Despite its use by visionaries including Walt Disney, Ralph Bakshi, and others, there’s something about rotoscoped animation that never quite took off. The process involves shooting real actors acting out the film’s script, which would then be animated over to produce more fluid and lifelike motions, meaning it’s more time-consuming than traditional animation. Still, there’s something more at work in the failure of this particular technique to gain traction outside of niche audiences. Maybe it’s the distracting way that characters animated via rotoscope often seem to move around too much, with an overactive body language probably encouraged by directors and animators, or maybe it’s just the fact that rotoscoping has been largely used in adult-oriented animated features like Bakshi’s American Pop, or the original Heavy Metal movie. Regardless, looking back at rotoscope animated films like Starchaser: The Legend of Orin holds a particular feeling, that sense you get when exploring a genre or medium that fell by the wayside. Sadly though, this interesting feeling isn’t quite enough to carry Starchaser, a film that struggles to escape the stigma of being a Star Wars ripoff, but never succeeds.
Starchaser begins a bit Gurren Lagann-y (or fine, a bit City of Ember-y) with our hero, the titular Orin, living underground among a people who mostly don’t believe in the existence of a world outside their subterranean home. Orin’s people live a life of servitude, forced to mine for valuable crystals by cruel robot overseers and their supposed god, Zygon. When Orin discovers a golden sword hilt capable of projecting a glowing energy blade (don’t call it a lightsaber!), however, he embarks on a quest to escape the mines and free his people. After reaching the surface, Orin teams up with a gruff space outlaw named Dagg on an adventure that takes him to other worlds, and into direct conflict with Zygon.
From that description, you can probably guess that Starchaser wears its influence on its sleeve, but you don’t know the half of it. Dagg’s shipboard AI is a prissy, easily flustered C-3PO type, and the ship itself even has the exact same engine sound effect as the Millennium Falcon. There’s a sojourn in a wretched hive of scum and villainy and about a dozen familiar notes to spare. For Star Wars fans, Starchaser will feel quite familiar.
What sets it apart, if anything, is the film’s scant indulgences in pulp. It’s not too dissimilar from Battle Beyond the Stars in that respect, walking a line between old-school pulp and the more innocent adventure of Star Wars. And yes, that means Starchaser has some time devoted to T&A. But while Battle Beyond the Stars filled that niche with a scantily clad space Valkyrie, Starchaser gives us the curvy robot Silica. Yes, Silica. Despite being a clerical robot, she’s bears more than a passing resemblance to that one Heavy Metal cover, and gets reprogrammed early on so that she frequently drapes herself across Dagg’s arm and purrs whenever he’s around. Oh, and she gets reprogrammed via a hatchway in her backside. No, seriously. At the risk of beating this name-drop into the ground, her whole character feels like something ripped from the pages or frames of Heavy Metal, sexualized to a degree that often strays into parody.
That hybridity isn’t quite enough to help Starchaser carve out an identity of its own, however, or even be that interesting at the end of the day. Perhaps more than for its plot or look, most of the reason to remember Starchaser is for its early use of computer animation in some of its space battles. Starchaser was one of the first animated films to use CGI, as well as the first to be released in 3D.
Beyond that, there’s honestly not that much else to be said about Starchaser: The Legend of Orin. It boasts some fun sequences, a few interesting pieces of design work and certainly the distinction of being the only animated Star Wars-alike, but it’s also a film with not a whole lot of interesting things going on. It keeps to familiar tropes religiously, with the usual hero’s journey structure and a cast of characters who will feel familiar to say the least. When push comes to shove and the need arises for Starchaser to find something, anything, to make it stand out, the best it can come up with is a shiny robot butt.