Animation for grownups is an accepted thing now in the U.S., be it The Simpsons or any number of imported anime. However, there was a time where it was considered a kid-oriented genre with the exception of Ralph Bakshi and a few animators emulating his brash, provocative style. A key entry in the rise of commercially viable, adult-oriented animation was Heavy Metal, an anthology film drawn from the famous comics magazine of the same name. It went on to become a midnight movie staple and remains a fan favorite today.
Heavy Metal is anchored by a loose framing device where the daughter of an astronaut is held captive by the Loc-Nar, a glowing green orb that is a power source of evil and destruction throughout time and space. This links adaptations done by various animators of a series of stories from the pages of Heavy Metal magazine. Tales include “Harry Canyon,” a kind of future-noir about a cynical cabbie drawn into a fetching femme’s battle with alien thieves, “Den,” the story of a nerdy teen who goes to another dimension where he transforms into a Conan-style man of action and “Taarna,” a fantasy tale about the last female descendent of a race of warriors called to protect a people under attack by villainous invaders.
Heavy Metal is often criticized for having a “grab bag” approach: not only is there a mixture of fantasy genres (horror to sci-fi to fantasy) but the moods range from light-hearted to grimly dark. Along similar lines, the animation is often critiqued because the use of a variety of animators mean the film’s look changes from segment to segment. some of them looking rough-hewn to modern eyes. That said, it must be remembered that the magazine had a similar mixture of genres, tones and artists so this is actually a faithful recreation of what it’s like to read an issue of Heavy Metal.
The film is also often critiqued by modern viewers and critics for being too juvenile to rate as animation for adults, with its fixation on bloody/horrific violence and frequent buxom cartoon lady nudity. This is a matter of taste but it is faithful to the admittedly oft-lurid source material and such excesses are presented in too stylized a manner to really take offense at.
It’s worth noting that the adult-yet-juvenile quality of Heavy Metal gives it its own unique appeal: with its mixture of over-the-top fantasy concepts and scrappy, sometimes “Saturday morning cartoon”-level animation, the film plays like a gateway drug that can (and did) assist many young viewers in transitioning from kiddie animation to the grittier, more complex adult-oriented animation that would soon become more popular in the States.
Finally and most importantly, Heavy Metal is more fun than a barrel of graphic novels. The fast pace and multiple stories ensure a steady stream of eye-popping sights that never get dull. The voice cast is packed with a lot of familiar Canadian voice talent like John Vernon, Eugene Levy and John Candy, whose “gee whiz” delivery really lends a comedic kick to “Den.” Even better, the soundtrack is crammed with vintage FM fare by beloved acts like Blue Oyster Cult, Devo and Cheap Trick. In between rockers, there are also some fun score cues from the great Elmer Bernstein: his sweeping, intensely melodic score for “Taarna” is some of his best latter-day work.
In short, Heavy Metal remains a key title for anyone interested in the “midnight movie” era of cult cinema and a historically important film that helped in shifting attitudes about animated films in the U.S. More importantly, it’s a sleazy, rockin’ blast of multicolored fun guaranteed to appeal to the cheap thrill-craving 12 year-old that resides in a lot of genre buffs… we all know who we are and none of us should be denied this kind of fun.
Blu-Ray Notes: There’s a catalog disc out from Sony that pairs a solid transfer with the supplements from the 1999 special edition DVD. It’s currently available for cheap prices and worth picking up.