I have a great love for Nelvana Studios. Started in Canada in the 70s by some folks who were involved in Yellow Submarine (among other things), they came out with some of the wackiest, most surreal animated programming a child could ever see and fail to understand. They still do terrific children’s entertainment (both animated and live action), and their work is often rich and weird and much deeper than one might expect for children’s programming.
One of the first things I remember watching on our brand-new VCR* (after The Black Stallion, which was and remains an amazing piece of filmmaking), was a sort of compilation of Nelvana animated television specials, including the utterly bizarre Romie-0 and Julie-8 and a charming little thing called The Devil and Daniel Mouse.
The animation is quirky (entirely Nelvana’s own, and clearly a reminder of the history of some of its Yellow Submarine roots). The music is unexpectedly catchy. The story is an old one — Stephen Vincent Benet’s American version of the Faust story, The Devil and Daniel Webster. The spirit of the whole business is consistent across many of Nelvana’s television specials from the late 70s — good-hearted losers making the best of it and becoming heroic by the practice of their passions, often converting their enemies to allies in the process.
When Nelvana threw all of its resources into making its first big feature film, they decided to write this little mouse story much, much larger. The Devil and Daniel Mouse turned into a post-apocalyptic nightmare called Rock & Rule, featuring music by Iggy Pop, Cheap Trick, Debbie Harry, and (of all things) Earth, Wind & Fire. Their competition on the animated musical front was more successful, of course — Heavy Metal. I first saw Rock & Rule on late-night cable some years after its release, and it was one of the first things I remember recording and watching obsessively on that old VCR (my first obsession of that kind was actually the brilliant animated Watership Down). I used to watch it in the early hours of the morning, my ears full of every sound it made.
It is not, to be sure, pleasant to watch most of the time. The music is hit-or-miss, and the animation, while actually quite well done, pictures a world that isn’t particularly attractive (nor is it meant to be). The characters (including the male lead, Omar) are often genuinely off-putting. This is not a child’s film anymore. Its world is a messy, plainly misogynistic adult world. We never do come to understand what motivates Mok (the villain of the piece). Even when he explains himself, he doesn’t make much sense. While I love the voices of the leads in the music (Robin Zander, Debbie Harry), the tunes themselves don’t necessarily wear well — they become ponderous and a bit overbearing.
Still, there are things that redeem this mess of a film (and it is kind of a mess, there’s no denying it). It has that sly, dry Nelvana sense of humor. Mok is a proto-hip villain, elegant and menacing and really fun to watch. The misogyny of the world in which this story operates is balanced (to some degree) by the way in which Angel discovers and claims her own voice, and the way in which Omar must finally recognize it (and her) and come to join her instead of competing with her. Even some of the bad guys (the Toad Brothers, Mok’s flunkies) turn out to be more than just vicious muscle, and they join the good guys in the end.
And, at the last, there is that one brilliant moment, when Angel’s voice breaks the silence…that’s magic. Omar’s voice joins Angel’s to send the demon back, and the music redeems what came before. This is a movie that believes that music can save the world, and there’s something almost irresistible about its conviction and its hope.
Also: Note the roller skates. ROLLER SKATES! 80s!!!!!!!!
*VHS, not Beta! Take that, Sony! Ha!
The rest of the series, if you’re so inclined: