Wizards is what I’d describe as the first film in Ralph Bakshi’s trilogy of fantasy epics – this film, Fire and Ice (which I previously reviewed at Bureau42), and Lord of the Rings (which roughly adapted The Fellowship of the Rings and The Two Towers). The later films are certainly superior works, but the three films together definitely show a development of Bakshi’s craft when it comes to epic fantasy. However, what about his first big fantasy film?
Wizards is a film with some very real problems with tonal whiplash. The story is set after a nuclear apocalypse has wiped out most of humanity and caused the emergence of a variety of magical creatures. In this world, twin brothers are born – Avatar and Blackwolf – and they both grow up to become powerful wizards. Avatar specializes in healing the land and light magic, while Blackwolf specializes in dark magic. The two are ultimately driven to fight, and Blackwolf is driven from the land. He settles in the land of Scorch (which is excatly as hospitable as you’d expect from the name), and over the years he has raised armies of
orcs, er, mutants to attack the lands of the free elves and conquer them, and has repeatedly been defeated.
This time he’s discovered a “Dream Machine” (a film projector showing old Nazi propaganda films), which emboldens his troops and allows them, combined with their advanced technology, to seriously push into Elven territory, leaving only destruction in their wake. Avatar and a small band of heroes have to go into Scorch to defeat Blackwolf once and for all.
If this sounds like Generic Fantasy Epic #1, you aren’t too far off. The “Nuclear War returns the Magic” bit came up a lot in fantasy literature from the time, and the rest is pretty close to The Lord of the Rings, except if Gandalf was the lead instead of Frodo & Sam, Aragorn, and Merry & Pippin each being co-leads of their relevant parts of the story. That part of the film is almost executed fairly well, with the challenges Avatar and his band face being generally interesting, and the incursion of Blackwolf’s men having some very somber moments to it.
And then the tonal whiplash comes in. Some bits of the film attempt to provide levity through dark comedy, which would generally fit with the rest of the film, except the execution doesn’t quite work. The comedy is done in a way to make the Mutants seem like punch-lock villains, except it also highlights their cruelty. For example, when two Elven priests stall the mutants for 5 hours while waiting for their capitulation, they tell the troops to try “Plan A” (machine gun all the prisoners), followed by Plan B (blow up the temple with the priests – and the person giving the order for Plan B) inside.
However, the other part of this comedy really doesn’t work – with bits falling into straight up zany, Looney Tunes levels slapstick. This is highlighted by some of the character designs. Many of the elves, especially older elves and most of the female cast, feels like they were designed by Robert Crumb, particularly Avatar himself (who looks like the guy from the Keep on Truckin’ drawing), and the other female lead, Elsinore. Elinore’s character design in particular has some of the issues with how Crumb draws women – with revealing outfits large breasts and perpetually erect nipples that are visible through her top.
The film’s other characters have a more stylized-yet-serious design, reminding me a lot of Wendy Pini’s art for Elfquest (which started publication a year later), to the point that I checked to see if she worked on this film – if she did, it was under a pseudonym, and IMDB doesn’t know what that pseudonym is.
The film has a few other structural problems. A lot of information in the film is told through big dumps of exposition done over still images. The art looks alright, but it’s a very slow way to tell a story. Also, like many of Bakshi’s other films, this movie uses a lot of rotoscoping, in this case of stock footage over other films, with the original footage transformed into silhouettes, with touch-up done to make the original footage look monstrous. The problem is that in this film, unlike in Fire and Ice, it’s painfully clear that the movie is adapting footage from other films, and in some cases taking World War II footage of Nazi soldiers and tanks and simply adding horns to them. The worst example is, however, one piece of footage where some of Blackwolf’s troops are represented by rotoscoped footage of Zulu warriors from the film Zulu – an act which has unfortunate implications to say the least. I’m not saying that Bakshi was intentionally being racist, but the choice was rather tone-deaf and could have been thought through better.
Is the film good? It definitely has it’s moments, enough to make it worth a watch, but it’s not something I’d feel compelled to have in my collection.