I Too Love the Sound of Cats in Boiling Water: An Appreciation of “Rock & Rule”

I’ve written before (such as right here) about how my formative years corresponded almost perfectly with the rise of home video, cable television, the new wave and post-punk explosion, and MTV, and the film I want to talk about today is sort of a culmination of all those cultural touchstones coming together in one dark, delightful, and musical package. I’ve also discussed a weird animated film before (Jack and the Beanstalk, right here), but the subject of this post is definitely not for kids, and although it’s more sci-fi fantasy than horror, I’m giving it a pass because of its Blade Runner-esque aesthetic, its grandly creepy villain, and a premise that hinges on a Lovecraftian demon invocation. It’s along the same lines as Heavy Metal, though not as raunchy, and it has a rad as hell soundtrack (unfortunately not available) featuring Lou Reed, Debbie Harry, Iggy Pop, and Cheap Trick. I must have seen it at least a zillion times after it came out in 1983, and to this day I have never gotten sick of it.

I’m speaking, of course, of fuckin’ Rock & Rule:

If you haven’t seen this, do yourself a favor and click that linky up there because this movie is awesome and I love it more than it should be legal to love an animated flick about mutated rat-humans in a small-town punk band who are being pursued by a scary magical rock star who needs their singer’s voice to summon an evil being from another dimension. It was the first full-length feature made by the Canadian animation studio Nelvana, who up to that point had been known for making cartoons for little kids, like Care Bears and shit like that. Matter of fact, Rock & Rule itself started conceptual life as a children’s film called Drats!, before taking off in a more adult-oriented direction in light of the success of Heavy Metal and Ralph Bakshi’s animated films. It’s a shame that distribution fuckups with MGM relegated Rock & Rule to box office failure and relative obscurity, because it’s really something of an underrated gem. By the way, if you’re looking for the movie outside of North America, apparently it’s known by the title Ring of Power, which…whatever. Yeah, the bad guy has a magic ring that identifies the frequency of the voice that will summon the demon, but I still think Ring of Power is a little too Tolkein for my liking. YMMV.

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Anyway, let’s talk about that bad guy for a bit, because he is easily the best thing about this entertaining slice of new-wave wonderment, and indeed, he might be the best villain in any animated film of the eighties, and no, I’m not exaggerating even a tiny bit. Cavernous and pale, with leonine hair, enormous window-shade eyes, huge lips, and pointed eyeteeth, Mok Swagger (aka Mok the Magic Man) is obviously a post-apocalypic cartoon version of Mick Jagger, with hints of Thin White Duke-era David Bowie thrown into the mix. His singing voice is mostly provided by Lou Reed (except for one song done by Iggy Pop), which is bitchin’, but it’s his speaking voice that really makes the character; Don Francks imbues Mok with such over-the-top, wheedling, gravelly menace that his every pronouncement simply dominates whatever scene he’s in, whether he’s being seductively charming, stern and commanding, or completely losing his shit in a total shrieking meltdown. Just a fantastic voice performance all around, funny and terrifying all at once, that comes damn near to making the movie all on its own. Mok’s songs are great too, very Lou Reed-ian, obviously, and hilariously self-aggrandizing.

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Also awesome is Paul LeMat as Omar (note: the original Canadian cut of the film featured a different voice actor, Greg Salata, for Omar’s character), whose dry smart-assery clearly covers some deep insecurities, and Susan Roman as the no-nonsense and kick-ass Angel; the interaction between their two characters is another highlight of the film. Angel was also something of an anomaly in fantasy films of this type from this era, as she was an independent, self-reliant female character with a strong personality who didn’t need the boys to come to her rescue. Sure, she was somewhat sexualized, but in a realistic, empowered kinda way, not in the exaggerated, Frank Frazetta kinda way.

I also adore Debbie Harry doing Angel’s singing voice; “Send Love Through” is a fantastic song, and I love how it bookends the movie, representing something different each time: The first time Angel sings it, she’s desperately trying to reach Omar, who has stalked off stage because he thinks Angel is trying to steal his spotlight, but the second time, she is trying to send back the demon that her voice has summoned, and it’s only after Omar joins her in harmony, singing the song she wrote, that the demon is vanquished. I’m not gonna lie, that final duet with Omar and Angel standing hand in hand before the howling demon, as they sing united in one voice, still kinda makes me tear up a little bit. Is that dumb for a bunch of animated rat-people in a cheesy eighties cartoon? Eh, sue me.

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And although I just called it cheesy (albeit in a loving way), I have to say that the animation on this thing was really gorgeous for the time, and very ahead of the curve. It can be a little uneven, true, since it uses a few different techniques (traditionally-drawn frames, rotoscoping, and even a touch of computer-generated animation, which was still  very much in its infancy at the time), but the overall look of the film is quite cool, particularly the backgrounds, which as I mentioned earlier have a very Blade Runner look to them. Nelvana took more than 4 years and 300 animators to produce this, and it certainly shows.

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In summation, you owe it to yourself to see this. If you don’t, Mok may put a heck on you, or worse, fetch the Edison balls, and no one wants that. So until next time, keep it creepy (and rocking), my friends. Goddess out.

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