“The Spine of Night” is a reasonably good-looking — and gory — animated sword and sorcery saga for adults, a movie set in a wholly-realized fantasy world, but lacking a story or characters that invite us to invest ourselves in their fate.
Filmmakers Philip Gelatt and Morgan Galen King and King’s Gorgonaut animation operation have conjured up a movie reminiscent of “Heavy Metal,” still something of a watershed film in this animated genre, and attracted a fan-service-friendly voice cast that includes TV’s “Xena,” Richard E. Grant, Joe Manganiello and horror mainstay Larry Fessenden.
They’ve given them D&D portentous dialogue that mentions “the Pantheon,” “the Night of a Thousand Suns” where “noble scholars…have amassed all the knowledge in the world” and one of their number has been corrupted by it.
“Inquisitor! Cease your necromancy!”
I mean, the fans would expect nothing less, right?
But its somewhat shapeless, despite a simple quest narrative, much of it presented in flashback, a film that changes points of view and never sets the viewer up to identify with any of them.
That’s very “Heavy Metal,” as well, I might add.
A swamp witch (Lucy Lawless) survives a massacre of her “wretched Mud People” and makes her way across the swamp to the Guardian (Richard E. Grant) where they debate the merits of saving, hiding or stealing “the bloom,” a magical flower our witch Tzod wears as a lei.
“The bloom is the last light of the gods,” the Guardian intones. “Would you die to take it?”
She’s already died, and more than once, she’ll have him know. Let the zaftig, could-not-be-more-naked Tzod tell her story.
The witch had to scheme her way out of a prison cell that the minions of megalomaniacal Lord Pyrantin (Patton Oswalt, of all people) held her in. But that’s where she met the sympathetic Asher scholar Ghal-Sur (Jordan Douglas Smith). Once he’s seen the magical powers of the leaves of “the bloom,” he overpowers her, takes possession of her lei and proceeds to take over this darkest of the Dark Ages.
He will rule as a wizard-emperor, all powerful and immortal. His corruption spreads to others, but not all of the Asher Scholars — warrior monks (Betty Gabriel and Malcolm Mills voice a couple of them) who may or may not organize to stop Ghal-Sur.
As the crimson squishy-slicey sound-effects slaughter spreads, the film brings in other characters wielding magic tech and invites us to place our bets on whether any of them will foil our supernatural supervillain by trickery, force of arms or suicide mission.
The animation is of the fluid but limited (TV quality) movement characters parked in front of arresting, gloomy, expressionistic Mount Doom settings. Moments here and there summon up memories of animator Ralph Bakshi’s take on “The Lord of the Rings.” But they’re just moments.
The story plays like the mashup so much of this genre is these days. It’s slightly more sophisticated and somewhat less polished than your average anime action fantasy, to throw in a comparison with the probable fanbase this could appeal to.
It didn’t quite get there for me, but I’m curious to see what these folks come up with next, perhaps after spending some money on a good screenwriter.
Rating: unrated, graphic gory animated violence and nudity
Cast: The voices of Lucy Lawless, Richard E. Grant, Betty Gabriel, Patton Oswalt, Joe Manganiello, Jordan Douglas Smith, Larry Fessenden and Malcolm Mills
Credits: Scripted and directed by Philip Gelatt and Morgan Galen King. A Shudder/RLJE Entertainment release.
Running time: 1:34