Imagine you go to a Burger King and the guy at the counter serves you with a smile, promptly brings the food to your table, thanks you kindly for your custom and wishes you a good day. Someone, in short, who doesn’t have to put nearly this much effort into their job but does it anyway because, gosh darn it, if you’re going to do a job you might as well do it well.
That’s Nelvana. Nelvana is an extremely prolific Canadian animation studio who produced basically any cartoon you saw in the eighties or nineties that wasn’t made by Disney, Hanna-Barbera, Filmation or Warner Bros. They’re probably most famous (if you’re my age, at least) for their many, many licensed animations for properties like Care Bears, Strawberry Shortcake and My Pet Monster. Nelvana were front and centre in the saccharine, corporatised swamp that was the American TV animation scene in the Reagan era. Like many of their peers, Nelvana had to make ends meet in the burger joint by cranking out barely concealed animated toy commercials. Unlike many of their peers, Nelvana actually seemed to give a damn. Their shows were, broadly speaking, better than they needed to be and demonstrated real skill and craftsmanship in their animation. There were always hints that, if given time and a budget and a premise slightly less anodyne than “Will Grumpy Bear ever get that stick out of his ass?”, Nelvana had the talent to make something truly special. And, if ever there was a time to do it, it was the early eighties.
The late seventies/early eighties were the “Warring States” period of American Feature Animation. The senile old king, Disney, had fallen from his throne and seemingly every animator who could hold a pencil was scrambling for the crown. This was the heady time when Rankin Bass, Ralph Bakshi and Don Bluth battled for control of the artform, right up until 1989 when the old king came back and was like “I’m feeling a lot better now everyone, thank you for your concern“.
But all that was in the future. Nelvana was formed in 1971 by Patrick Loubert, Clive Smith and Michael Hirsh with the stated intent of creating a Canadian Disney.
After several well received Christmas specials and animating literally the only part of the Star Wars Holiday Special that deserved to be spared the flame (the cartoon that introduced Boba Fett), the studio began work on their first feature length animation; Rock and Rule. It’s an obvious passion project, clearly made by a young team just bursting with talent and ambition and love for what they were doing. It’s also something that was very obviously begun without a complete script or even a set plot. It’s weird. It’s uneven. It’s a wild, uncontrolled shambling mess of eighties animation that failed when it was dumped into theatres with no marketing by a distributor that neither loved nor understood it. Which obviously means that it was made for me, Mouse, personally.
We begin with a narrator explaining that this is the far future, after a world war wiped out human life and the mutated descendants of dogs, cats and rats created a new society. Which is a pretty unnecessarily bleak set up to a fairly standard funny talking animal world. This is not actually considered standard practice for the genre.
Anyway, the narrator tells us that Mok, a legendary “super-rocker” has returned to Ohmtown, to work on his latest artistic project; deciphering an ancient code that will unlock a portal to another dimension and unleash a demon that will destroy the world.
To do this, he needs a special singer capable of really hitting those high notes and who preferable doesn’t have a competent agent.
We now meet our heroes, Omar, Dizzy and Stretch, three chipmunk looking critters who have a small rock band (whose name we never actually learn) and who are preparing to perform at open mike night in their local dive bar. They’re nervous as hell, so Omar busies himself with practicing guitar while Dizzy tries to distract himself with some hypnotic arcade games.
Rounding out the band is keyboardist Angel, voiced by Susan Roman for speaking and Debbie Harry for vocals. This character has a massive and passionate online fandom.
I don’t actually know that. I haven’t done any research to confirm that. But you know what? I’m gonna go out on a limb and say she does. Let’s just say, after ten years of blogging about animation, you start to develop an intuition. Anyway, Angel is not happy because the band is only going to get to perform one song and it’s going to be one of Omar’s. She manages to inveigle a promise out of him that, if they do get the chance to perform a second song, it’ll be one of hers. They get onstage and perform “Born to Raise Hell” by Cheap Trick but the song gets cut short when the manager decides they’re just that bad and drops the curtain halfway through. They’re like the musical equivalent of Heil Honey, I’m home!
