Remembering Rock & Rule: Nelvana’s first feature film
For me, there’s something to be said about finding films on television between the hours of 1am and 4am. Several piqued my interest during this time frame, including some that were animated. One that I happened across on either TBS or TNT in the early hours when I was 10, showed a rather desolate wasteland of a world, featuring rat-like humanoids, a large metropolitan city dubbed “Nuke York,” and a pulsating orange creature with glowing blue eyes summoned from a deep pit.
That was all the information I had to go on for many years, as I had missed seeing the opening title of the film. Years later, I found out that what I had witnessed, was the first animated feature made entirely in Canada: Rock and Rule.
One of the animated rarities that got lost along the ‘animated feature film trail,’ its production company was one that many of you may know well.
About the Company Nelvana, & the Development of Rock and Rule
If you grew up in the 1980’s and had cable, chances are you saw some of the productions from Canadian studio, Nelvana. Their logo was of a polar bear looking skyward, generally surrounded by an arced cluster of stars.
The company was founded by Michael Hirsh, Patrick Loubert, and Clive A Smith. Though Hirsh and Loubert were into the underground filmmaking scene, Smith was the only one amongst them who had prior animation experience.
According to an interview with the founders, there wasn’t much of an animation culture in Canada in the 70’s. They opened their small business in an apartment in Toronto, but it wasn’t until the end of the 1970’s did they finally start producing shorts, and most of them holiday specials. In fact one of the company’s biggest claims-to-fame is the animated segment for a certain Holiday Special that would be dis-owned by its series’ Creator many years later.
Nelvana wasn’t rolling in money, but they were making tidy sums off the work they were doing. One of the shorts they developed called The Devil and Daniel Mouse (based on the story The Devil and Daniel Webster), became a jumping-off point for a fairy-tale concept called Drats, which the studio decided to develop into a feature-length film.
The company’s graduation from animated shorts to a feature-length film wasn’t that different from the leap Walt Disney took almost 40 years before, when he made a similar maneuver. And like that major leap for Disney, Nelvana would be doing something that many people would say was ‘folly.’
Nelvana put almost $8 million into the development and production of their first feature over a 4-year period of time. Though as production of Drats continued along, it developed into a darker, more adult-themed picture that seemed more geared towards the teen and college crowd. And thus, Rock & Rule was born.
Unlike today, where movies are marketed based on big-name celebrity ‘voice-talent,’ this film’s selling point was the numerous musicians and groups that were on the soundtrack. You had everyone from Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, Cheap Trick, and Earth, Wind, and Fire.
Given the non-Disney style of the production, the persons distributing the film had no clue how to market it. Almost a year before its eventual release, United Artists and MGM picked up the film for acquisition. Hoping to add some star power to the film, the voice of the male lead (named Omar) was replaced by Paul Le Mat (best remembered for his role as John Milner in George Lucas’ American Graffiti). Test screenings in Boston didn’t go over so well, and the film was never officially released in the United States for full-on theatrical distribution. Its limited theatrical release happened on April 15, 1983.
Rock & Rule would suffer the fate of several different non-traditional (read: non-Disney) films: editorial cuts, and a quick shuffle off to the home video marketplace. The film was supposedly marketed on home video under the title Ring of Power, and could even be found circulating around on bootleg copies. Of course, Nelvana‘s contributions to the film were not acknowledged by the bootleggers, and many passed off this strange early 80’s film as being made by Ralph Bakshi (in an odd coincidence, the studio had previously been approached to provide animation services for Bakshi’s Heavy Metal at the time Rock was in production).
Though the film was distributed by MGM on VHS, Nelvana still retained their original cut of the film (with Omar not voiced by Paul Le Mat), and one could request a VHS copy from them (only $80!). However, the full wide-screen print of the cut was destroyed in a fire, and only a VHS copy in pan-and-scan format exists to this day.
Rock and Rule wouldn’t get much acknowledgement until the DVD age, when Unearthed Films released it on DVD in 2006. A 2-DVD set was also released, and included audio commentary by Clive Smith, along with behind-the-scenes pictures, and making-of material. The original cut of the film also came with this release.
