I am 31 years old, have no children, and am not a pedophile. So, needless to say, it’s been a very long time since I’ve set foot in a Chuck E. Cheese’s. But like any child of the 80’s (and beyond), I certainly have memories of spending time there, though I think the main attractions for me were the pizza and video games, and not so much the animatronic band. Singing robots sure sounds like something that any kid should be into, but I don’t really remember being that fascinated by it.  Now, having just watched this documentary, I feel like maybe I was totally missing out on something.

The Rock-afire Explosion was the animatronic band featured in the national chain of Showbiz Pizza Place (Chuck E. Cheese’s main rival) throughout the 80’s. Created by inventor Aaron Fechter and manufactured by his company Creative Engineering, the act was actually very pioneering in the field of animatronics, spawned copycats (like the similar Chuck E. Cheese characters), and delighted a generation of children that had never realized how much a piano-playing gorilla could add to the whole pizza eating experience. But when Showbiz and Chuck E. Cheese, both ailing in the mid-80’s, were forced to merge, those in charge eventually decided the Chuck E. Cheese name was a stronger brand. Over the course of the next few years all remaining Showbiz Pizza Places were renamed Chuck E. Cheese, and the Rock-afire Explosion was slowly phased out and completely replaced with the Chuck E. Cheese characters. And then, for years….nothing.

Happier times.

This documentary, from director Brett Whitcomb and writer Bradford Thomason, features both Fechter and a small but dedicated fan-base of now grown Rock-afire devotees, who have never forgot how much Showbiz and Fletcher’s creations meant to them as children. Some of these fans have gone the extra mile, actually tracking down and purchasing these animatronic shows as the ultimate collector’s item. The movie focuses on one fan in particular, a small-town roller-rink DJ from Alabama by the name of Chris Thrash. Thrash has actually installed a fully working version of the Rock-afire Explosion in his home, and eventually brought the group new exposure in the 2000’s when he began programming the robots to sing along to current popular music and released videos of it on Youtube. This resulted in something of a Rock-afire revival, as the brand now has at least a little renewed relevance as a viral hit online.

Like some of the best documentaries, The Rock-afire Explosion takes a weird, seemingly unimportant subject that you never in a million years thought you would have cared about, and turns it into a fascinating film. Here we have an examination of obsession and the desire to recapture lost childhood memories and feelings. At first, you see these Rock-afire fans who have refused to let it go and just move on with their lives and you kind of want to make fun of them (the fact that Thrash is something of a walking Southern stereotype, who proudly brags that the only thing he drinks is Mountain Dew, definitely doesn’t help). But as the film went on, I actually started to get it. Yes, it’s easy to mock the idea of spending so much money on a robotic band for your house, but at the end of the day these guys are just trying to relive some of their favorite times in a perfectly harmless manner. And when you see the joy that Thrash gets from inviting neighborhood children over to watch the band perform, it becomes clear – he simply wants the same joy that the Rock-afire Explosion gave him as a kid to live on and entertain kids in future generations, as well. That’s actually somewhat admirable, really.

In fact, I think the saddest person in the film is actually Aaron Fechter, not Thrash. Fechter’s story of how he came to create the Rock-afire Explosion is told in the movie, and it’s an interesting and even inspiring one – a struggling inventor trying to door-to-door sell a pool-cleaning device he had created, he just happened to knock on the door of a businessman looking for someone to build him a mechanically operated shooting gallery. Though he didn’t really know how to do it, Fechter agreed to take the job, figured it out, and thus began a partnership that eventually led to the creation of both Rock-afire and Fechter’s company, Creative Engineering. Fechter was at first was a part owner in Showbiz Pizza Place. At the height of Showbiz’s popularity, Fechter’s company employed close to 300 individuals, all working daily to create new Rock-afire robots and programming for the increasing number of stores being opened.

But after the merger, Showbiz and Chuck E. Cheese severed ties with Creative Engineering, and with less and less demand for his services, Fechter was forced to let go more and more of his workforce over time. Today, Fechter is the sole remaining employee of Creative Engineering, and the film finds him in a fairly depressing place, all alone in a vast, now somewhat decrepit building filled with scattered, unused equipment and unfinished Rock-afire robots. One of the most memorable scenes sees Fechter, flashlight in hand, take the filmmakers on a personal tour of the building, including into the dark bowels where he warns them not to step into a puddle of some sort of sticky, mysterious liquid that has recently begun pooling in one corner. Fechter laughs off the current state of the building, but archival footage of the building during its heyday really hammers home how sad the whole thing is.

It’s weird – Fechter is clearly a talented guy, and you would think he could have turned his attention elsewhere and foundd a new beginning for Creative Engineering (certainly a guy this talented in the animatronics field should have found work in the movie or amusement park fields, right?). But instead, Fechter seemingly clings to the belief that one day there may suddenly be a new call for the Rock-afire Explosion to come back in a big way, and he proudly proclaims the Creative Engineering headquarters is all ready to start back up tomorrow if need be (which might be true, but I’m not so sure by the looks of it). He appears to be a guy locked in the memory of his successful heyday, and has avoided going along with the leaps in technology made in his field since then. But, as sad as it kind of is, he still seems a cheery, optimistic fellow, and hey, he even got a super-hot wife out of it when he discovered that one of the die-hard Rock-afire fans was actually a beautiful young lady that idolized him (who would have predicted that?). So I guess I shouldn’t feel too bad for the guy.

Proof that no matter how nerdy you might think the interest is, there's always at least one hot chick who loves it.

All in all, this is an excellent look at an obviously small but nonetheless fascinating subculture. Though pretty silly on the surface, the whole thing is really a touching look at the power of nostalgia and an affectionate tribute to those who want nothing more than to keep the magic of their youths alive. What I like is that there is absolutely no cynicism on display here. Fechter, Thrash and the other fans are really into this for all the right reasons – the fun of imagination and the joy it can provide.  I went into this expecting to just make fun of everyone in it (and yeah, there’s a little bit of that), but by the end I was cheering everyone on, and although I can’t quite share their same optimism that it will happen, I still find myself hoping for their sake that the Rock-afire Explosion does find new success. There are certainly worse causes out there to get behind.

The Rock-afire Explosion is currently available on Netflix Watch Instantly. Here’s the trailer:

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And here’s the Rock-afire Explosion performing Nine Inch Nail’s 1,000,000, just one of many such videos on Youtube:

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