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Adult-oriented animation has come a long way in the past decade. A genre once thought of as only for children has really come into its own in the West thanks to the proliferation of anime, the growth of nerd culture, and a plethora of smart animated series that appeal to both kids and adults, with a surprising depth confronting topical issues. We are truly in a heyday of adult-oriented animation and The Spine of Night is about as adult as you can get, animated or not.
The film is an animated fantasy with plenty of vocal star power behind it. It’s got tons of blood, nudity, and violence, and a dark story about gods and the meaning of life itself. Yet it feels stuck in the past of what “adult” animation meant, becoming mature not by dealing with mature concepts and ideas but by splattering the screen with over-the-top blood, guts, and nudity. It’s “adult” in the way a 12-year-old thinks things are adult. That’s not entirely a problem as it can always be fun but it means that beyond all its “adultness” isn’t much else.
The Spine of Night
Director: Philip Gelatt and Morgan Galen King
Release Date: N/A
The Spine of Night is a rotoscoped (drawn over live performances) animated film set in a fantasy world where a mystical plant called “The Bloom” can give humans incredible powers by unlocking their vision and connecting them to the greater universe. Think of it as getting high as fuck but you also get superpowers. We meet Tzod (Lucy Lawless) who has traveled to the birthplace of the bloom to meet with The Guardian (Richard E. Grant) and tell him a few tales of how a stray seed from the bloom has changed the world and brought on its destruction from a crazed warlord using its power.
Taking the animation factor out of the film is an interesting enough concept. The movie is loosely structured as three individual stories being told to The Guardian to convince him to give up The Bloom to Tzod and they’re all interesting enough, though nothing outstandingly special. If the movie wasn’t animated a lot of its charm would be sucked away and you’d be stuck with a trippy but standard fantasy epic that might garner some attention but not that much. The animation, however, does add an extra level, allowing the film to feel a bit more special and the violence to be that much more epic. It’s creative juices really come from the prolific amount of animated work put into it.
The film will quickly conjure comparisons to Heavy Metal, every 80s kid’s favorite film to stare at at a Blockbuster store but never rent. The animated, R-rated movie was a bold move into adult animation that was part of a foray into the genre that included films like Fire and Ice and the animated version of The Lord of the Rings. These films, for the most part, achieved their adult status not through addressing adult issues but by having sex and blood in them! That’s what The Spine of Night feels like with its bloody fight sequences that spill copious amounts of animated innards and its entirely-naked, female protagonist, who even climbs an ice-cold mountain with nothing on but a few bones and string around her waist. It’s the spray-painted art on the side of stoner’s van turned into a movie.
This isn’t entirely bad and there is a reason those 80s films have their cult following but the movie doesn’t really offer all that much outside of it. It’s fun to watch but you feel like it could be delivering more given the seven years of work that went into it. As a love letter to the films of the past, it stands strong but as a movie in and of itself, it’s mostly just the standard with a bit of philosophy tossed in.
The rotoscoped animation is at times impressive but at others just feels awkward. My wife walked in during a scene as I was watching and said it looked terrible, something I argued against by citing the historical context of the style, but to anyone who doesn’t know the history it will feel sloppy. There are some issues with the voice acting as well where characters seem miscast, though Lawless is flawless in her portrayal and Grant says just enough to keep things interesting.
There is a definite audience for The Spine of Night and I think for that audience it is going to hit the nail squarely on the head. This is a tribute to the 80s films directors/writers Philip Gelatt and Morgan Galen King grew up with and for anyone who loves those, it’s going to be awesome. However, if you’re coming in without the experience of those rotoscoped classics it just doesn’t offer enough extra to warrant a watch. The film is meant for those who already love it.