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Wizards (1977,USA)


Director: Ralph Bakshi             Starring: Bob Holt, Jesse Welles, Richard Romanus, Steve Gravers

Ralph Bakshi is something of a cult hero in the world of animation. From his animated rendition of Robert Crumb’s controversial Fritz The Cat to his animated take on Tolkien’s Lord Of The Rings (which incidentally, I reckon is superior to the Peter Jackson films, even though I did enjoy those too) he has a pretty unique style that has spanned plenty of genres. His early career includes episodes of the Spiderman TV series and he has the honour of producing the longest animated feature ever (Lord Of The Rings) and indeed, the same film is the first example of a fully rotoscoped animation. Wizards is essentially the film that bridges the political satire of Bakshi’s Fritz The Cat and Heavy Traffic and the high fantasy of The Lord Of The Rings (indeed, it was Wizards that got him the LORT gig as Tolkien’s daughter loved the film), a post apocalyptic ode to mankind’s self destructive impulse.

After a nuclear holocaust the Earth is plunged into a nuclear winter that lasts for millions of years. During this time, most humans, ravaged by the effects of the radioactive fallout, have become horrible mutants. In the few safe areas that remain the ancient creatures of Earth (elves, fairies, wizards and such) have reclaimed the planet. Centuries of relative peace are shattered when twin wizards are born. The ‘good’ twin Avatar (Holt) is the distillation of all that is good in the world and his brother Blackwolf (Gravers) is the diametric opposite, the very essence of evil. The brothers go their seperate ways, Avatar in the lush land of Montagar, Blackwolf skulking in the wastelands of Scortch. In his mutant infested lair, Blackwolf discovers the secret of old Earth technology and with the help of some demons summoned from the pits of hell wages all out war on the fairer peoples of the world. Only Avatar, his fairy sidekick Elinore and the elf chieftan Weehawk can stand up to the might of Blackwolf and save the world from his evil plans.

It’s all a bit high concept but the message is pretty simple. The blame for the fall of humanity is placed at the feet of technology, the theory being that technological advancement leads to hatred and violence and makes it easier for people to destroy each other. The key to Blackwolf’s plan is his rediscovery of an ancient projector on which he plays Nazi propaganda films to fill his troops with a thirst for battle, to rally them in combat and inspire them to acts of great barbarism. The evil fascists are pitted against hippy peaceniks, elves, fairies and wizards who are prepared to defend themselves if necessary but would rather just enjoy their world in peace. Technology versus magic. Manufacturing versus nature. The temples are filled with relics of a forgotten age – a jukebox, a coca cola sign, luxury car parts. The message is clear – what we perceive as our advancement as a species is our undoing – and yet even conscious of this knowledge, the few humans that remain cling to their consumer goods like holy icons. None of which protect them from the brutality of the growing power of Blackwolf’s fascist minions.

In contrast to the seriousness of the film’s themes, the animation is very much comic book style. The budgetary constraints Bakshi was under have definitely inflected the design of the film. The horse creatures have only two legs rather than four to save on animation costs rather than for any higher artistic purpose. There is heavy use of rotoscoped (and sometimes straight) footage from the likes of Zulu and Patton to illustrate the battle scenes, an effective if highly stylised technique that Bakshi would reproduce to great effect for The Lord Of The Rings in ’78. A good proportion of the story is told with sequences of narrated stills, presumably again to keep the budget down. The result is a slightly haphazard mixture of elements although they come together quite well in the film.

The absolute highlight of the film for me comes in the form of the exquisite backdrops drawn by one of my favourite artists, Ian Miller. Intricate, outlandish and downright creepy, Miller’s insanely detailed backdrops are the perfect representation of the hazardous, mutant infested city of Scortch. If you aren’t familiar with his work I urge you to check it out, his twisted visions really are unlike anything else I’ve ever seen, nightmarish hybrids of organic and mineral, living and inanimate. It suits the tone of the film brilliantly and the insane amount of detail in each image is enough to encourage repeat viewings as there is always something else to see.

It’s probably not Bakshi’s best work (Heavy Traffic and Fritz The Cat provide harder satire, LOTR more satisfying swords’n’sorcery action) but it is certainly both bold and entertaining, not to mention lovely to look at. It’s also a great lesson in how to creatively sidestep budgetary constraints and the sometimes very striking shortcuts Bakshi had to take to make the film add to its charm. And those backdrops really are mind blowing.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Feexby permalink
    08/02/2012 21:16

    Nice one Andy.

    I always want to like Ralph Bakshi but fall short in the actual doing of it. Personally I didn’t enjoy his LOTR (or the half of it he got finished anyway), but it is now 34 years since I last saw it.

    Cool World is one of his that I can find a bit of love for. It’s not a good film exactly, but it gets a lot of points for just ploughing its own furrow!

    • 08/02/2012 23:01

      Lord Of The Rings is one of those youthful, taped off the telly, watched to death obsession things with me. It’s far from perfect but I love it dearly and know it inside out. Most of the Bakshi stuff is very much flawed but it all pretty much, as you say, ploughs its own furrow which is probably why I like it so much. Interestingly, I didn’t think I’d seen Wizards before and then it turned out I had but just didn’t remember much about it. The story is demented and a bit fragmented but I found the visual chaos of it very pleasing. And I seriously love Ian Miller’s artwork. I’ve got Fire And Ice on DVD still to watch and I’m sure I’ve never seen that but I’m looking forward to it.

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