I have long been enamored of animated films that fall outside of the Disney way of doing things. I certainly enjoy the Disney films, but they all tend to be glossy, watered-down, and largely the same despite the differing stories. I recently wrote up a whole series on Hayao Miyazaki and was taken with the gorgeousness of his art and deepness of storytelling. On the completely other side of the visual and tonal spectrum is a filmmaker who was at his best playing by his own set of rules and who didn’t shy away from showing the ugliness and absurdity of the world around him. That filmmaker is Ralph Bakshi, who made a string of urban comedy-drama animated films aimed at adults in the early-’70s. By the late-’70s, though, Bakshi wanted to prove that he could make a family film, a sci-fi fantasy. The fact that his result was Wizards just illustrates how much he wasn’t going to play by the rules.
Bakshi had been working as an animator and director at Terrytoons, doing shows like Heckle & Jeckle and Mighty Mouse, and was even the director on the 1967 Spider-Man cartoon, famous for its catchy-as-all-hell theme song. By the late-’60s, though, Bakshi had grown tired of the grind and the inherent falseness of making cartoons for kids and wanted to do something on his own. He founded Bakshi Productions and began work on a series of urban-set films that depicted his New York home. These included the controversial Fritz the Cat, Heavy Traffic, and Coonskin, but by the mid-’70s, he was eager to try something a little more mainstream and, and I swear to God he says this, for families. But he wasn’t going to not tell the story his way, and to their credit, 20th Century Fox agreed and let him do exactly what he wanted to do, for a quite-modest budget, which is the exact elixir needed for something bonkers and wonderful.
The story of Wizards is a bit complicated, but the gist of it is laid out in a really lovely opening narration scene (with the voice of Susan Tyrrell) which details a nuclear war and subsequent fallout on Earth sometime in the near future. After a long time, man has mutated into grotesque monsters, but eventually the old, magical beings of the ancient times resurface, like elves and dwarfs and fairies and things, and populate the unirradiated land of Montagar. After 3000 years of peace, the queen of the fairies gives birth to twin sons, both wizards. One, Avatar, is kind and funny and the other, Blackwolf, is embittered and violent. As evil twins often are. After the Queen dies, Blackwolf tries to assume the throne, but Avatar expels him and the land is once again at peace. However, many years later, using Nazi imagery and propaganda films found in the wastelands, Blackwolf is able to rally the mutants and evil creatures of the world into an army and plans to invade, conquer, and destroy the free and decent races of Montagar. It’s up to the Peter Falk-like Avatar, a buxom fairy princess named Elinor, a young elf named Weehawk, and Peace, one of Blackwolf’s best assassins now reprogrammed for good, to make the trip to defeat the evil wizard before the world is lost.
Despite the otherworldly and dark imagery and subject matter, Wizards has a distinct sense of irreverent and often bawdy humor that was present in Bakshi’s earlier work. The drawing style is very “cartoonish” and the characters look much more like they would belong in a kid’s program than something like this, despite the often ridiculously scantily-clad female characters. The dialogue is written like a New Yorker for the most part and all the voice actors have such accents, being they were Bakshi’s friends and contemporaries. Unlike other fantasy epics, this movie is very much of Earth, with the sins of humanity’s past coming back and factoring into the narrative. Despite all this, there’s an undeniably warm and good heart at the film’s center and the messages of the movie, of forsaking the evils of power and technology for re-communing with nature, are ones that come right out of the 1960s and can still ring true today.
Because this was such a low-budget film, Bakshi was forced to do things to get around animating his massively complex script the traditional way. The opening flashbacks are all depicted using still images that are incredibly detailed and beautiful to look at in their own right. The backgrounds are more or less stationary and are also works of art worth exploring. Perhaps the most famous and infamous thing Bakshi did here, which he would employ in his later fantasy work as well, is rotoscoping, the technique of taking existing film, be it old war movies or whathaveyou, and manipulating and drawing over the movement, in effect turning life-action footage into animation. It works quite effectively here, I think, though it’s certainly strange and not at all what you’d see in other such films, which would probably use CGI if it were done today.
Bakshi is a true original and this film is a shining example of that. Almost no one was making independent animated films at the time, and really hardly anyone’s doing it now. The fact that this man, with his novel and sadly unique idea of telling stories he would want to see, was able to do that for a whole decade is almost unheard of, and the fact that Fox game him free reign to do so is even more absurd in retrospect. Wizards stands as a film unlike any you’ve likely seen before, with a spirit, a sense of humor, and a visual style all its own. The success of Wizards, and it was successful, allowed Bakshi to mount his next, even more ambitious film, the first film version of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, or more accurately, the first one and 2/3rds books of The Lord of the Rings. He wasn’t able to make the second part, but that will be for a separate Schlock & Awe.