It's Ralph Bakshi's love letter to Frank Frazetta, who collaborated on what would be the only film on which Frazetta was ever given creative control. It looks amazing. The story though is paper-thin.
The one-word summary is "Conan". It's about barbarians, monsters, beautiful women in bikinis and sword fighting. There's almost no dialogue or clothing, to the extent that I want to say that there are probably more corpses in this film than spoken words. (That can't be true, but I had to think about it for a couple of seconds.) Furthermore it came out the year after the Schwarzenegger film and its Conan heritage is gold-plated. The scriptwriters, Gerry Conway and Roy Thomas, had both written Conan stories for Marvel Comics. Most importantly though, Frazetta was best known for lighting the sword-and-sorcery genre on fire with his hugely influential Conan book covers.
It would be wrong to call the story bad, but it is what it is. There's no introspection, the dialogue is bluntly functional and the only character who ever had any depth (Lord Nekron) turns into a panto villain halfway through. This is fine. It's the genre. This is a world where people think with their swords and there's nothing wrong with telling stories there.
Unfortunately this produces a story with less energy and personality than Bakshi's other films. My attention drifted a tad during the final battle. It'll hit the spot if you're looking for sword and sorcery, but it won't surprise you.
It looks incredible, though. What's special about it is the fact that Bakshi's trying to animate Frazetta-level realism. Cartoons don't do this. They simplify. They clean up reality, because you've got to draw it hundreds of thousands of times. This film doesn't. They don't maintain a Frazetta level of detail, but the quality of the draftsmanship and figure work is leaving other animated films in the dust. It's astonishingly good and for much of the film I was mostly gawping at the artwork. The women in micro-bikinis are as stunning as Frazetta always does them. There's no nudity, but that's okay. This is better than nudity. Obviously Bakshi's been rotoscoping again and you can even see his glass plates in a couple of shots, but that doesn't change the fact that visually, this movie is one of a kind.
I also like the film's racial awareness. The hero, Larn, is a bottle-blond Viking and a Nazi's wet dream, which might feel a little dodgy when he's pitted against King Nekron's orc-like subhumans. Stoke your bigotry! Slaughter your racial inferiors! However the insanely hot Teegra is Asian and the Batman-cowled Darkwolf looks to me like a Native American. Furthermore the film invents a new ethnic type for Nekron's ice-dwelling people, with purple skin, white hair and pupil-less pale blue eyes. If Larn is the Aryan ideal, then Nekron is Aryan-squared... but in addition, he's both evil and racist. He calls the insanely hot Teegra "not wholly unattractive, as lesser beasts go."
He might also be gay. The evidence for this is feeble and he could just as easily be a white (purple) supremacist, but... well, he's uninterested in Teegra! The obvious options would appear to be gay, asexual or, um, something. Polar bears, maybe? There also appears to be a hot evil woman who's been shagging cave trolls. For a film that's pouring so much effort into drawing beautiful women, I spy a lot of dubious sexuality under the surface.
For such a simple story, there are more plot holes and "eh?"s than you'd expect. These include:
1. A plot issue with Teegra's father and brother. They're the king and prince of Firekeep. They're facing destruction by glacier at the hands of a magic-wielding evil king, but when Teegra gets kidnapped they think going to rescue her is "for the sake of the kingdom". Eyebrows raised there. This is the Barbarian Era. What makes a daughter with no fighting skills so indispensable to the survival of the kingdom, to the degree that dad's willing to send his son and a bunch of men to their deaths and to cave in to Nekron's demands? Mischievous hypothesis based on earlier observation: maybe this is another manifestation of that subtext about dodgy sexuality and the Firekeep's culture is for dad and/or son to produce their heirs with their hot sister?
2. I was also surprised by the lava popping up next to Nekron's stronghold. Even after making allowances for geological scales, that was convenient and/or suspiciously fast-moving.
3. A distracting lack of blood. Compared with Bakshi's other films, this is almost family-friendly enough for Disney. There's no nudity (although plenty of underboob) and people get killed on-screen by knives, swords, axes, spears and dinosaurs without a drop of blood spilled. Sometimes though, we do see the red stuff. Animals can chuck it around when they're killed by baddies, but not by heroes. Arm-chomping woodlice can positively explode with green goo. Humans will occasionally have "slash but no splash".
Oh, and... King Gerald? Really? (Apparently the correct spelling's "Jarol", though.) However on the upside, I admire the final unexpected message of reconciliation and forgiveness, even if it doesn't fit with anything that went before it.
Is this a good film? Sort of. It's okay. It's a solid and well-done example of what it is. I'd happily watch it again. Unfortunately it's not particularly memorable, which is surprising for Bakshi, but it's another example of how wholeheartedly he'll put himself at the service of his source material. He's done it for J.R.R. Tolkien and Dr Seuss, while here he's doing it for Frank Frazetta. The animation is the reason to watch this film, with men who look like the Incredible Hulk (distance between nose and mouth) and women drawn so painstakingly that I think Teegra is specifically half-Asian rather than fully. Notice her green eyes, for instance. The background paintings are to die for, the rotoscoping is the best Bakshi's ever done and the world he's created feels real. It's an achievement, anyway.