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REVIEW: Wizards

WizardsDirected by: Ralph Bakshi
Produced by: Ralph Bakshi
Written by: Ralph Bakshi
Edited by: Donald W. Ernst
Music by: Andrew Belling
Starring: Bob Holt, Jesse Welles, Richard Romanus, David Proval, Steve Gravers, James Connell, Susan Tyrrell, Mark Hamill
Year: 1977

 

I’ve only seen a few films of Ralph Bakshi – Cool World, Fritz the Cat, and now this movie – but there was a time when his works were always in the back of my mind whenever the subject of animation history came up. Ever since I was a kid, in fact, which is funny since almost none of his work is remotely child-friendly, except for perhaps his adaptation of The Lord of the Rings. As a nerdy kid who studied almost anything that piqued my interest (but especially movies and video games), reading about Bakshi’s subversive, gritty, adult, and oftentimes controversial works always fascinated me. Revered as, if anything, noteworthy departures from the traditionally family fluff that, even today, is usually thought of as the default mode for animation in America, his stuff always stood out as almost mythical or even forbidden to my adolescent mind. I’d see references to it in stuff like The Simpsons and recognize the reference for what it was, but apart from maybe a few clips here and there, Bakshi’s animated films seemed to be spoken of in terms normally reserved for “banned” films like Song of the South and the infamous Censored Eleven – eleven Warner Bros. animated shorts that have been withheld from distribution due to their controversial, racially insensitive material. (I wasn’t far off in that regard, in retrospect, either.)

Wizards - Avatar (Bob Holt), Elinor (Jesse Welles), and the President (James Connell)

It’s funny, then, that in my adulthood, I have still seen so little of Bakshi’s work in full, despite my previous fascination with it. Perhaps, in this post-South Park world and particularly after having become a sophisticated “adult,” the once forbidden and R-rated (or even X-rated) nature of his subject matter has just made his films lose a bit their novelty in my mind? Or maybe Cool World was just bad enough to stifle that interest for quite a while… Still, there’s no doubting that Bakshi has carved out that proverbial niche for himself that a lot of cult artists with distinct style are wont to do. Though varying in quality, his work deserves to be recognized, for sure. So when my boss reminded me of Wizards’ existence, and I got that sudden pang of nostalgia for that time when I read about his ambitious attempt to create Star Wars before there was even a Star Wars (which was released just months later), I almost immediately put the movie into my Netflix DVD queue, hyped once again to explore the work of this long neglected artist. As with his legacy, Bakshi’s fantasy epic Wizards breaks the mold, not only in its animation style, which blends both traditional and rotoscoping techniques, but by also presenting a fantasy world very much unlike that of even his beloved The Lord of the Rings, one tinged with sci-fi and 1970s exploitation film tropes.

Wizards - Blackwolf (Steve Gravers) and wife

Two million years after a nuclear holocaust decimated the earth and killed off most of the world’s population, our world has given way to one in which the descendants of survivors have evolved into one of two factions: the peaceful, magical beings – wizards, elves, and fairies – and the violent and technology-loving creatures – mutants, goblins, and ogres. Leading the two groups are twin brothers Avatar and Blackwolf, sons of Delia, the queen of the fairies and leader of the land of Montagar during an extended period of peace. Upon Delia’s death, however, the sweet-natured Avatar becomes grief-stricken, while his brother Blackwolf seizes the opportunity to take over the land and eradicate the technology-shunning and peaceful beings from the land. Avatar, driven by his passion, defeats Blackwolf, who is in turn banished to the wasteland known as the Scortch. While peace again persists for a time, Avatar’s ever present fear that his brother will exact his revenge soon becomes reality, and it’s up to Avatar and his companions, the half-fairy Elinore and the elf warrior Weehawk, to put an end to Blackwolf’s malevolence once and for all.

