The Spine of Night is an animated fantasy film that uses rotoscope, which is sadly a rare technique these days, with just Richard Linklater flying the flag in more recent times. Philip Gelatt and Morgan Galen King co-directed: King’s background is in animation, whilst Gelatt’s is in live-action filmmaking.
This film owes a great deal to Ralph Bakshi’s Fire and Ice, which was a collaboration with the world-renowned and often badly imitated fantasy artist Frank Frazetta. It takes what is essentially an anthology approach to the narrative, which is at times a little irritating. It makes it feel more like a fantasy version of the Heavy Metal film from 1982 (it’s worth saying that Gelatt’s main credit before this was Netflix’s Love, Death & Robots, a reboot anthology series of Heavy Metal produced by Tim Miller and David Fincher.) The stories are wrapped around Tzod (Lucy Lawless) telling The Guardian (Richard E. Grant) about how this single petal of the small blue flower could restore balance to the universe.
The stories I found a little dull, and it’s basically all hard fantasy crap—which, Lord of the Rings aside, I’ve never really cared for. Just give me Greek and Norse mythology, it’s way more insane than anything modern writers could come up with. Hell, the Bible has rock monsters! However, the animation is breathtaking at times, although the backgrounds are often quite static. This means they don’t always align well with the rotoscoped actors, which would occasionally take me out of the film.
Still, it’s a rollicking fantasy epic with some good voice work from Grant and Lawless (it took me a while to pick up the fact that it was her), and even Patton Oswalt shows up for a fun bit part. Joe Manganiello and Larry Fessenden also supply some voices: Fessenden play the wonderfully “metal” named character, the Prophet of Doom. It’s also nice to see more filmmakers embrace animation for adult audiences. This is full of hyper-violence and plenty of nudity, which is surprisingly pretty evenly split between male and female.
Personally, I think Ralph Bakshi did it all so much better in the ’70s and ’80s, but hopefully films like this and Linklater’s will give rotoscope more of an audience. Sadly, however, Linklater’s Apollo 10 1⁄2: A Space Age Childhood was rejected as “not animation” from the Academy Awards—but he is fighting the Academy to have it qualify for next year’s Oscars in the Best Animation Film category. The Spine of Night, strangely enough, qualified for last year’s awards (it wasn’t nominated), and Philip Gelatt and Morgan Galen King have written a letter in support of Linklater’s fight against the Academy’s insane decision. Loving Vincent was nominated in 2017 and used rotoscope extensively, so I really hope Linklater wins his fight.
The Blu-Ray includes a 30-minute making-of documentary along with some short films from the filmmakers. The Spine of Night is also available to stream on Shudder.