Wizards: A cult animation movie review
Israeli-born animator Ralph Bakshi
holds a very unique place in film history and in cult animation. He made a name (and a fortune) for himself with the X-rated adaptation of the adventures of a randy tom-cat (Fritz the Cat, 1972) and parlayed his creativity into a wildly-divergent series of cult animation that explored a vast and very adult milieu: The inner-city underground culture of the early ‘70s (Heavy Traffic, 1973); racism (Coonskin, 1975); classic fantasy literature (The Lord of the Rings, 1978); the birth of rock ’n’ roll (American Pop, 1981); the changing face of America circa 1950s (Hey Good Lookin’, 1982), environmentalism (Fire and Ice, 1983); and the relationship between the artist and his art in a film noir setting (Cool World, 1992).
In the midst of this extraordinarily eclectic output was Wizards (1977), an allegory for the birth of fascism, set within a post-nuclear apocalyptic wasteland peopled by humans who have mutated into fairies and magicians (on the good side) and red-eyed warlocks and their hideous minions (on the bad). Essentially the story of two brothers, the benevolent Avatar and the evil Blackwolf, who must face off in a battle for supremacy over the land, Bakshi pushed the boundaries of what was technologically and aesthetically possible at a time when American mainstream animation was stagnating (Disney’s Robin Hood, 1973, andThe Rescuers, 1977; Paramount’s Charlotte’s Web, 1973) and challenging works were emerging from Italy (Allegro non Troppo, 1977), France (Fantastic Planet, 1973; Shame of the Jungle, 1975) and Britain (Watership Down, 1978).
A true work of art in its melding of traditional hand-drawn animation, rotoscoped film and archival newsreel footage, Wizards was a bold project for major studio 20th Century Fox to undertake. Bakshi was passionate that his vision be untainted and demanded total creative control, which Fox granted. The film developed a cult following almost immediately (which still exists to this day). It was a particularly prosperous time for actor Mark Hamill, too; two weeks after the premiere of Wizards, in which he voices the character of ‘Sean’, a B-picture featuring him in his first lead role debuted. It was called Star Wars.
Wizards, to be fair, also highlights some of Bakshi’s shortcomings – female characters are largely seen as sex-kittenish and a little ditzy (an attitudinal holdover from the director’s Fritz the Cat days); attempts at humour are juvenile and kitschy. (Some improvised banter between Blackwolf’s henchmen is cringe-worthy.)
If some elements do date the film, there nevertheless is an artisan’s touch to Bakshi’s images that warrant his inclusion in any discussion of cinema’s great visionaries. Most importantly, his work is imbued with a 1960s-inspired belief in the role one’s art can play in shaping the social consciousness. That he has not created any new work since 1997 (and no features since the commercial failure of Cool World, starring Brad Pitt and an animated Kim Basinger, in 1992) is a sad indictment of the Pixar-led pigeonholing of modern animation’s role in the international film landscape.
“Wizards” tells the story of two wizards who were polar opposites from birth. Born millennia after a world war that decimated civilization, they lived in a new world where old magic had returned. Avatar, the good wizard, tries to keep peace while Blackwolf, the evil wizard, commands an army of found technology. They must battle to see who will prevail over this future world.
What’s great about animation of the 70s – and particularly that of Ralph Bakshi – is that it wasn’t just about fantasy creatures. It had things to say both politically and socially. Sure, it didn’t always present it in the most subtle manner (with the all-too-obvious Nazi overtones seen in “Wizards”), but it challenges the viewer to think past exactly what’s happening on screen.