It should be noted that before its DVD release, the internet was one of the few places one could find more information about the film. At one point, a Canadian fan had one of the most comprehensive pages on the film up and running, and it was through that page that I found out much of the information about it. Sadly, the page has been removed (and may potentially cause harm to your computer, if Norton Antivirus is to be believed).
A Brief Synopsis of the Film and some of My Thoughts
Set in one of those dystopian futures where mankind has been wiped out, animals have mutated into humanoid form, and built their society on the ruins of ours. They’ve even managed to prove that rock and roll will never die, as a legendary super-rocker named Mok (above), attempts to open a gateway to another dimension. With his popularity waning, he seems intent on proving to the world that he still has what it takes, but he needs one special thing to open the gateway: a voice.
Searching all over, Mok finds the voice he needs when he shows up at a little dive in Ohmtown. The voice belongs to Angel (upper-left), who is part of a band led by her James Dean-like boyfriend (and lead guitarist), Omar. Mok invites the band to his palatial estate on the edge of Ohmtown, but when Angel rebuffs Mok’s requests to leave the band, he kidnaps her and takes her to Nuke York.
Omar’s egotistical nature makes him believe that Angel has run off with Mok, but his back-up band members Dizzy and Stretch convince him otherwise. ‘Borrowing’ a police car, the three make their way to Nuke York, and attempt to find Angel.
Overall, Rock and Rule is a pretty gutsy film to make. There’s some nice visual eye-candy, and some of the music is quite catchy…but the film feels like it’s flying by the seat of its pants. It never really feels like the audience has much time to catch their breath before they are whisked off to a new situation or locale. Then again, it could almost be Nelvana wanted to make a film that was more of a statement than an emotional rollercoaster. There appears to be some attempts to make the relationship between Omar and Angel relevant, but it never really feels like there’s much ability for that story arc to connect and work. Omar just broods a bit too much, and there aren’t enough scenes to really show you that he’s matured through the course of the film.
There are a few minor attempts to make Angel into a character that can take care of herself, but for most of the film, she just becomes the ‘MacGuffin’ that everyone is chasing after.
Probably the most interesting character is Mok, with his tooth-jutting, big-lipped face, not to mention his temper tantrums and theatrics. Rumor is that his appearance was meant to mimic Mick Jagger (even his rumored full name was considered to be “Mok Swagger”). However, Jagger’s agent was told of this, and cautioned the studio not to consider this rather comical connection.
Rock & Rule was one of those films that came out in what I consider ‘the dark ages’ of animation: that period from the 70’s and 80’s, when the struggle for quality was an almost impossible feat to pull off. Even those that did do quality work weren’t pulling in big amounts of money. Don Bluth’s The Secret of NIMH managed to pull in $14 million during its 1982 theatrical run.
To show how fickle the market for animation was in the early 1980’s, Nelvana’s next animated feature film (released in 1985), would net them a $23 million gross, and even beat out Walt Disney Pictures’ semi-mature ‘dark’ animated feature, The Black Cauldron. What was the film that had this Canadian animation studio beat out the almighty Disney?
Children’s animation in the 80’s would keep the company afloat, as they’d also animate for series like Strawberry Shortcake, and the Star Wars spinoffs Ewoks, and Droids.
Rock and Rule is probably the only time Nelvana took such a big gamble to try and break out of their shell with an original idea. Since 1983, the company only found theatrical success with The Care Bears property, as all future releases tied to the company were television shows, or direct-to-video features.
Today, Nelvana is still around, but it isn’t quite the same as it was over 40 years ago. Its founders have long since retired and moved on, and nothing coming out of the current studio iteration is quite as dark and gritty as some of the stuff made during their first 10 years (heck, even some scenes in The Care Bears Movie were a little intense for kids).
Rock and Rule is definitely an ‘animation oddity’ that if you’re looking for films during the animation ‘dark ages,’ you owe it to yourself to seek it out. The film is a prime example of a studio taking a risky first step into new territory, but not able to reach the pinnacle of other studios like PIXAR or Dreamworks.