Omar is able to trick the manager into giving them another shot through the cunning ruse of threatening to beat him to death with his guitar. Omar tries to play “Born to Raise Hell” but Angel goes rogue and starts singing “Angel’s Song”. Omar is so pissed off by this that he storms offstage but the rest of the band keep performing.
So let’s talk about the animation, which gets an absolute A for effort if not necessarily for execution. Regular commenter Lupin the 8th made the point that the movie seems OVER-animated at times which saves me the effort of having to say that thing. Every single detail of these characters is constantly in motion, to the point where it almost looks rotoscoped. The animators also have a habit of animating Mok’s lips so much that they look like an entirely seperate organism to the rest of his face. But balancing that, there are just some beautiful pieces of animation here. For example, there’s a bit when Omar storms offstage and Stretch, the drummer, gives Angel a sad little sympathetic shrug while he continues to play. And it is such a small gesture, but it is done so subtly and so gracefully and it is perfectly rendered.
After the show, the owner, Mylar, tells them that Mok was in the audience and that he wants the band to come and visit him in his Rock and Roll Doom Fortress. Angel is still furious at Omar for walking off mid performance so he goes and apologises and tells her she was good. This scene is pretty great. Omar is a good guy but he’s a young artist grappling with frustrated ambition, massive ego and equally massive feelings of inadequacy. He knows he fucked up but he lacks the eloquence and maturity to properly articulate why he did that he did. But Angel forgives him because she knows him well enough to understand what he means, and also because she’s in the same boat, grappling with that same frustration, ego and self-doubt. As they reconcile, it almost looks like they’re going to kiss but instead they just walk home in each other’s arms. It’s just…a really sweet, well observed little bit of character work. Good job movie.
So the gang head up to Mok’s creepy mansion where they meet his weird assistants, three massive triplets named Toad, Sleazy and Zip.
Omar, almost gets into a fight with one of the triplets but suddenly they’re interrupted by the arrival of Mok, who teleports right into their midst. Mok is voiced by Don Francks, but apparently one of the studios earlier idea for casting was Tim Curry. And…yeah, I totally see what they were going for.
Mok takes Angel out to the garden while Omar and Dizzy are distracted with electronic hallucinogens called “Edison Balls”.
But Stretch knows that winners don’t do glowing spheres and sneaks away, looking for Angel.
In the garden, Mok tempts Angel with fame and fortune, using holograms to mess with her head which results in some quite beautiful, trippy visuals.
But Angel refuses to abandon Omar and the rest of the band so Mok abducts her and takes off in his floating zeppelin supervillain lair (course, this movie was made in the eighties where record sales were high enough for artists to afford zeppelin lairs. Fuckin’ Spotify, man.)
Waking up from being “totally stoned” (the movie’s words, not mine) Omar and Dizzy are shocked to learn that Angel left with Mok. But Stretch is convinced she was taken against her will so the band follow the blimp to “Nuke York”, where Mok is planning his concert to open a doorway to another dimension. Imprisoned in Mok’s skyscraper in Nuke York, Angel meets Cindy, who’s the sister of the triplet henchmen. Thinking that Angel is just one of Mok’s groupies, Cindy helps her escape the the tower through the air ducts. On their way out, Angel hears Mok discussing his plan to unleash a demon on the world to punish it for not appreciating his musical genius. He asks his computer if the demon can be stopped and the computer replies that the only way is “one voice, one heart, one song”. Mok asks who can do that, and the computer replies “no one”. Did you notice the computer didn’t reply “no two”? So did I. I wonder if that will be relevant. Yes, obviously we can all see where this is headed.
Now, this is where the lack of a script starts to show. There’s a lot of shuffling back and forth between locations, a lot of set pieces that look like they were made more because the animators thought they’d be cool to draw rather than because they have a concrete narrative purpose. The band visit Stretch’s aunt, who’s a tattoo artist and gives them a lead on Cindy, because she gave her a tattoo recently. Dizzy and Stretch go to a club where Cindy usually hangs out and where she’s brought Angel. They search for Angel while the animators show us what the Pink Elephant Parade from Dumbo would have been like if the influence of drugs had been explicit rather than merely heavily implied. Meanwhile, Omar tries to break into Mok’s lair and finds Mok and Angel cooing lovingly at each other, which causes Omar to undergo a full, Wiseau-level breakdown.
