Retro Movie Nerd: HEAVY METAL (1981)

In this era of hugely successful films from Pixar, it’s easy to forget that there were animated films that were produced for an adult audience. Ralph Bakshi brought such adult-oriented fare as Fritz the Cat and Coonskin, and high-concept fantasy like Wizards and Fire and Ice.

Owing quite a bit to Bakshi’s style, Heavy Metal comes along in 1981 with it’s R-rating and rock soundtrack to provide animated entertainment to the over-17 crowd. There are no cute clownfish, cute talking cars, or toy best friends in this one.

Rated R
Running time: 86 min.
Release date: August 7, 1981

A glowing green orb known as the “Loc-Nar” relates to a young girl how it has influenced society throughout time and space in the framing story of this animated anthology film. Heavy Metal is a Canadian/American production that involved several different animators adapting stories from the adult sci-fi/fantasy magazine of the same name. In a combination straight out of an 80s teenage boys fantasies, there are plenty of naked women, violence, and a rock music soundtrack that contains such notable acts as Black Sabbath, Cheap Trick, Journey and Devo. This is not your kids’ Pixar favorite, for sure.

Quirky characters snorting plutonium nyborg. You won’t see this in Pixar’s Coco.

The Loc-Nar describes itself as “the sum of all evils”, as it forces a young girl to watch the stories unfold in an effort to bear witness to its power. The Loc-Nar has just killed her father, an astronaut just returned from space, where he discovered the evil green orb. This framing story is titled “Grimaldi” and appears between each tale.

Each each of the six stories utilize a different animation style and each varies in tone as well, with different results. The better stories include “Harry Canyon“, about a New York cabbie in a dystopian future who has a young woman in a tight situation wind up in his cab. Her father discovers the Loc-Nar on an archaeological dig and the orb is being sought by gangsters. Harry, as voiced by Richard Romanus, is world-weary and agrees to help the woman. This story could have been a decent live-action flick, and it plays out very well here.

Also of note is the segment titled “B-17″, about a WWII bomber plane and its crew attempting a difficult bombing mission, only to have the Loc-Nar appear and re-animate the dead members of the crew into zombies. This is the only straight horror story amongst the lot and the atmosphere provided by the animation style make it easily the best segment in the film.

“B-17” is one of the better segments of Heavy Metal. The animation owes a lot to horror comics of the 1970s.

Finally, there is “Taarna”, a fantasy epic about the last remaining member of a warrior race, vowed protectors of a peaceful city that gets destroyed by a barbaric tribe who have been turned savage by the power of the Loc-Nar. This segment plays out in the vein of stories like Conan the Barbarian and various other sword-and-sorcery epics. This story is also given the most care in terms of the musical score and the animation, which utilizes aspects like rotoscoping. It’s the final segment of the anthology and a rousing tale to end upon.

The other segments do not play out as well, providing an uneven tone to the film. “Den” is about a skinny young lad who is transported to another dimension by the Loc-Nar, where he is transformed into a bald Herculean giant. Women throw themselves at him at all turns, while he gets into a power struggle over the Loc-Nar between an immortal and a sorceress queen. John Candy provides the voice of Den, the main character, and the story never really rises above the juvenile beginning. In “Captain Sternn”, a crooked and arrogant space captain is on trial for charges that includes rape, murder, fraud and a moving violation. A man with the unfortunate name of Hanover Fiste testifies against him but the Loc-Nar turns him into a huge hulking monster and he subsequently goes on a rampage. This one has a payoff that tries to be funny but falls flat. Finally, a segment titled “So Beautiful and So Dangerous” is the only story that is a comedy from the very beginning, but isn’t terribly funny as we get an alien abduction, robot sex and stoner jokes. This one is probably the weakest segment of Heavy Metal.

“So Beautiful and So Dangerous” is one of the few missteps in the anthology.

Director Gerald Potterton has to tie all of these segments together coherently, and for the most part he is successful. The tone is rather uneven in places as the story jumps from the horror of “B-17″ to the light-hearted tone of “So Beautiful and So Dangerous” and then to the high-concept fantasy of “Taarna”. The animation throughout Heavy Metal is very good, especially if you were exposed to such styles back in the 1970s and 80s. It is very reminiscent of Ralph Bakshi and probably owes a lot to his influence. Rotoscoping is used in several spots and adds to the surreal nature of the stories at play.

“Taarna” is the anchor of the entire anthology, but may seem dated with its misogynist images.

The list of actors who provide voicework to the film include not only John Candy and Richard Romanus but also Don Francks; Canadian stalwarts such as Al Waxman, Harvey Atkin, Marilyn Lightstone, Jackie Burroughs, Joe Flaherty, Eugene Levy and Harold Ramis. The voicework is suitably gritty when it needs to be (Romanus in “Harry Canyon” specifically) and never overtakes the storytelling. There are times in many animated films when well-known actors doing voicework can come off stronger than the story itself, but that’s not the case here. Gerald Potterton ensures that the voices are downplayed in favor of the animation, the story and the music. The soundtrack is a huge selling point for the film. Heavy Metal implies loudness, but really the rock songs employed throughout the film are of the classic rock variety. If you’re using “Veteran of the Psychic Wars” by Blue Oyster Cult, you’re curating your soundtrack correctly.

Heavy Metal is definitely a time capsule for the era it stems from. The various animation styles, the music, the nudity, the violence, the language; this is definitely one piece of nostalgia that remains strongly burned in the memories of those that lived it. It’s a raucous teenage boys fantasy, with moments of dated juvenile humor, for sure; but it’s still just a rockin’ good time.

RATING: ***1/2 – Dated but entertaining nonetheless.

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