Ralph Bakshi specializes in low-budget animation—animation that thumbs its nose at Disney and established filmmaking conventions. My wife walked past as I was screening the 35th Anniversary Edition of “Wizards”(1976) and said something to the effect of how strange it was. Seeing one character’s skimpy outfit—the fairy Elinore’s wide hips and rounded buttocks covered by tiny triangles of cloth, her two bulbous breasts barely contained by two more cloth triangles, nipples poking through the fabric—she remarked, “This isn’t for kids, is it?”
“No,” I said, thinking of other scenes showing fallen fairies with equally skimpy outfits, a fairy in chains who starts to disrobe for Nazi-armband wearing mutant soldiers, and plenty of elves, fairies, mutants, and quasi-humans who are killed by arrows, guns, spears, tanks, and other weapons of destruction. But on the commentary track, writer-director Ralph Bakshi says, “This is my first kid’s film, my family film.”
I guess it’s all a matter of perspective. Compared to Bakshi’s X-rated full-length animated feature “Fritz the Cat” (1972), which depicted cartoon sex and drug use, “Wizards” IS pretty tame. It’s also pretty bizarre—partly because of the story itself, partly because of Bakshi’s aesthetic (he mixes animation styles), and partly because of the low-budget animation.
“Wizards” is a post-apocalyptic film that happens long after Earth has destroyed itself via a series of gigantic explosions. And in the aftermath, races of wizards, elves, and fairies reestablished themselves—in particular, two wizards born to the same woman, one good (Avatar, voiced by Bob Holt) and one evil (Blackwolf, voiced by Steve Gravers). Good triumphs, but evil vows a return, and what facilitates that return is the discovery of Nazi propaganda artifacts—including a projector that brings black-and-white newsreels of Hitler and his charismatic rise to power over his goose-stepping minions. Blackwolf uses it as inspiration, and, emboldened by Hitler’s own plan, begins attacking various kingdoms on the planet with the goal of world domination driving him. But after one of the evil legions is captured, Avatar goes with the Princess Elinore (Jesse Welles), the warrior Weehawk (Richard Romanus), and the captured warrior named Peace (David Proval).
Yes, “Wizards” is an elaborate allegory about good, evil, and the ever-present rise of fascism, but it’s also a throwback to the Sixties, with the wizard Avatar standing in sharp contrast to the darker, comic-book style character of Blackwolf. Avatar has big feet, a W.C. Fields nose, a hat that looks too big, and a bright red beard. He talks like a druggie from the Sixties, too, saying things like “This has been the biggest bummer of a trip I’ve ever been on,” or “I wonder if I packed my scotch.” And when he asks Elinore to sing and she says “I don’t want to,” he replies, “But that’s why we brought you.” There are other self-referential gags in “Wizards.” The most wacky and irreverent is a take-off on religion—or at least religious STALLING—as two heavily bearded fellows who could pass for rabbis do a schtick that pretty much lampoons religion even as it stands as an obstacle to evil.
Avatar, we’re told, used to minister to the radiation-poisoned and was considered a bit of a messiah himself, but we don’t see any of that. What we see is very different styles of animation—some cutesy and cartoony, others dark and graphic novelesque, some risque, others stylized or more abstract. Some of the backgrounds are traditional for animation, while others—like the detail of the world of Scortch—is largely pen and ink painstakingly drawn and with some crosshatching. Sometimes it works, but much of the time it feels like a mish-mash. “Wizards” was “very low budget,” Bakshi says on the commentary track, “which allowed me to pretty much do whatever I wanted.” I’m not so sure that was a good thing.
Still, “Wizards” has always had a cult following, and those who revere Bakshi for his bad-boy style of animated storytelling will be grateful for this 35th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray book.
The story behind “Wizards,” as we learn from an uncredited essay, is as fascinating as the film itself. It came out about the same time as Fox released George Lucas’s “Star Wars” (1977), and since both projects were in production at the same time, there was some back and forth. Then little-known Mark Hamill was recommended for voice work in “Wizards,” and he took on the voice of one “Wizards” character (Sean) at the same time as he was playing Luke Skywalker for Lucas. And when release time came, Lucas asked a favor of Bakshi: could he shorten the name of his film “War Wizards” to simply “Wizards,” so the public wouldn’t be confused by the two Fox films: “Star Wars” and “War Wizards.” That wasn’t the end of it. Both men went to Fox for more money, and both of them were turned down. Lucas advised Bakshi to renegotiate his contract to reflect his own infusion of cash, and there was one final connection between the two films. Though “Wizards” grossed $9 million on a budget that was just over $1 million, “Star Wars” quickly became the blockbuster that we know today, and theaters scheduled to show “Wizards” dropped the film so they could accommodate the audiences who wanted to watch Lucas’s film.
Would it have been bigger if it weren’t for “Star Wars”? I doubt it. As much as Bakshi sneers at Disney animation, there’s a lot to be said for a fluid and consistent animated style, full animation, and a budget that can carry it off.
A movie is only as good as its source materials, and low budget is low budget. The elements used to master “Wizards” were obviously in rough shape, and there’s been no apparent attempt to clean them up. You see flickers and dirt spots, variation in light and color intensity, and sections that are extremely grainy. The static backgrounds hold their detail better than the filmed backgrounds, as do the storybook “pages” that frame this tale at the front and back ends. “Wizards” is presented in 1.85:1 aspect ratio, transferred to a 25-gig disc using an AVC/MPEG-4 codec.
The featured audio is an English DTS-HD MA 5.1, but the voices sound primitive and low-budget, no matter how they’re re-channeled. There’s no tonal richness. In fact, some fans might prefer the original English Mono. Spanish Mono is also an option, with subtitles in English SDH, French, and Spanish.
Fans of Bakshi will enjoy his guerilla commentary, in which he takes obvious delight in pointing out all the “old school” animation tricks he used with such a limited budget, all before video or computers. Most of his commentary is scene-specific, but occasionally he riffs on animation at the time, or reminisces about the good old days. Along with the 24-page full-color booklet, it’s one of the best bonus features. “Ralph Bakshi: The Wizard of Animation” was ported over from an earlier DVD, and there’s a lot of overlapping of content. But fans who want to see him instead of just listening to him may prefer it. The only other bonus features are three trailers and TV spots, an artwork gallery that includes some original lobby cards as well as animation drawings, and a couple of sneak peeks (if you count those).
“Wizards” was the first full-length animated feature that Fox bankrolled; it introduced Avatar long before it became a gleam in James Cameron’s eyes; it came from the director of the much-ballyhooed “Fritz the Cat”; and its status as a low-budget cult film seems secure. I just don’t think it’s as good a film as it might have been with more restrained storytelling or art design.