It turns out that this “Angel” is just a lookalike, however. The real Angel is captured and brought back to Mok’s lair where she refuses to sing for him. He shows her a massive Edison Ball where Omar, Stretch and Dizzy are being tortured and she surrenders. Omar, Dizzy and Stretch’s brains have been reduced to a fine paste by the Edison Ball, so Mok sticks them on a bus headed for Ohm town and gets ready for his big concert. Unfortunately, opening a dimensional portal takes a lot of juice and the concert is a disaster after Mok causes a black out. He decides to hold the next concert in Ohmtown because it has a big ass power plant (“OHMtown” I just got that.
The boys have recovered from their brain-pasting and Stretch sees a poster advertising the concert. He tries to get Omar to help him mount a rescue but Omar’s still heartbroken from seeing Angel with Mok. Stretch is all “dude, that was OBVIOUSLY just a mutant in a perfectly lifelike Angel mask designed to fuck with your head” but Omar finds this unconvincing. Stretch and Dizzy race off to the concert but are too late to stop Mok summoning the demon.
Zip dies protecting Angel from the demon. Suddenly Omar appears and frees her. She tries to banish the demon but can’t do it alone, so Omar and Angel sing together because obviously that’s what this was all leading up to. Sleazy, furious at Mok for his brother’s death, picks the rocker up and flings him into the fiery portal.
And the movie ends with the band performing together, as a new superstar rock band. Which, if history is any judge, will make them very, very happy.
By no means flawless but always visually distinctive, frequently beautiful and bursting with enthusiasm and heart.
The movie manages the rare trick of having an unlikeable protagonist whose flaws make him compelling and believable rather than an insufferable jerk. And for a female lead in an eighties animated film, Angel is a pretty well rounded character.
Interesting design, great vocal performance.
Supporting Characters: 11/20
I like Stretch. Dizzy is kinda insufferable.
Notoriously, the audio mixing in this movie (at least on some versions and certainly the one I watched) is awful. There’s some pretty rockin’ tracks here, but be warned that if you listen to hard rock and actually like being able to hear the lyrics, you’re gonna have a bad time.
FINAL SCORE: 68%
NEXT UPDATE: 24 November 2022
NEXT TIME: Okay everyone. Huff some cat pee, and I’ll see you on the other side…
Master has given Lupin a shout out! Lupin is free!
I’m glad you enjoyed this one, Mouse, since you seemed so mixed on its pseudo-siblings like The Last Unicorn, An American Tail, and Bakshi’s work. It’s a weird era for animation, and as magnificent as the Renaissance turned out, I’ll always be a little regretful that most of these more experimental films didn’t catch on (Bluth had some luck, but his most successful work was the more Disneyish).
I loved Heavy Metal…I think. I watched it last when I was a teenager. Which I think was probably the correct time to watch it. Ought to give that one another go, it’s been too long.
To test your theory about Angel, I decided to go on the interwebs and see what came up.
Let’s just say that your theory was 100% correct, mouse. And let’s hope that eye bleach can be delivered overnight. The things I’ve seen…
I do have many great memories of Nelvana like Little Bear and Scooby-Doo.
This period of animation that covers 77- late 80s is my favorite for giving such odd films as Plague Dogs, An American Tail, The Hobbit, and The Brave Little Toaster. It was mass experimentation.
I had never heard of this movie until I saw Saberspark’s video, appropriately titled “What the HELL is Rock and Rule?” And man, was the period of animation post-Walt’s death, pre-Reagan advertisement deregulation was nuts. A veritable Wild West where there was no rules save the law of the pen and animation cell. And Heavy Metal? Are you going for the trippiest November ever?
If you want a good idea for a review, I already recommended Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honnêamise, but I also highly recommend Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water. It’s an anime series from the early 90s directed by Hideaki Anno, and it paved the way for Evangelion. It does have a pretty bad filler arc in the middle, which I would love to see you completely tear apart 😆
When I first saw Omar, I was immediately reminded of the jackass frat boy from An Extremely Goofy Movie. Does anyone else see it?
