Monday, October 25, 2021

The Spine of Night, Animated Fantasy for Adults

The fantasy genre is about as archetypal as fiction gets. Take for instance the “sacred bloom,” a flower that imparts terrible, dreadful knowledge. Does that bring anything to mind? Regardless, mankind cannot handle it, but an evil, power-mad sorcerer is determined to acquire it in Philip Gelatt & Morgan Galen King’s animated The Spine of Night, which opens this Friday in New York.

Initially, Ghal-Sur was a mortal scholar, who was probably only extraordinary for his arrogance. As a result, he is quite put off by his assignment to record the history of Lord Pyrantin, a budding tyrant, who naturally expects the scholar to cater to his vanity. However, Ghal-Sur must protest when he witnesses Pyrantin’s crimes against the nearby swamp people, who had a compact with his scholars’ guild. Of course, that lands him in the dungeon with the shaman, Tzod, who is the only survivor of her people. When he sees her employ the healing power of the bloom, it literally creates a monster.

Over the course of centuries, Tzod will fight to prevent Ghal-Sur (who has become an inhuman conqueror in the tradition of the “God Emperor” of
Dune) from centralizing all of the supernaturally potent bloom under his own control. In doing so, she will embark on an epic journey to the final surviving bloom, safeguarded by “The Guardian,” who is not unlike the Knight in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. However, Tzod is not the only one who has had enough of Ghal-Sur’s’ oppression. A band of winged assassins, reminiscent of Prince Vultan’s Hawkmen in Flash Gordon, have decided they might as well try to take him out, or die trying.

Obviously, there are tons of precedents for almost everything in
Spine, but honestly that is true of just about every epic fantasy. Frankly, fantasy fans want to see all those classic elements. The point is to find distinctive ways to repackage them, which Gelatt & King do by incorporating a hand-rotoscoped style of animation that evokes the vibe of Ralph Bakshi’s vintage Tolkien films and the original Heavy Metal. Like the latter, there is indeed a great deal of unenticing nudity in Spine. It is also violent, but always in service of the narrative. The Heavy Metal comparison is especially apt, because the animation is not super-complex, but it is cool looking.

You can also hear some colorful voices in
Spine, like Lucy Lawless as Tzod, Richard E. Grant as the Guardian, and Blumhouse-regular Betty Gabriel as Phae-Agura, a scholar-warrior (who is strong enough for a spin-off vehicle). On the other hand, Patton Oswalt has a minor celebrity name, but he doesn’t sound right as Pyrantin.

There has been a bounty of wonderful animated features for adults in recent years, but they have mostly been serious films, both artistically and thematically. However, it is a fun change of pace to see Gelatt & King lean into pulpiness. It has the right balance of fantasy spectacle and luridness to make teen nerds swoon. Recommended for fans of old school adult animation,
The Spine of Night opens this Friday (10/29) in New York, at the Cinema Village.