Ralph Bakshi’s Wizards was his first film ostensibly made for a “family audience”. It is filled with the trappings of the genre: fairies, wizards (naturally) and elves. But it also has futuristic/fantasy Nazis and far too much sexual innuendo for the audience it supposedly targets. When released, it was a modest success, mostly because it was so cheap to make, not even $2 Million. The corners Bakshi cut to meet this miminal budget certainly don’t help the film’s case.
The cast is mostly a collection of still relative unknowns. In fact, the only really notable actor is Mark Hamill, who really wanted to be in the film and got permission from George Lucas to do a voice during a break in filming Star Wars.
Wizards takes place on a far future Earth after mankind destroyed itself in the “inevitable” Nuclear War. Millions of years after the war, fairies and elves have returned, along with a few humans. Mutants still live in the radioactive lands. Thousands of years pass. Into the world are born twin wizards, the goodie, Avatar and the baddie, Blackwolf. (Maybe if their mom had chosen better names….) Thousands of years pass. The brothers have it out in an epic battle. Avatar wins. Thousands of years pass. Blackwolf discovers a great power that will allow him to conquer the world.
The action revolves around Avatar (Bob Holt) and the…oh…let’s call it a…fellowship…who travel to the lair of Blackwolf (Steve Gravers) in order to destroy Blackwolf’s great weapon, a – get this – film projector that he uses to inspire his army of mutants. (Man, that’s some good tech. Millions of years later and it’s still working. My family’s projector doesn’t work and it’s only been forty years since it was bought.) He inspires them by showing footage of Adolf Hitler and Nazi battles. (And what kind of storage facilities did those guys use to preserve film that long?)
Along with Avatar, there’s fairy-wannabe Elinore (how she is supposed to *become* a fairy isn’t really explained, nor how she is supposed to inherit the throne of the land from her father, who was “President”). Voiced by Jesse Welles, she’s half-naked through most of the film and serves no purpose I can see except eye candy and an unconvincing love interest for Avatar. The “warrior” of the group is elf Weehawk (Richard Romanus), who looks like he is about twelve, but is obviously meant to be a grown man. Also on the team is Necron 99, a robot assassin for Blackwolf, quickly reprogrammed by Avatar and renamed “Peace”. (Yes, friends, it’s the 70′s!)
There’s a heavy anti-war, anti-technology vibe going on here, completely subveretd by Bakshi’s bizarre ending. (I won’t say. You have to see it to believe it.) Of course, as so often happens with Bakshi, the message is clear not because it is naturally compelling and easy to understand, but because he hits you over the head with it. Subtlety? Not his strong suit.
Another Bakshi trademark is on view here: lousy voice work. Not the acting itself, per se. It’s a combination of choosing voices that don’t quite fit the character and recording techniques that make it sound as if half the people are speaking behind gas masks. There’s always some kind of disconnect between what we’re hearing and what we’re seeing.
Also, rotoscoping. (The technique of tracing live action footage to create animation cels.) Used to much greater visual effect in Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings, here it is a pure cost-cutting measure, allowing him to show massive battles with footage from westerns, medieval epics and World War II films. (Hastily amended to add demon eyes, horns, etc.) In a film with a much simpler visual style than Rings, it’s jarring.
Much of the visual style seems inspired by comic artist Vaughn Bode, though Bakshi doesn’t mention him as an influence. The still images that accompany the opening narration and pepper the film are by artist Mike Ploog and they are really quite impressive. A book of just the Ploog illustrations would actually be welcome, since it would strip away all the annoying parts of Wizards: the direction, the voices, etc.
Wizards has attained a kind of cult status that, frankly, it doesn’t deserve. There’s nothing fun or inspiring or visually impressive or original about it. The only really good thing I think about it is that it led to Bakshi getting the go-ahead to make The Lord of the Rings, a vastly superior film. This one? Best left a curiosity.