Director : Ralph Bakshi
Screenplay : Ralph Bakshi
MPAA Rating : PG
Year of Release : 1977
Ralph Bakshi’s postapocalyptic fantasy film Wizards is a mess. Despite Bakshi’s notable ambitions, it fails as a fantasy adventure story, it fails as a fable about the horrors of war, and it fails as an animated film. It’s poorly written, and worse, it’s ugly to look at. Bakshi has long championed the idea of incorporating multiple styles into a single animated film, but most of the techniques he uses here are cheap, confusing, and unattractive, resulting in a jumbled pastiche with no coherent tone.
The story takes place two million years after the world was destroyed in a nuclear holocaust (in a bit of creepy prescience, the narration notes that the nuclear war was started by five terrorists detonating an atomic bomb). Out of the rubble emerged fantastical creatures such as faeries and elves. These beings live in the rejuvenated parts of the earth, while the contaminated wastelands are occupied by mutants. One day, the faerie queen gives birth to twin wizards, the good Avatar (voiced by Bob Holt) and the evil Blackwolf (Steve Gravers). Blackwolf leaves the faerie land and lives among the mutants while he attempts to rebuild humankind's instruments of war. Eventually, he succeeds in building an army and forcing Avatar and the faerie world to fight against him.
The film is obsessed with images of war, particularly those related to Nazism—Nazi swastikas, clips from Triumph of the Will, and even references to Jewish stars. Blackwolf takes pieces of the shattered former world and rebuilds German tanks and planes and machine guns. In one of the more bizarre aspects of the story, he uses old propaganda footage of Hitler and Nazi armies to inspire his mutant troops to victory. Avatar eventually realizes that, if he destroys Blackwolf’s movie projector so he can no longer show Nazi films, the mutants will lose inspiration and fall into defeat.
It’s certainly an imaginative and potentially intriguing concept for a fantasy film, which shouldn’t come as much of a surprise since Bakshi has always been a unique, rebellious animator, starting with Fritz the Cat (1972), his satirical X-rated romp through the excesses of the 1960s. He's managed to offend just about every group out there, particularly African Americans, with his racially charged 1975 animated urban drama Coonskin (later retitled Streetfight for video release). Bakshi was one of the first American filmmakers to use animation to explore controversial adult themes, and in his earlier films it worked because of the strength of his audacity and conviction. He was a cutting-edge artist with a political axe to grind, and although many detested his work, they couldn’t deny that it was distinctive and new. Bakshi was truly one of a kind. With Wizards, you can feel him trying to enter a more conventional vein, but he refuses to give up some of the rampant excesses that worked in his earlier ventures (aside from the obvious critiquing of warmongering, he can’t help but take a few swipes at politicians and organized religion). So, despite his insistence that Wizards is a “family movie,” it is replete with gory violence and silly sexual imagery. Bakshi just couldn’t resist making Elinore, Avatar’s faerie sidekick, into a curvy, buxom nymphet-bimbo complete with a barely-there wardrobe that never hides her perky nipples (is it always that cold in the faerie world?). He even references some of his earlier films, particularly in a throwaway moment near the beginning that features a trio of hooker faeries that might have wandered in from a fantasy version of a street corner in Heavy Traffic (1973). And, of course, Bakshi never met a goofy sound effect he didn’t like, so we get plenty of boings and sproings, which work well enough in Tex Avery cartoons, but here they just deflate the film’s more serious intentions.
The animation is frequently problematic in that style and substance are frequently at war with each other (and, in many sequences, style is at war with itself). The animated characters are overly cartoonish (why must Avatar have a red clown nose and Mickey Mouse gloves?) and lacking in detail. The backgrounds are frequently crude drawings, although the scenes that take place in Scortch, Blackwolf’s realm, are stunningly detailed. For budgetary reasons, there are several points where the animation simply stops, and we watch still black-and-white ink sketches while a somber female voice (Susan Tyrrell) narrates what is happening (although, truth be told, these sketches are more interesting and artistically accomplished than the animation itself). As with his previous films, Bakshi also employs rotoscoping, where the animators trace their drawings over live footage (much of which comes from the 1964’s Zulu and Sergei Eistenstein’s 1938 film Alexander Nevsky), as well as live footage such as moving clouds and fire. The live footage is one of the film’s more effective techniques, although it usually just draws attention to the fact that this film has no cohesive style. Instead, it is a raw assemblage of every conceivable animation technique.
But, even beneath this mess, you can tell that Bakshi is a real talent in need of an outlet. His only problem is that he tries for too much with too little. Wizards feels frantic, like Bakshi and cinematographer Ted C. Bemiller (who also shot Bakshi’s Fritz the Cat and Heavy Traffic) were never sure exactly what they wanted to do, so they tried a little of this and a little of that. Unfortunately, everything from character development to plot mechanics gets lost in the clutter.
|Wizards 35th Anniversary Edition Blu-Ray Book|
|Subtitles||English, Spanish, French|
|Distributor||20th Century Fox Home Entertainment|
|Release Date||March 13, 2012|
|The 1080p/AVC-encoded presentation of Wizards on this 50GB dual-layer Blu-Ray is the best I have ever seen it look. The 2004 DVD, which was the first time the film had been presented on home video in its proper aspect ratio, looked good, but the increased resolution of the Blu-Ray makes a distinct difference. In his commentary from 2004, Bakshi mentions that the transfer was made from the original negative, so I can only imagine that the negative was the source for the high-def transfer, as well (I also imagine it is the same transfer that was used on the all-region U.K. disc that was released in 2010). The image is rendered with bright, bold, well-saturated colors (reds, green, purples) that really pop off the screen. The finely sketched details in some of the background drawings stand out with exquisite detail, and the live-action stock footage used in many scenes has a rough, grainy quality that contrasts powerfully against the smooth cell animation. There are some noticeable artifacts in the image—occasional nicks, scratches, some speckling here and there—but nothing terribly distracting and nothing outside of expectations for a low-budget film of this sort. In addition to the generally outstanding image quality, the Blu-Ray benefits from a newly remixed DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1-channel surround soundtrack (the DVD and the U.K. Blu-Ray only featured a two-channel stereo mix) that opens up the soundfield, but without trying to do too much. Andrew Belling’s synthesizer score, which at times sounds quite beautiful and at other times sinks into terribly dated disco wah-wah, is given ample room to work, and a few of the sound effects and ambient noises are spread out into the surround channels.|
|All of the supplements from the 2004 DVD, which fans had been clamoring for for years, are included here. Director Ralph Bakshi contributes a screen-specific audio commentary in which he discusses in his instantly memorable Brooklyn lisp all aspects of the film, paying particular note to the budgetary limitations under which he was working and never limiting his praise for the “geniuses” with whom he worked. (He also never misses an opportunity to take a swipe at Disney.) He is also interviewed in the 35-minute featurette Ralph Bakshi: The Wizard of Animation, which traces the history of his career, although for legal reasons the only clips from his movies are from Wizards. He does tell a great story about how he moved from being a lowly assistant to a full-fledged animator for Terry Toons by simply moving his desk into the animation department and working for two weeks before anyone figured out where he was. Also included on the disc are two theatrical trailers, a TV spot, and an extensive set of stills galleries containing early sketches and concept art for all the major characters (check out the Princess Leia hair buns on the early designs for Elinore), as well as storyboards and lobby cards.|
Copyright © 2012 James Kendrick
All images copyright © Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment