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HEAVY METAL

Review by Michael Jacobson

Voices:  John Candy, Harold Ramis, Eugene Levy, Richard Romanus
Director:  Gerald Potterton
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Surround
Video:  Widescreen 1.85:1 Anamorphic Transfer
Studio:  Columbia Tri-Star
Features:  See Review
Length:  90 Minutes
Release Date:  November 23, 1999

Film **1/2

Heavy Metal is the definition of a cult favorite.  I’d guess it’s probably second only to The Rocky Horror Picture Show in terms of its popularity at midnight screenings across the country.

I can remember my first experience with the movie, and I’ll bet most others’ first experiences are pretty similar.  A buddy of mine in school managed to record it off of one of those pay movie channels (probably having to stay up until 3 or 4 in the morning to get it).  He couldn’t wait for me to see it.  He promised I’d never seen anything like it.

He was right.  Naïve fool that I was, up to that time, I had thought of animation as being only those pretty, moralistic Disney movies, or the wild and wacky Warner cartoon shorts, or that stuff you watched for hours on TV every Saturday morning with a bowl of your favorite sugar encrusted cereal.  It had never occurred to me that with the freedom animation brings, that a “cartoon” could be something much more adult in nature.  But there I was, looking something like Roger Rabbit with my jaw on the floor and my eyes popping out of my head.  This thing was pretty violent!  And what’s more, I was seeing anatomically implausible women fully naked, and consumed by the spirit of free love.  To call it a life altering experience might be a bit much, but it definitely was a turning point, and an eye opener, for my young, pre-pubescent mind.

Unfortunately, that kind of experience can’t be replicated once you’re older and the notion of sex and violence in an animated film doesn’t phase you much anymore.  Looking at Heavy Metal from the other side of puberty, I can call it what it is…a rather uneven, adolescent male fantasy.  Probably no segment in the film illustrates that better than “Den”, in which a geeky, scrawny kid gets zapped into another dimension, where he’s suddenly tall, muscular, and well endowed, with women whose sex appeal bordered on the ludicrous throwing themselves at him.

Heavy Metal was an interesting production, involving artists and animation teams from all around the world working on individual segments of the film, and a rather haphazard attempt to unify them all into a singular story by means of a glowing green orb called the Loc Nar, supposedly the physical embodiment of all evil.  The results, as I mentioned, are uneven to say the least.  There’s not much consistency in the animation.  Some of it is quite good, others are a bit more sloppy and amateurish.  Some involve rotoscope techniques of tracing live action footage, and when time was running out, sometimes the live action pieces were just left in.  Some of the stories are rather intriguing.  Others are weak.  Some are just plain pointless.

The best stories are the aforementioned “Den”, which is a rather funny, sexy, and violent romp featuring the excellent work of John Candy as the voice of the title character, and “Harry Canyon”, a segment that seems to have inspired The Fifth Element, about a futuristic New York cab driver who gets involved with a mysterious and potentially dangerous, yet surprisingly voluptuous woman.  Then the film meanders for a stretch before redeeming itself in the finale, a segment well worth waiting for.  Though a bit sketchy storywise, “Taarna” is the most visually stunning stretch of the film, as a silver haired, silent beauty arises to avenge the slaughter of a race of beings.  Something about that segment always captures my imagination.  It alone is worth the price of the disc.

And the soundtrack is phenomenal…one of the best ever assembled for a film.  Artists including Sammy Hagar, Nazareth, Black Sabbath, Donald Fagen, Don Felder, Devo, Stevie Nicks, Journey and more offer songs that really serve as the backbeat and backbone of the movie’s visual style.  Ironically, though, it was this same soundtrack that kept the film from being released on home video for some 11-12 years.  Although this lengthy gap probably helped cement the picture’s reputation in a couple of ways:  it kept the film playing constantly at midnight showings, where it built up its core audience.  In turn, they made the videotape a multi-million seller when it was finally allowed to be released.

So Heavy Metal is definitely a film that has a secure place in animation history, even though Japanese animation has gone even further in exploring the same kinds of territory, and with much more satisfying visual results.  But I’d wager that even today, the film can and does serve as a rather bizarre ritual of initiation into adulthood for most young men.  As long as it continues to do that, the movie is bound to maintain a special place in their hearts, long after it looses its sense of being on the cutting edge.

Video **1/2

Columbia Tri Star has created what is essentially a good transfer of somewhat poor source material.  You can’t help but notice the scratches and scars on the aged print, despite the digital remastering.  Plus, you have to consider that as far as animation goes, Heavy Metal could never look as good as newer films like The Prince of Egypt, or for that matter, even older films like 101 Dalmatians.  It just was never that kind of quality to begin with.  Certain stretches of the film look a little poorer than others, particularly the really dark sequences, where the deterioration is all the more apparent, but other segments look a lot better. 

Audio ***

The newly mixed 5.1 soundtrack, perhaps the most important aspect of the film, sounds quite good, though not as dynamic as I would have liked.  The songs sound sweet, and overall, the soundtrack is very clean and problem free.  I just wanted to hear a bit more punch from the heavier songs.

Features ****

The disc contains a cool documentary, “Imagining Heavy Metal”, some deleted scenes including the famed “Neverwhere Land” segment, a full length rough cut of the film, with optional running commentary, a gallery of Heavy Metal magazine covers, production photos, animation portfolios, a conceptual art gallery, production notes, and a full reading of the book “Heavy Metal The Movie” as a commentary track to the feature, read by author Carl Macek.

Summary:

Heavy Metal is the kind of film you’ll either love or hate, or even love, then hate.  It’s not really the kind of picture that ages well when the viewers age.  As such, it should be taken for what it is:  a hormonally enhanced fantasy and a rite of passage of sorts for young men becoming aware of such things for the first time.  As animation goes, you can do a lot better, but there’s just something about the unmitigated and unapologetic gall it took to create a film of this sort that remains oddly charming, if not fully entertaining.