Animation has many important figures, but one who is forgotten by most, is Ralph Bakshi. Ralph is an interesting figure in American animation, simply due to him making animated films that were for adults. His first film, Fritz the Cat was rated X, which is the equivalent to an NC-17 rating. Of the ten films he made, only three have gotten a PG rating, the rest being R rated (one being re-rated from X). Today, we are focusing on one of his PG rated films, 1977’s Wizards: a fantasy film intended to be a “family picture.”
The film opens with a staple of the fantasy genre: a really dull backstory exposition explaining that Earth was destroyed by nukes and after 2 million years, some of the world is habitable. Anyway, fairies and elves show up and take the habitable land, while the livable but still-irradiated land is taken by the mutants, who are naturally the bad guys for living in a hellhole and wanting to escape. The queen of the fairies suddenly gives birth to twin wizards, Avatar (not Aang or Korra) the good one and his evil brother, Blackwolf. After their mother’s death and a wizard duel that is only shown through still images, Avatar banishes his brother into the irradiated lands.
Blackwolf takes control of the irradiated lands and builds an army to invade the rest of the world. However the mutant army has the attention span of a goldfish and the motivation of a sloth so the attacks result in failure. So he finds and uses the most powerful weapon to motivate his army…STOCK NAZI PROPAGANDA FOOTAGE!!! With this and his magic, his army becomes unstoppable through the power of psychological warfare. This leaves his brother Avatar to go on a quest to defeat him. Along with Avatar, he has Elinore, the daughter of a president with a risque outfit and an uncomfortable relationship with Avatar.
The first thing that must be discussed is the animation, which has a very psychedelic look, aided by the heavy use of rotoscoping, a technique where an animator traces over actual footage. This was used in the battle sequences, which resulted in battles having very cartoonishly animated characters in one shot and inverted color footage of live cavalry in the next. The backgrounds look more like surreal paintings than being part of the world and the skies look like a LSD trip. However, both the backgrounds and the skies don’t mesh with the characters in the film, who are in a different art style than the backgrounds and look jarringly different. like the backgrounds were mixed with an art show/acid simulator.
Speaking of the characters, the character design is fine. Peace and the most human-like mutants look really good, and Blackwolf and the rest of his army look pretty good as well. Avatar is fine but he reminds me too much like Papa Smurf and Weehawk is average. The fairies don’t look awful, but are really unappealing. Finally, Elinore’s design is way too sexualized. While it may appeal to some, it wasn’t for me. Overall the film’s look is impressive, but not for everyone.
The story is a grand epic truncated into 80 minutes. The plot meanders for most of its runtime, focusing an inordinate amount of time on war scenes which ultimately are superfulas. This meandering especially affects the main story, and makes it feel longer than it actually is. The film follows the format of adventures like The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings, and Journey to the West. In these stories, the characters have an end goal and while journeying, have several venettes occurring at places they stop at. This film has a single one and literally narrates that others happened offscreen. So the film needs to spend around a minute of two armies posturing at each other, but most of the journey is not important enough to be in the film?
The characters vary in overall quality. Blackwolf is just another evil overlord character only he is upfront with his love of the Nazis. Peace/Necron 99 is the most interesting character in the film and is also likeable with the best overall design. Weehawk is the most forgettable of the group, and even though he has at least one notable character trait (his anger/hot-headedness) he really just feels…there. Elinore is just the token female love interest and has nothing else, aside from briefly betraying the group (which amounted to nothing). It certainly doesn’t help that her romantic subplot with Avatar was just creepy and off putting like we are watching Woody Allen court his own daughter.
Avatar is strange in a unique way. He is goofy, somewhat wise, and dedicated to his anti-war/tech ideals. He is truly a great portrayal of a mentor character, except that he’s the protagonist. And there is the problem. Having what would be an old mentor character as the lead character would be fine, except he never feels written like that. In hindsight, it makes sense that he fits this role, but when you watch the film itself, it feels off. If this was an intentional subversion, then that is actually pretty interesting, but I don’t think it was done well.
Which leads to the true issue of the film. I only say Avatar is the protagonist because of how the film proceeds, but really the film's lack of focus results in confusion as to who is actually the lead. The characters feel tertiary to the story, and they barely, if at all develop. There are skeletons of arcs, but the film ironically goes through these parts so fast that the emotions barely have time to register their existence. It feels like the film is supposed to be a simple story of good v.s. evil. Blackwolf is purely evil, as he is literally cosplaying as a Nazi, whereas Avatar and the heroes always feel like the good guys. However, when it comes to who to care and root for, it just blurs. I never really cared about Avatar as a hero.
In general though, it’s difficult to really care about anyone, aside from maybe Peace. But aside from that one character, the audience is just emotionally disconnected. While this isn’t a death sentence (for example, Wes Anderson’s films all have this disconnect), it never feels intentional. Combined with how static the characters are, and how truncated the adventure is along with so many scenes that are either unneeded or take too long, the film instead of feeling like an epic journey and more like a series of events that just happen.
Wizards is a strange film. It looks like a cartoon overlaid over a series of paintings and rotoscoped footage, and while strange, it’s still good animation. The writing and plot fail to be the film that I believe they were going for, yet there is some good here. The film is interesting to watch, to the point where I can’t say it shouldn’t be seen. I won’t recommend it, as it’s too flawed, but it has a right to exist and is an interesting watch. Just look up the final duel between Avatar and Blackwolf. This wizard duel is unlike any other wizard duel ever put to film, a duel that does things that even the Harry Potter books never would dare to do, is unforgettable, and yet perfectly suits this strange film.