Monday, December 5, 2011

Wizards (1977)

Title: Wizards (1977)

Director: Ralph Bakshi


Ralph Bakshi is a filmmaker who has always championed adult oriented animation. This is the guy behind such animated classics as Coonskin (1975), Fritz the Cat (1972), Heavy Traffic (1973), American Pop (1981), Fire and Ice (1983), and Cool World (1992), amongst many others. Some of you probably know him by his animated film version adaptation of Lord of the Rings (1978). But if you ask me, my favorite Ralph Bakshi film is still Fire and Ice, a sword and sorcery animated epic in which he worked in collaboration with legendary fantasy artist Frank Frazetta. Together they created a world filled with sorcerers, magic battles, dense jungles and flying creatures. With Wizards, Bakshi who was then known for making controversial and socially conscious films; was attempting something a bit different, a childrens film! Did he succeed? 

Necro 99, one of the many characters that inhabit the world of 'Wizards'
In the world of Wizards the world has been devastated by nuclear war, what is left is the remnants of humanity. All sorts of creatures have emerged after the apocalypse. There are mutants that have appeared as a result of exposure to radiation and for some reason, all manner of goblins and elves and fairies have emerged as well. The film mentions that these elves and fairies are the “true ancestors of humanity”. In Wizards, the world is divided into two factions: one side lives in peace and harmony with nature and the other side are warmongers led by an evil wizard called Blackwolf; a despotic ruler hell-bent on conquering the world with his army of robots, his tanks, and his guns. The real problem comes when Blackwolf discovers old Nazi propaganda films and begins using them to fuel his army with hatred. Once he’s worked them up into a frenzy, he sends them out to the world to do war and conquer lands for him! Can Avatar the good wizard stop his evil brother before he brings the entire land to ruins?

My only real gripe with some of Ralph Bakshi’s films is that they feel sloppy and disjointed. The animation has a rough feel to it; it gives the impression of being unfinished, unpolished and released onto the world in whatever state it happened to be in when they snatched the cells from the animators’ hands. On top of that, Bakshi was fond of rotoscoping, and he experimented by mixing this technique with the traditional animation. Though I’m sure he was experimenting, the result are extremely uneven. Sometimes the film looks like a Saturday morning cartoon; sometimes it looks like real people moving about. But then again, Bakshi was a firm believer in the idea that a films heart was more important than slickness. To him if the film had heart and pulled you in with its story and characters, than that mattered more to him than having a super slick looking film. And that’s exactly what you get with Bakshi’s Wizards. It’s not a perfectly made film, it has many flaws, but it sure has its heart in the right place.

Mr. Bakshi, smoking some inspiration?

This was a film that was made during the time of Vietnam and Nixon, so it's no surprise that the film has an anti-war message attached to it. Blackwolf is the main villain, and his only concern is having a bigger army fueled by hatred. He lives in an ugly, cold part of this post apocalyptic world; amongst the ruins left by a past civilization. The film has a nature vs. technology vibe going for it. We have the good guys living in a paradise, while the bad guys are unearthing ancient technology and using it for war. One scene that perfectly captures what this film is about is a random scene of a mother telling her child “There has been a war, and the land is lost” and the kid asks “Why can’t we fight and win mommy?” and the mother replies “Because they have weapons and technology, we just have love” Once again, governments and their police/military force is portrayed as evil, and this was back in 1977! If we look at many films today, governments and their militia are still portrayed in this way. But Bakshi has always been a rebel through and through, many of his films talk about going up against an evil despotic ruler. Bakshi has always been a filmmaker with a social conscience, and his films show that.

Bakshi has a background in Saturday morning animation, he worked in shows like Spider Man and Mighty Mouse, but he grew tired of that because he wanted to speak truthfully, and not lie to his audience. He wanted to draw black people (something that wasn’t allowed when he was working in Saturday morning cartoons) and he wanted characters talking like real people talk. So when the time came to do his own thing, Bakshi always tried to push the envelope. The result were films like Fritz the Cat “Im X-rated and I’m animated!” and Coonskin (1975) a highly controversial animated flick that addressed racial tension in the U.S. Coonskin was so controversial that screenings often times ended up in audiences running out of theaters because of protest attacks! Wizards is a good example of Bakshi trying to tone down his sexual and controversial side, but never quite succeeding. With Wizards Bakshi was attempting to make a family friendly, kids film. In my opinion, though he tried, he really didn’t succeed. This is one of those films where you don’t know if it was made for kids or adults, or what. For example, one of the films main characters, a fairy called Lenoir, flies around showing her nipples through out the whole film. Avatar, the ‘good’ wizard is always hitting on Lenoir and smoking a cigar. The film comments on the nature of politics and religion, themes that are way too heavy for children. So in my opinion, though he attempted a children’s film, he didn’t quite get there. I guess that’s why the characters look so cartoonish, when compared to films like Fire and Ice for example.

Ultimately, Wizards comes off as an acid trip made by hippies trying various hallucinogenic drugs during their creative process. It is a ballsy film, very experimental, trying all kinds of art in one single film; to me this is the main reason why the film feels disjointed. We get traditional animation, rotoscoping, drawings with no animation on them whatsoever, and we even get some footage of Hitler’s propagandas films in there! It’s a real jumbled mess of a movie! And speaking of Fire and Ice, after having seen Wizards it feels to me like Fire and Ice was simply Bakshi trying to remake Wizards, but with a bit more budget and a bit more quality infused into the whole proceedings. The animation in Fire and Ice is far superior, and has a more polished look than Wizards, yet it has many of the same plot points and situations. And speaking of influences, Bakshi was obviously a huge Lord of the Rings fan because you definitely get a Lord of the Rings vibe on Wizards. Lot’s of characters look like Hobbits, wizards look like Gandalf, and everyone is on a big old quest across a savage, danger filled land. In closing, Wizards is very much a Ralph Bakshi film: It’s rebellious in nature; its animation is rough around the edges and very old school. My only advice is if you can ignore its shortcomings, what you get is a film with lots of heart; just don’t expect a masterpiece.

Rating: 3 out of 5


Jack Thursby said...

Need to get around to watching this. Have only seen Bakshi's Fire and Ice and Lord of the Rings but really enjoyed both.

Personally I've got no problem with Bakshi's rotoscope "cheating". I think it makes his work very distinct. This flick sounds like quite a trippy movie for kids.

I noticed you've reviewed Heavy Metal, any chance you'll review some other 80s animation like Rock and Rule or Starchaser at some point?

Franco Macabro said...

Actually Jack, yes, I have a couple of more American animation films for reviewing. I am a fan of this type of animation...I also reviewed Rene Laloux's Time Masters and Afro Samurai, and there's some Miyazaki films in there as well..

I need to make a tab so that my readers can go directly to my animation reviews..I'll get that up and running today!

But yeah, I'll be reviewing more Bakshi films like Coonskin (if I can get my hands on it), American Pop and Fritz the Cat, be on the look out for those reviews.

Unknown said...

Nice review. Never seen this one. I have a copy of FIRE & ICE and that one's pretty good but I felt that Bakshi restrained himself, content-wise, on that one.

What did you think of COOL WORLD?

Franco Macabro said...

@J.D.: It's been too long since my last viewing of Cool World, cant really say how I feel about it, but I hope to be seeing it in the next couple of days. I remember Brad Pitt and Kim Basinger were in it, and that it mixed live action with animation, but thats about it. But Cool World was Bakshi's last feature length animated film, from there on in its been tv movies, short films and television shows like Spicy City, which had a HEAVY METAL vibe going for it.

Agree about Bakshi feeling restrained on Fire and Ice, especially when compared to his earlier stuff which was pretty controversial, he really was trying to establish animation as a valid form of adult entertainment, trying to break with that idea that cartoons and animation are only for kids.


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