The Spine of Night
2021, NR, 94 min. Directed by Philip Gelatt, Morgan Galen King. Voices by Lucy Lawless, Richard E. Grant, Patton Oswalt, Joe Manganiello, Jordan Douglas Smith, Larry Fessenden.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Oct. 29, 2021
Rotoscoping – the art of drawing animation directly from live-action reference footage – has been adopted by many artists, and due to Richard Linklater and local studio Minnow Mountain it’s become a veritable cottage industry in Austin. Yet for many audiences it’s still synonymous with Ralph Bakshi, whose incomplete adaptation of The Lord of the Rings showed the form’s ability to create strange, fantastical worlds.
As a high fantasy drama, The Spine of Night knows it owes a debt to Bakshi, but there are no Hobbits in sight here. Instead, this is kin to his epic of barbarians versus sorcerers, Fire and Ice. It’s from the first frame, as a naked swamp wise woman, Tzod (fantasy veteran Lawless), traverses a snowscape to a skull-shaped cave. There she seeks a mystical blue flower and its ancient guardian (Grant, his voice reverberating from his bones). His first instinct is to raise his sword, but instead of a blade she offers a story, one that runs across a millennium. The flower is as much a curse as it is a boon, and her story of a venal prince, a mercenary barbarian, an immortal self-proclaimed messiah, a deranged priest who has a stranglehold on written knowledge, and a trio of bird-mimicking assassins (voiced by a panoply of recognizable genre-friendly names including Patton Oswalt, Joe Manganiello, Jordan Douglas Smith, and Larry Fessenden). The flower brings life and fire, but that means it can burn as well, and the spores of the bloom the Guardian has tended have caused an inferno across the world.
Like Bakshi’s work, The Spine of Night builds an unforgiving cosmology – unforgiving on so many levels. As Tzod and the Guardian exchange tales, the realm is revealed as a merciless place, where power is built on blood magic, and violence is the common currency of the good and the wicked. At the same time, little is explained, and the stories they recount – anecdotes, more like – spread across eons, forcing the audience to absorb them “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra”-style. Moreover, the style of animation has Bakshi’s sheen, but modernized and given more depth of complexity than ever. At the same time, like Bakshi, there is a feeling that the characters are often dancing on top of the gorgeous background. When the Rotoscoping and background don’t mesh, the end result is unnerving and almost artificial; when they are melded seamlessly (as in a tale from the Guardian about the jealous terrors of ancient gods), it’s intoxicating.
Writer/directors Philip Gelatt and Morgan Galen King understand that myth cycles are often awkward, disjointed, disconnected in a narrative sense but unified on a thematic level – and that’s where The Spine of Night finally finds form. Baldur dies, Heracles burns, Arachne loses her humanity, Popoca commits suicide: But from their agony comes a new cycle. For all lurid appeal of the atrocities inflicted – and The Spine of Night may legitimately be this year’s goriest animated film, with severed limbs and decapitations captured in eye-popping gruesome details (plus some actual eye-popping) – there’s a quietly elegiac tone of birth, death, rebirth, death again. The longer you are immersed in this exchange of stories, of hope dying against darkness but proving its value just by its glimmers, the more it enthralls.
A version of this review ran as part of our SXSW 2021 coverage.