Perhaps the most impressive thing about Ralph Bakshi’s Wizards is that it was ever created in the first place. The director once described it as “my homage to Tolkien in the American idiom” and a “fantasy for American kids,” yet ultimately Bakshi’s 1978 take on The Lord of the Rings would represent his best attempt at the latter. For good and ill, Wizards was and is very unconventional; in terms of tone and content, it’s certainly utterly alien to today’s standards for all-ages fare.
A work of “science fiction fantasy”, Wizards transpires in the far future on a post-apocalyptic Earth recovered from a nuclear holocaust, and which now hosts such races as elves, fairies and dwarves. These inhabit the land of Montagar while hordes of monstrous mutants dwell in the wasteland of Scortch, and these forces of good and evil have two estranged brothers as their champions. On the good side is the diminutive red-nosed wizard Avatar, who dared to challenge his mutant brother Blackwolf when he sought to rule Montagar after their mother, the queen of the fairies, passed away. Despite his loss to Avatar, Blackwolf attempts to conquer it twice more with a mutant army at his command, to no avail. Years later, however, things have changed. Avatar is far older and feeling his age, making the most of a cushy job tutoring the Montagaran President’s daughter, Elinore, to be a full-fledged fairy. But when a robot assassin savagely murders Elinore’s father, Avatar subdues and reforms it with telepathy and learns that Blackwolf has gained a new weapon in his next war: a simple film projector, enchanted by his magic to inspire his forces and horrify his foes with film reels of Nazi propaganda from World War II. Against such devastating psychological warfare the armies of good have no defense, so Avatar embarks on a quest with Elinore, the now-good robot soldier “Peace,” and Weehawk, an elven warrior. Their mission: to destroy the film projector and stop Blackwolf once and for all.
Avatar makes for an unusual hero. Worldly, flirty with Elinore, and more than a little jaded by so many years of fighting the good fight against his irredeemable brother, none could mistake him for an imitation of Gandalf. A born leader this is not. But he stays committed to his duty, and moments of nobility do shine through, and there is satisfaction to be had in seeing him no longer burdened by the weight of the world by journey’s end. If only his companions were as interesting. Peace cannot speak for himself, while Weehawk is a devoted and savage warrior for his people but also the same person at the end of the film that he is at the beginning. Supposedly, Elinore aspires to fairyhood, but this is supplanted by a desire for revenge for her father that is ultimately never satisfied since she’s left stuck in the clichéd role of the damsel needing to be saved.
Perhaps the most vividly characterized person in the film is Blackwolf, whose excessive malevolence is legendary. This is a power-hungry narcissist, someone who tortured animals for fun; a dictator so embracing of Nazism that he openly speaks of murdering his own baby for not meeting his standard for racial purity. The depth of his evil is chilling, albeit dramatically overdone; nothing illustrates Wizards‘ aversion to any degree of subtlety better than the striking image of a massive swastika adorning Blackwolf’s throne room floor. If only Nazi imagery were the extent of Wizards’ shock value. The film wastes time on black humor involving two of Blackwolf’s soldiers that never feels appropriate, nowhere less so than in a scene where their bumbling idiocy leads to a mass execution. Fantasy for American kids? If Bakshi weren’t quoted saying it, I wouldn’t believe it. Wizards pulls no punches on violence either; characters bleed, and the savagery of war is shown for what it is. When Blackwolf uses his film projector against an elven army, viewers are vividly exposed to a wholesale slaughter.
One could reasonably say plenty either good or bad about the artistry of Wizards, but credit where it’s due: it’s never dull. The backgrounds are lovely and distinct throughout the film as the locales change, while I find the designs refreshingly diverse. No two members of a race look quite alike; some are attractive, some are ugly, a few characters are ridiculous. Speaking of that latter trait, Avatar looks rather silly with his round red nose and his beard and hat covering his face. As for Elinore, she’s laughably out of place, and the film fails to portray her as anything other than a sex symbol. What were they thinking? When in action, the animation of the movie is rather brilliant at times. Just as different illustrators drew the backgrounds for the distinct lands of Montagar and Scortch, the forces of good were drawn with traditional cel animation while a modified form of rotoscoping was used for Blackwolf’s mutants. They may not quite measure up to the Ringwraiths in Bakshi’s The Lord of the Rings, but with this approach the villainous mutant horde is granted a monstrous otherworldly visage that communicates their evil as well as anything Blackwolf says or does.
Ultimately Wizards is a movie best regarded as the cult classic that it clearly is, a noteworthy artifact of independent filmmaking best seen by those interested in a good dose of what near-unrestricted creativity can achieve in the medium. On its face Wizards‘ deviation from a safe, inoffensive norm is a virtue, particularly in the context of a time when the state of theatrical animation was not so healthy. But this proverbial medicine for malaise should come with a warning to take in moderation. In the case of Wizards, its experimentation results in a movie that intrigues but also alienates with its excesses. Dedicated animation fans should not overlook the Blu-ray edition of Wizards, but it’s also very tough to recommend for children or the casual viewer.