic future populated by mutated humanoid mammals and rodents. Having formed a society only slightly removed from that seen in Mad Max, the citizens of this post-nuclear dystopia worship the “legendary super-rocker”, Mok (Don Francks) who has just returned to his home base of Ohmtown after a cross-country talent search for a new voice. He soon finds it in Angel (Susan Roman), the female-half of a seemingly un-named rock band. When she refuses Mok’s offer to sign with him, she is promptly kidnapped and whisked away in his airship leaving the band’s leader Omar (Paul LeMat) to rescue her along with sidekicks Stretch and Dizzy.
Little does anyone realize that Mok intends to use Angel’s voice to complete his Armageddon key which will open a portal to a new dimension and bring forth a beast of limitless power and destruction. Only the combined power of Omar and Angel’s voices in the form of “One Heart, One Voice, and One Song” can stop Mok’s diabolical plan and save Ohmtown from ultimate destruction.
The film structured as a relatively simple rock fable with a strong concept and satisfying conclusion. It’s just a shame that it’s such a rocky road to get there. The story and it’s universe have a lot to set up and the opening narrated text crawl doesn’t entirely do the trick. We’re constantly teased with a striking, futuristic post-nuclear wasteland with some admittedly clever ideas like a canyon bridge that conveys hover cars via a short burst of light, but we end up seeing too little of this world as much of it is shrouded in abstract shadows and darkness. The film is oddly paced with such sudden shifts that you can’t help but wonder if shots are missing and other scenes that seem more like a clip for MTV than a genuine part of the story (a common occurrence in the 80s ie; Flashdance, Quicksilver).
The film also doesn’t seem to know who it’s protagonist is supposed to be. I gather Omar is technically supposed to be the hero here, but he’s so unlikeable and detached from whats going on that you never really root for him, making any victory at the movie’s conclusion feel hollow as a result. Angel fares better here as she ultimately does more to rescue herself than the movies alleged heroes do, but outside supplying one of the best songs on the soundtrack (more on that later), she fails to make much of an impact on the viewer. Fortunately, the movie excels at giving us a decent antagonist in the form of Mok. Seemingly a near-God in this world, the character simply drips of David Bowie and Mick Jagger with just a touch of Lou Reed (who provides his singing voice). His plan is simple, but deliciously evil and with excellent renderings by the animators and stellar voice work from Don Francks, he’s easily one of the best things in the picture. The fun and colourful supporting cast help provide a counter-balance to the darkness with the roller-skating party-girl Cindy (Catherine Gallant) a definite highlight.
The substance may be lacking, but I’d be lying if I said the film didn’t have ample style to spare. Rock & Rule was produced near the start of the hand-drawn animation renaissance of the 80s which would yield such animated classics as Secret of Nimh, My Neighbour Totoro, Akira, The Little Mermaid, and Heavy Metal (which Nelvana declined to work on in favour of this project), and is an eye-popping display of what the medium was capable of. Characters, backgrounds and effects all get a chance to shine here, even if they don’t always come together as a whole.
The film also sports a killer soundtrack featuring Deborah Harry (Blondie), Robin Zander (Cheap Trick), and Lou Reed as the singing voices of Angel, Omar and Mok respectively. Further tracks are furnished by the likes of Iggy Pop as well as Earth, Wing & Fire. It’s a mostly metal sound that pairs well with the aforementioned Heavy Metal soundtrack album with standout tracks including “Angel’s Song” and the tongue-in-cheek “Ohm, Sweet Ohm”. I do have a bone to pick with the sound mix however, as whoever mixed this seemed to favour the music over the dialogue a few too many times.
Some background research for this review revealed that the film started production without a completed script and suffered editorial interference from it’s American distributor MGM which may help explain the somewhat disjointed narrative, but can’t compensate for the poorly-realized main characters. The final product is a solid piece of eye candy that would pair well with a Ralph Bakshi marathon and an intriguing look at what Nelvana Studios could have been had the film met with more than just cult success.