While the plot itself doesn’t sound too far from your standard fantasy genre fair, Wizards sets itself apart further than just its futuristic setting in the smaller details and world building. Dark cities with massive skyscrapers reside within the Scortch. Tanks and robot henchmen, such as the red-clad Necron 99, comb through the world and exterminate the magical beings. World War II iconography and stock footage is also put to extensive use throughout the film, with Blackwolf discovering an ancient projector containing a reel of film shot by the Nazis during World War II. His use of actual Nazi footage to both inspire his own troops (and thus also their sense of fashion and aesthetic) and horrify and demoralize the more innocent magical beings leads to some truly inspired scenes and fascinating, surreal, and undoubtedly dark imagery throughout the film. It’s basically all the subtext of Tolkien’s work brought to the forefront and given a coat of 1970s for good measure, thanks to the funkadelic film score. For these reasons alone, I highly recommend the film.

Wizards - Battle

Of course, no film is without its flaws, and this film does have quite a few. Chief among them is Bakshi’s sexist portrayal of female characters. This is nothing new for him, and in Wizards it takes no the form of Elinor, the half-fairy. She spends pretty much the whole film in nothing but a nipple-contouring, boob-accentuating strip of cloth and a thong that may as well be non-existent. A large portion of her participation in the film is centered on her unambiguously sexual relationship with her ancient mentor Avatar, their dialogue alternating between coy accidental and purposeful double entendres and a smattering of overt references to their sexual history. Elinor at the very least isn’t portrayed as useless or helpless, but it’s done so in a way that makes it known to the audience that she’s mostly here to serve as lusciously-drawn eye candy for guys who like full-figured, feisty girls a few decades (or centuries) younger than themselves, complete with the usual daddy issues, big jugs, and no compunction over how their older gentleman caretaker treats them, just so long as they get to tag along and have apparently great intercourse. Bakshi has said that his planned but as of now still unproduced sequels would have fleshed out this relationship further. To that, I say: Eesh.

Wizards - Necron 99 (David Proval)

Regretfully, characterization in other characters is weak for even the men. While the voicework is generally fine, and the characters certainly have defined personalities, rarely is there anything more to them than just their personas. By the end of the film, you don’t really get a sense of how this conflict may have changed them, despite all the talk about the horrors Blackwolf is unleashing upon their world and people. Even when we get to the big, climactic showdown between the two brothers, there’s very little in their exchange to even suggest they once shared the same mother and childhood together – just a quick line regarding Blackwolf’s openness to Avatar joining him, and that’s really about it. They may as well just be adversaries meeting for the first time. It wouldn’t have changed anything, really. There is somewhat of an exception, but it’s only when the two characters are together that we get to see anything potentially interesting: the dynamic between Weehawk and Necron 99, the aforementioned robot mercenary. These two equally matched rivals should’ve been the film’s driving force. The stern Weehawk alone is just a competent native warrior type, and Necron 99 a silent but deadly drone with an interesting character design and not much else, but not only does the action ramp up when these two are on screen together, there’s also a spark of intrigue in the quieter moments between them, too, and even the characters around them when they’re together. It’s a shame we don’t get more of that instead of the far less interesting old wizard and his one-fairy harem.

Wizards - Warrior

For all of its faults, however – and there are plenty more I could delve into, such as the awkward tonal shifts, choppy editing, and inconsistent animation – I was still mostly enthralled by Wizards and, I reiterate, I highly recommend it for its visual creativity alone. While the characters themselves aren’t necessarily that interesting as presented, they’re not that detrimental to the overall experience of absorbing the film’s very cool ideas and atmosphere in the end. I couldn’t help but ponder whether this is one of those mediocre films that could easily be given a successful remake in the hands of someone who respected the original enough to preserve everything that made it great and also recognize where the film failed to live up to its full potential. Or perhaps such thoughts are heretical to Bakshi’s loyal fans? I totally understand that, too. Wizards, more so than the X-rated Fritz the Cat or the Roger Rabbit-aping Cool World, is actually something quite special on its own, and I have no problem whatsoever giving this film an ultimately positive, whole-hearted recommendation to anyone who thinks that considers themselves an animation buff or even just finds themselves oddly intrigued by this oft forgotten cult classic.

The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 3 / 5

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