Oslavi Linares for for Cinetalk.net

A 77-minute neo-noir with a derailed future, a rock musical with A-grade performances, an underground cult classic, a box office failure, a Canadian landmark; all of these tags define Rock and Rule, likely the foremost authorial work of Nelvana Studios.

Rock and Rule was screened recently at Montreal Animaze International Animation Film Festival where it was introduced by director Clive Smith. The film is a post-apocalyptic vision where dogs, cats, and rats have inherited humanity’s place after World War III. In this dark future, the legendary rock star and mad scientist Mok tries to invoke a demon by kidnapping Angel, the lead singer of a teenage rock band. Her bandmates, Omar, Dizzy, and Stretch set on to rescue her and prevent a fourth cataclysm using the power of Rock music.

And music is what Rock and Rule is about. The soundtrack, including Cheap Trick, Lou Reed, Deborah Harry, Iggy Pop, Melleny Brown, and Earth, Wind & Fire, pairs well with the picture as the result of constant adaptation between the musicians and the animators, according to Smith. Many sequences rely on this dynamic and become music videos providing a great sense of mobility. For instance: the road trip sequence, the anti-gravity dance club, or the final concert.

The visual style stands on its own and the 80’s aesthetics evokes Blade Runner gritty cityscapes, while the elaborate structures remind of Japanese Ghibli Studio steampunk. The watercolor backgrounds pan to reveal landscapes, cities, and various machines. “What we were trying to do was a futuristic world with elements from the past… a mix.” (Smith).

The result is cartoony but with mature character designs. The mix between cartoonish animals and sensual mutants add a teenage flavor, which, according to Smith, evolved in more than one way, from a project  geared for children, toward adolescents.

Ahead of its time, the hybrid nature of Rock and Rule left audiences in limbo. Over budget costs and production delays did not help. After four years in the making it did not recover its 11 million budget. Losing its original distribution deal with Universal, it had a brief run in theaters in select cities in the US but not in Toronto and it was aired by the CBC a few times to ultimately go underground. Only in 2005 was a DVD version available followed, in 2010, by the Blu-Ray edition. Nevertheless, Rock and Rule is a classic of Canadian animation; it was one of the first Canadian animated features.

In an interview for Cinetalk, director Clive A. Smith expanded on some points. He described Rock and Rule’s production process as organic, a creative effort in consultation with the rest of the team, rafting around 400 animators. Inventiveness was a necessity with the feature’s techniques that ranged from paper cut-outs to computer assisted photography, experimentation was present at all levels.

It was the first feature of Nelvana, its teenager stage after numerous children shorts. Smith and producers Michael Hirsh, and Patrick Loubert, all co-founders of Nelvana, decided to embark in this adventure after the studio’s success with a half hour short for children, The Devil and Daniel Mouse. At the time animation was only thought fit for children; says Smith, “There wasn’t really a market for animated feature films.”

While the venture backfired, it led to two things: Nelvana’s apogee through the Care Bears franchise (made to recover from Rock and Rule) with subsequent equally successful children contents; and what can be considered as Nelvana’s most authorial work.

“It was the end of the high and the beginning of the low… if Rock and Rule had been successful, we could have continued on a different path.”