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Columbia TriStar Home Video presents
Heavy Metal (Superbit) (1981)

"It's worth a fortune, especially to the Venusians. They think that it has spiritual powers."
- Girl (Susan Roman) in Harry Canyon segment

Review By: Mark Zimmer   
Published: March 11, 2003

Stars: Roger Bumpass, John Candy, Dan Francks, Eugene Levy, Richard Romanus, Al Waxman
Other Stars: Jackie Burroughs, Joe Flaherty, Martin Lavut, Marilyn Lightstone, Alice Playten, Harold Ramis, Susan Roman, August Schellenberg, John Vernon, Zal Yovansky
Director: Gerald Potterton

Manufacturer: DVDL
MPAA Rating: R for (scifi violence, language, cartoon nudity and sexuality, drug use)
Run Time: 01h:30m:15s
Release Date: March 04, 2003
UPC: 043396008762
Genre: animation

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B+ BA-A D-

DVD Review

Up until the 1970s, animation was generally regarded as a means for rendering children's subject matter. That all changed with such Ralph Bakshi entries as Fritz the Cat and (the sadly AWOL on DVD) Wizards. But perhaps the most ambitious of the projects of this new non-Disney period was this attempted fusion of animation and rock à la Fantasia. Based on stories and art from the magazine of the name Heavy Metal that featured European art, as well as some sexually-oriented work by American artists, the experiment wasn't quite successful, but it's often interesting nonetheless.

The film, true to the magazine, is set up in an anthology format, with a framing story called Grimaldi narrated by a glowing green globe (Dan Francks) that is the embodiment of all evil; under the name of Loc Nar, this globe also appears in most of the segments. In the first, Harry Canyon, a sort of sci-fi noir that prefigures many aspects of The Fifth Element, the title character (Richard Romanus) is a futuristic cabbie who picks up a woman on the run (Susan Roman). She has the Loc Nar and is the target of Venusian gangsters, and it's up to Harry to save her, if he can avoid getting killed in the meantime. The narration has a dry Spillane-esque character that's pretty entertaining. Den, based on the airbrushed art of Richard Corben, features a teenaged boy who, through the machinations of the Loc Nar, is transported to another planet and the overly-muscled but bald body of Den (John Candy). This segment contains the most nudity and frankest sexuality, though there is significant such content sprinkled throughout. Corben's art doesn't come through terribly well, however; proper translation of his style would need to wait 20 years for computer animation to reach maturity.

A humorous entry based on the series by Berni Wrightson, Captain Sternn features the trial of the title character (Eugene Levy) for murder, rape, genocide and a moving violation. But the good captain always has an angle. B-17 is a creepy little entry about a doomed bomber that runs afoul of the Loc Nar, with a zombie-filled finale. So Beautiful and So Dangerous is a slightly episodic little sex comedy that at first centers on mutant variations created by the Loc Nar, but then the story itself mutates to become a tale of love between the secretary Gloria (Alice Playten) and a robot (Candy again). The concluding segment, Taarna, is the most ambitious and contains nearly a third of the running time. This piece, designed by Mike Ploog and Howard Chaykin, contains some of the most striking visual material in the film, including the iconic title character aboard her flying creature. She is the last defender of a planet of philosophers and scientists; when they are eradicated she turns from protection to vengeance.

While the character design and the backgrounds are uniformly striking, the potential is a bit wasted by the lackadaisical animation. Often actions are stiff and unnatural, or needlessly awkward. Since many of the characters are quite detailed, this is not entirely surprising, but results in the feel of being a rather amateurish piece of animation. The animation is only occasionally well-married to the rock soundtrack, which features some heavy metal, such as Black Sabbath, Blue Oyster Cult and Nazareth, among other names in a who's who of music 25 years ago, but somehow Journey's "Open Arms" ended up on the list, which has always confused me when it hasn't flat out astonished me. Devo also contributes a pair of songs, while Cheap Trick, Sammy Hagar, Donald Fagen (of Steely Dan), Stevie Nicks and others also put in appearances. Devo's Through Being Cool in particular is nicely melded to the onscreen action. The voice actors (most of them culled from the Canadian comedy scene, including numerous notables from SCTV) all do a nice job with the characters, often giving a clever voicing against expected type for the characters. Taarna remains intriguingly silent, lending an archetypal note to her character.

Although not always fascinating, there's enough visual intrigue here to keep one interested. It does have a rather languid sense of pacing in the European style, which will make many expecting nonstop sci-fi action to be quite impatient. On the whole, however, a picture that any animation fan will be happy to own, especially since due to the many musical artists this picture remained in rights limbo for well over a decade. But if you're looking for copious and gratuitous cartoon nudity, well, you've come to the right place.

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: B


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The anamorphic widescreen picture looks quite nice, with a very sharp line and good colors. The bit rate is about 6 to 7 Mbps most of the time, as opposed to the 3 Mbps rate on the Collector Series disc issued over a year ago. There are visible improvements over the older version, with less of a tendency to become soft and with somewhat better color stability. There's also significantly less video noise in a few segments (notably Taarna, with its watercolor backgrounds). However, the older disc is certainly watchable and a reasonably good rendering. All but the most demanding viewers will probably be satisfied with the earlier disc.

Image Transfer Grade: A-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: This disc comes with several 5.1 audio options, both in English. The DTS version is richer and fuller, with a broader and more open soundstage than the DD version. Neither audio track has significant noise or hiss, and both render the dialogue and music well. Several of the songs seem to be lacking in bass, but since this is the case in both tracks I suspect it's a fault of the master.

Audio Transfer Grade: A


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 24 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, Spanish, Portuguese, Thai with remote access
Packaging: generic plastic keepcase
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL
Layers Switch: 00h:54m:55s

Extras Review: As is the case with most Superbit discs, there are absolutely no extras beyond subtitles. The layer change is not quite as seamless as usual, but since it is at a scene change, it's quite unobtrusive and not likely to be noticed except by those actively searching for it. But the wealth of additional material on the original disc is missing. Would it have been that much of a betrayal of the Superbit mission to have included the text insert with production notes? The chaptering is cleverly set up to permit one to go to a segment of the story, or to a musical selection. Unfortunately, the bands are not named on the chapter listing insert, so those looking for a favorite band are left to guesswork or slogging through the five-plus minutes of closing credits.

Extras Grade: D-


Final Comments

An intriguing experiment in animation that doesn't quite succeed but has become a Midnight Movie staple, without the many extras on the collector's edition, but a somewhat upgraded transfer. I'd suggest the loss of the extras isn't worth the modest improvement to the picture, though.


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