As for the movie itself, it does have fantastic animation for the time period and budget they have. I was quite shocked at how good this movie looks. Especially Mok. Dude looks like most of the budget went into animating his face, which is saying a lot.
I did find it really poignant when the evil bro Zip died, because before the final concert, Mok laughed at him for believing in a hero from a cartoon he liked. Then when he died, he mentioned that hero again. Really sad.
But in the end, the pacing issues you mentioned prevented me from enjoying the movie to the fullest. I still really appreciate this movie.
Hm, site banner changed back.
Yeah, we’re going back to classic Mousr
Mok was voiced by the same guy who voiced Boba Fett in the Star Wars Holiday Special (and then again on the Ewoks cartoon in the mid-1980s), and later Sabretooth in the 1990s X-Men cartoon (and Capcom’s fighting games, which used the cast from the series).
His singing voice, however, was Lou Reed. Who I don’t think I need to explain who he was.
And I’m sure the crazy lips thing was deliberate, since he’s visually based on and named for Mick Jagger (his full name is Mok Swagger).
Oh man, he was a PERFECT Sabretooth
Oh yeah , and speaking of uneven… So “Heavy Metal” is next, huh? That’s one weird compilation that runs the entire gamut from “boring” to “awesome”, “inspired” and “bizarre”, with lots of other adjectives (mostly “gratuitous” and “plain weird) mixed in as well…
It’s certainly an experience. There’s one adjective that probably won’t apply here, though: “coherent” 😝
When you announced this movie I checked it out on Wikipedia, because I had actually never heard of it before.
There I found out that it’s actually available for free in YouTube, so I decided to check it out. Definitely worth doing so.
Although on my opinion Omar comes REALLY close to being an insufferable sh*thead at times. Acting too big for his britches. But it shines through that he puts on the “cool, tough guy act” because he doesn’t know how to express himself – I guess that’s what saves him from winning a “most unlikable protagonist in animation” award.
I was also a bit thrown by how uneven this movie was. On the one hand, there were some really nice Easter eggs and side gags fitting the 80s Rock theme (like the four Ziggy Stardust lookalikes that were on stage before our heroes at talent’s night), on the other hand, the worldbuilding doesn’t really work (so it says animals like cats, dogs and rats have evolved into human-like beings, yet somehow we still have typical, non-sentient street rats in the streets of Nuke York?) I feel like this movie would’ve worked better if it just had been a talking animal world somewhat alike to our own, no post-apocalyptic earth with talking animals (then again, early 80s was all about the post-apocalypse, weren’t they?)
They really were. The eighties were tied with the sixties and…Well…right now in terms of nuclear dread.
My great takeaway from this review is that Ms. Debbie Harry’s ability to be super-humanly photogenic transcends mediums with ease & grace.
She makes Barney Stinson look like a hand model!
Also, one can only hope you’ll be able to give FIRE & ICE a look at some point: having seen the film once I recall it to have been quite entertaining and undeniably Heavy Metal.
Actually, bit of a correction regarding the ending: the Canadian release of the movie has a brief scene added back into the ending that reveals Zip actually survived. Why the American release removed it is beyond me. So, no, he’s not dead.
That feels like such a weird cop out. It’s odd that the Canadian release has better mastering, Omar calling one of the goons “dick breath,” and yet chickens out on Zip’s death. It doesn’t help that that ending feels so sloppily edited to kill the momentum at the last possible second.
I read an old review of Rock n Rule that didn’t like Omar or Stretch, and I’m glad you reviewed this to give me that look into a rare and awesome bit of subtle romance between him and Angel. And as for Stretch, he’s tied to some of the best parts of the movie for me, particularly his aunt and also introducing us to a ton of fun side characters.
We desperately need movies like Rock and Rule or Heavy Metal in theaters again.
You might be interested to know that in 1990, after the live-action series had been cancelled, Nelvana was gearing up to do an animated continuation of Doctor Who. There was concept art and a few scripts in the bag, but it never came to anything. https://tardis.fandom.com/wiki/Nelvana
Interesting. I wonder if the British company that stole it from under them was the crowd that made Scream of the Shalka?