by Clark Breslin
In 1977, a film was released that would alter my universe irrevocably. Sorry to disappoint, but it is not the one of which you are thinking, the one involving George Lucas. In the furor that followed the release of that film, another, lesser-known movie was released to be overshadowed by the special effects extravaganza.
Ralph Bakshi, a pioneer in the field of animation, wanted to do a fairy tale, but one with American attitude and sensibilities. His project, ‘Wizards’, is a classic story of good versus evil and brother against brother. As the opening tells us, it is, “An illuminating history bearing on the everlasting struggle for world supremacy fought between the powers of technology and magic.”
I saw it in the AAFES theatre in Landstuhl, Germany in 1978. My mind was blown.
Before I proceed, I want to thank Mr. Ralph Bakshi and his collaborators in this and other films. Mr. Bakshi, you introduced to me a new realm of what could be done with fantasy, with animation, and with film. Over the course of the next 80 minutes, I experienced thousands of years of a new world, with amazing characters, incredible art, and a whole lot of laughs. My universe was widened, and though I was ill-prepared, I embraced that widening and have loved fantasy ever since.
Mike Ploog’s whimsical artwork supports a narration that gives us the setting, and it returns at points in the film. It is both evocative and captivating. Plus, using it saved a fortune on the budget – less to animate. Ian Miller’s rough sketches are used as compelling backgrounds; the images are astounding.
The premise is fairly simple: Nuclear holocaust begets a world of magic and radioactive wastes. Elves and fairies are reborn into our altered world, joining the mutated survivors of the war. Technology is eschewed by the fey as evil, and magic embraced. “The only true technology is magic,” says a wise elf.
Into this world are born the twin sons of the faerie queen. Good and evil, fey and mutant, they are the wizards of the title. Their conflict sets the stage for the movie: technological wonder weapon vs. magic. In the interest of preserving the details, I will leave the rest for you to discover.
Ralph Bakshi was a pioneer in the use of rotoscoping, that is, animating over film of live actors and animals. In ‘Wizards’, he used this technique extensively. I recognized several films, including ‘Zulu’, ‘El Cid’, and ‘Battle of the Bulge’. Additionally, archival footage from the second world war is employed as well. The image of mutants flying Messerschmitt Me-109s and Junkers Ju-87 Stukas has never left me.
From a technical standpoint, it is not a great film. Much of it consists of illustrations with narration. The animation is fair, aided by liberal use of rotoscoping. I thought I had imagined it as a child, but throughout the movie, one can see the shadow of the camera in the centre of the shot. As an adult, I wonder if this was a mistake, or if it was intentional on Bakshi’s part. If you watch the film, you will learn why.
Compared to other animation of the day (Disney’s The Rescuers, Rankin/Bass’ The Hobbit, and Race For Your Life, Charlie Brown all came out that year), Wizards looks clunky. The use of illustrations in many places, rather than animation, might detract from the viewing pleasure for some.
Those other movies might have more animation, possibly better animation, but none are trying to squeeze into 80 minutes, the sheer magnitude of the world being created. None has the pop-culture references, either. Look for the CBS and Coca-Cola logos in the background.
To this day, I love Wizards. It is my favourite Bakshi movie. It remains my favourite fantasy movie (and post-apocalyptic movie), even in this age of Peter Jackson and the 24 hours of Tolkien that are his films. Lavish, spectacular, perhaps, but they lack the rough charm of Wizards, to say nothing of scantily clad faerie maidens, resurrected mutant assassins, and our antagonist, Blackwolf, with the partially exposed skeletal structure (words cannot do justice to the sheer, unrelenting neato-ness!).
For years, I thought I had imagined it all. We moved back to the States, and no one, not one person I spoke with, had ever heard of this film. Then, it appeared on the midnight movie circuit (Thank you, Louisiana 1-2-3!), and I managed to pirate a copy off of HBO, the one time they deigned to show it. I kept that video for two decades, watching it sober and, shall we say, psychedelically enhanced, until the DVD came along.
Wizards is unadulterated brilliance, a brilliant gem lost in the dust of the monster Lucas created, and, speaking for myself, it is epitome of a Lost Flick.