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Rock & Rule
The life and times of a Canadian cult classic
Rock & Rule
Nelvana
Directed by Clive Smith
Canada, 1983
Rock & Rule is one of cult animation's great mysteries. In many ways, it seemed to have everything going for it, and yet it fizzled at the box office and its video release was tepid at best. Unlike other cult films such as Heavy Metal, Fritz the Cat, and Akira, there are few--if any--screenings of Rock & Rule at colleges and repertory cinemas. And yet the movie has a devout following, despite its low profile.

The story behind Rock & Rule is the classic parable of "the little engine that could"--only in this version, the little engine didn't get much for all its hard work. The little engine in this case is Nelvana, based in Toronto, Ontario, circa 1981. Compared to today's plethora of animation, the North American animation industry was gasping like a fish out of water. However, amid this wasteland, Nelvana was not only surviving, it was prospering. After having garnered success with their original television specials such as Easter Fever, An Intergalactic Thanksgiving, Romie-0 and Julie-8, and the animated segment of George Lucas' Star Wars special (Star Wars fans take note: this was Boba Fett's first screen appearance), they decided to take the plunge into the production of their first animated feature. Patrick Loubert, Nelvana's senior producer, came up with the basic idea. Titled Drats!, it was a fairly standard concept, featuring a rock band in the future made up of anthropomorphized rodents. Like their TV specials, Drats! was originally to be targeted mainly at the younger set.

The initial idea was then kicked back and forth between co-producer Michael Hirsh and director Clive Smith; together, the three massaged Drats! into what would become Rock & Rule. As the story evolved, the characters became less rodent-like and more humanoid. For all intents and purposes, they were now human beings with rat-like ears and noses.

Somewhere along the line, the team became much more ambitious. It was decided that the film would use state-of-the-art visual effects; the target audience grew up, and Rock & Rule was aimed squarely at an older audience; musical talent such as Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, Debbie "Blondie" Harry, and others were signed on; and the film was given a dark, gritty urban look, much like that of Ridley Scott's Blade Runner.

With these decisions, Rock & Rule joined the ranks of those films from the 1970s and 1980s that tried to break free of the Disney mold, which at the time wasn't working for anybody--even Disney! However, unlike most of these more adult-oriented films, Rock & Rule stayed away from the excesses of sex, violence, or nihilism present in such films as Heavy Metal and Heavy Traffic. Rather than relying on shock value, they went to the most basic of elements: story and character.

The story goes like this: the time is the future, after a nuclear war has eliminated mankind and mutated the animals. Mok (The Magic Man), a "legendary super-rocker" (who had a record "go gold, platinum, and plutonium in one day!"), finds that his popularity is waning, and plans to stage a huge comeback performance. This performance is intended to be beyond unforgettable, but not for the usual reasons. Mok's computers have deciphered an ancient Satanic code, with which he can unlock a gateway to another dimension. His plan is to summon a demon during his concert, and use its power to do the typical villainous things--become all-powerful, rule the world, etc. The only hitch is that only one specific voice can sing the sequence of notes required to open the gateway.

As the film opens, he is near the end of his worldwide search, having returned to Ohmtown, the city of his origin. There he finds Angel, who is part of a local band with her friends Omar (the lead singer), Dizzy (drums), and Stretch (guitar). As it turns out, Angel has the voice Mok is searching for. When charisma fails, he resorts to outright kidnapping, taking her with him to Nuke York. Omar and the guys, of course, try to rescue her, and Angel tries to find a way to keep Mok from summoning the demon.

From this casual description, it seems fairly clear-cut: the guys (mainly Omar) should rescue Angel, whose efforts should avail her naught. However, that's not what happens. In fact, contrary to all movie logic, Omar is not really the protagonist of the film--that honour goes to Angel, who is easily one of animation's strongest female characters, second only to Hayao Miyazaki's Nausicaä. Self-assured and competent, Angel never fails to stand up for herself or her friends, with words or actions. A quick and decisive thinker, she never waits for Omar to save her, nor does she fade into the background when the guys arrive.

As compelling as Angel is, the real star of Rock & Rule is Mok. Like the best screen villains, Mok is charismatic, vain, and egomaniacal. Mind-bogglingly rich and powerful, he has the haggard, seemingly immortal presence of Mick Jagger; the alienated weirdness of Iggy Pop; and the chameleon-like tendencies of David Bowie. He is the supreme rock god. He has merged his stage persona with his personal life (or maybe they were never truly separate), which leads people to not only admire him, but to fear him as well. However, Mok is a prisoner of his own image: he resorts to orchestrated theatrics and video wizardry to convince Angel to join him, when it's obvious that he could have chosen several other means of getting her to sing for him. It's not so much that it's a game to him; he needs to prove that he is The Magic Man, that through sheer force of personality (and special effects) he can bend Angel to his will. Ultimately, in his battle of wills with Angel, Mok loses.

With everything Rock & Rule had going for it, it's a bit bewildering that the movie didn't succeed in the box office. Perhaps the time still wasn't right for such an offbeat animated feature. Perhaps it was perceived as being too adult for the children's market, yet too "soft" for the adult market. Also, finding Rock & Rule on video is a bit of a challenge; the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) aired one, more obscure edit of the movie two or three times in the late 1980s, and the more common edit has aired on Cinemax in the USA and Bravo in Canada repeatedly since. MGM/UA released the movie on videocassette and laserdisc in 1984, but copies of these are scarce these days. However, Nelvana is currently trying to sell the movie to distributors for a re-release; maybe Rock & Rule will finally get the recognition it deserves.

Originally printed in fps #11 (Autumn 1996)