Color, 1983, 86m. / Directed by Clive A. Smith / Unearthed (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9) / DD5.1

Made in the wake of Heavy Metal and Ralph Bakshi's brief stab at sci-fi and fantasy, this Canadian-made animated feature is usually compared to its forerunners but is really a completely different kind of animal altogether. Sharp, funny, bizarre, and packed with catchy songs, it was inexplicably given the shaft by United Artists who dumped it into a handful of theaters and shuffled it off to home video and cable, where a generation of impressionable '80s kids managed to build up a cult following by word of mouth. (A random personal interjection: Rock & Rule was the first laserdisc I ever bought, so there's definitely some sentimental value going on here.) Sort of a satanic twist on Danger Mouse with a punk/New Wave aesthetic, it's a wholly unique film that has stood the test of time quite well.

After nuclear devastation, the world has been rebuilt by mutated animals who have taken on human characteristics. In grungy Ohmtown, Omar (voiced by Paul Le Mat) and Angel (voiced by Rabid's Susan Roman) head a struggling rock band. During an audition at a seedy nightclub, Angel becomes furious at boyfriend Omar's refusal to let her do a solo number; however, when their song proves to be a bust, Angel takes the stage and catches the attention of rock guru Mok (voiced by Don Francks), a Mick Jagger/Iggy Pop style music god whose dabblings in black magic require a "special voice" to raise demons from another dimension. Since Angel clearly fits the bill, he lures her away from the band and spirits her to his lavish penthouse in Nuke York where he begins to plan a hellish spectacle. Meanwhile Omar and the musicians search for Angel, combing through discotheques and sinster back alleys before finally discovering clues to Mok's evil plans.

Of course, one of the biggest stars of Rock & Rule is its remarkable soundtrack, featuring original music (much of it still unavailable on any album) by Debbie Harry, Cheap Trick, Lou Reed (whose "My Name Is Mok" is a rousing highlight), Iggy Pop, and Earth, Wind & Fire. The film's central number, "Angel's Song" (later reworked substantially for Harry's Def Dumb & Blonde album), was co-written with Blondie's Chris Stein and anchors the film perfectly, transforming from a catchy pared-down number at the beginning to the full-blown climactic chorus of "Send Love Through." Unlike the usual wallpaper approach of popular music in animated films, the music here functions as an essential motor of the plot and works surprisingly well as an integrated whole. Oddly enough, despite the demonic imagery, drug use, sexual innuendo, hints of bondage, and flying dead babies, Rock & Rule scraped by with a PG rating that may have hurt its box office chances; after the boobs-and-gore spectacle of Heavy Metal, perhaps audiences assumed it was too tame to enjoy. Fortunately it still found its audience at the time and deserves to round up more than a few new fans today.

A welcome upgrade from MGM's original blurry transfer, Rock & Rule shines on DVD courtesy of a colorful anamorphic transfer from a clean print. The film was technically audacious for its time, combining sparse but effective computer imagery with ambitious hand-drawn compositions usually featuring eye-popping multi-plane movement. It still looks great, and the appropriately spectacular finale still manages to impress. The original mix was always impressive, so the 5.1 version offered here (along with the original 2.0 version) is really a slight upgrade from an already excellent original. The surround speakers get a nice workout, ranging from explosive car chases to the ambient growling and screaming during the demon raising. The feature film is contained on the first disc along with an audio commentary by director Clive Smith, a regular director for production company Nelvana who specialized in children's programming and much more wholesome fare like The Care Bears Movie. Though Rock & Rule didn't prove to be the box office smash they were expecting, he still holds the project in high regard and offers tons of background information about its creation. Also included is a half-hour featurette, "The Making of Rock & Rule" (originally aired on Nickelodeon's Standby... Lights! Camera! Action!, hosted by Leonard Nimoy). Featuring interviews with the animation staff as well as footage of the music artists at work in the studio, it's a brisk and entertaining extra bound to bring back memories of that short-lived but very enjoyable Nick series. Also included are restoration comparisons (including a look at the original title card as Ring of Power).

Disc two kicks off with the alternate Canadian TV version of Rock & Rule, basically an earlier cut with a different voice for Omar as well as an alternate sound mix. The biggest plus here is an extended ending that flows much more naturally than the abrupt shift to the closing credits in the United Artists cut. The full frame master used here isn't up to the same quality as the theatrical cut, but it's a great inclusion and well worth watching. Also included is Smith's 1978 short film, "The Devil and Daniel Mouse," basically a more kiddie-friendly rough draft of the same story with a singing mouse lured away from her boyfriend and into a tricky contract with the devil. (It's also interesting to note that the infamous Cannon musical The Apple, which boasts a strikingly similar storyline, was released between this short and Rock & Rule). Also included is the making-of short "How We Made The Devil and Daniel Mouse," a DVD-Rom version of the shooting script, the workprint title sequence, a character sketch gallery, and the theatrical trailer (plus a trailer for Unearthed's Electric Dragon 80,000 V). The disc is handsomely packaged in a fold-out set with liner notes containing interviews with various production principals, illustrated with sketches from the film.

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