It is a rare thing for a film to impress and disappoint at the same time, but that is certainly the case with The Spine of Night. It is an independent animated fantasy directed by Philip Gelatt and Morgan Galen King. It impresses by being an affectionate tribute to the artist Frank Frazetta and director Ralph Bakshi – notably their 1983 collaboration Fire and Ice. It is also disappointing, however, because for all of its inherent nostalgia, pulp aspirations, and inventiveness it simply is not particularly good. It is a watchable film, but I cannot imagine too many viewers bothering to watch it twice.
When a regional despot destroys her swamp community, the witch Tzod (Lucy Lawless) embarks on a quest to find more of the magical blue flowers that grant her supernatural powers. Her mission interweaves with those of numerous fantastical characters, each seeking to benefit from the flowers’ unearthly gift. It is a loose, rather simplistic narrative at The Spine of Night‘s core. It is haphazardly assembled; so much so that the film resembles an anthology more than a single storyline. An attentive viewer will be able to tease out the various threads and characters, but poor writing and some gratingly broad performances make consistent attention difficult. Another paradox: the story’s pace is frantic and slipshod, and this makes it a weirdly dull watch. Told in a slower and more detailed fashion, and it would have done better at holding the audience’s attention.
The cast is dominated by unpleasant characters: sadistic warriors, wicked barons, and religious zealots. Those who lean towards the more heroic are desperate and humourless. One can partially recognise that this is a clear artistic intent, with Gelatt and King aiming for a bleak style of pulp fantasy popularised by the French comic anthology Metal Hurlant. At the same time, even the darkest of France’s genre pieces found space for levity. The Spine of Night is screaming out for a few comic touches – even just a sense of irony here and there – and its relentless misery rapidly becomes exhausting. At their best, the voice cast play their characters as heightened and worthy; both Lucy Lawless and Richard E. Grant give dignified, albeit underwhelming turns. Elsewhere, notably with Patton Oswalt, there is a sense that not everyone is treating their job entirely seriously. Oswalt ably demonstrated in Ratatouille that he is one of America’s best voice actors. In The Spine of Night he is audibly collecting a pay cheque.
Thankfully there is some decent entertainment in the film’s art and design. The animation is rotoscoped from live-action, which gives the characters a realistic sheen. The design work hews close to its inspirations, and from time to time transcends the screenplay to become something genuinely exciting. Its climax, with winged tribespeople storming a giant steampunk airship, represents properly decent action filmmaking. It points to future potential for its directors, assuming that their next foray into animation is better written.