Wizards (1977)

wizards

Wizards
Dir. Ralph Bakshi
Premiered February 9, 1977

If you know anything about Wizards, you know this story: in 1976, Ralph Bakshi, the legendary animator of such racially and sexually transgressive counterculture films as Fritz the Cat and Coonskin, wanted very earnestly to make “a family picture.” The resulting movie was a nightmarish, drug-fueled, post-apocalyptic nightmare with nonstop nipples and wall-to-wall Nazi imagery. It’s hard to conceive of a more total failure on Bakshi’s part; the very idea that this was meant for the whole family has become something of a running joke in film circles.

And yet, Wizards isn’t remotely the fiasco that such a reputation would suggest. I wouldn’t show it to kids, nor would I really be interested in seeking it out again, but it’s a fairly standard ‘70s fantasy, and there were things about it I really liked.

Wizards’ premise is incredibly similar to the TV series Adventure Time– two million years have passed since nuclear holocaust has annihilated modern man and all its knowledge, during which time magic has crept back into the world and everyday life has come to resemble fantasy books. The earth is divided between nations of good fairies and elves, ruled over by the ancient and somewhat dopey wizard Avatar (Bob Holt), and a still-irradiated land of mutants (read: orcs) ruled by Avatar’s technology-worshipping evil brother, Blackwolf (Steve Gravers).

After millennia of peace, Blackwolf uncovers evidence of earth’s past, particularly treasuring a copy of Triumph of the Will. Using the images of Nazi Germany to rally his mutants, Blackwolf begins rebuilding human technology to conquer world and escape the radiation. First, he creates a robot (David Proval) to assassinate Avatar. But the robot fails; instead, Avatar reprograms the robot into his helper and names it Peace. With the threat established, Avatar brings his host, the fairy princess Elinore (Jesse Wills), and the elven warrior-prince Weehawk (Richard Romanus), on a quest to defeat Blackwolf once and for all.

Wizards owes a lot to conventional fantasy, but it’s the departures I enjoy most. Instead of an everyman who inevitably becomes a Chosen One, the hero is a worldly, elderly, quite doofy wizard– he even gets a love interest in Elinore, when most characters like him are strictly asexual. And the film claims that technology is the root of all evil, but there are many times when technology saves the day, not least Avatar’s repurposing of poor, bewildered Peace; just as often, magic is a vector for evil. And while the animation isn’t nearly up to the standards of say, Disney, even Disney in the 1970s, the contrast between the overtly cartoony good guys and Blackwolf’s rotoscoped minions was far more striking than that description would suggest. At the same time, the film is very oddly paced. Just as it seems that the heroes’ journey has begun, you realize you’re halfway through an 80-minute film. If this sounds like it might be up your alley, you should check it out.

Signs This Was Made in 1977
Cabaret is referenced in a scene near the end; the kids must’ve loved that. Plus, the intermittent acid-rock score, and constant presence of nipples.

How Did It Do?
With Wizards, Ralph Bakshi failed to make “a family picture.” In every other area, however, he succeeded. The film grossed $9 million against a $2 million budget and received a 61% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes. Bakshi has had no regrets about the film, and to this day hopes to make a sequel.

Next Time: Tentacles

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