#10 in my ranking of Ralph Bakshi’s filmography.
Ralph Bakshi wanted to prove that he could make a movie for families, so he made a film filled with Nazi imagery, a female fairy that is in a near-constant state of undress with obvious nipple protrusions, extreme violence, a meandering, nearly pointless plot, and complicated, underexplained politics in a future version of Earth two million years hence after a nuclear holocaust had created competing new species of humans from grotesque trolls to fairies and elves…also magic is a thing. I…I really don’t think Ralph Bakshi had any idea what he was doing. I really didn’t expect to like Wizards less than anything Bakshi had made up to this point, but I did. This movie is a narrative mess, demonstrating affirmatively that Bakshi had simply no clue how to build a narrative over 80 minutes of screentime, compounded by the fact that his cinematic ambitions were far greater than his budget, and he ended up even more stylistically incoherent than he had already proven himself to be when he could maintain one style pretty much through a whole film.
The most confounding thing in this whole film of confounding things is the amount of voiceover and summary we get through, and it starts with two separate information dumps within the first ten minutes. The first tells, in detail, of the destruction of the earth at the hands of nuclear weapons, the rise of new races after millions of years, the fairy goddess who bears two sons (one good, one evil), and the fight between the two after her death that the good one wins, banishing the bad one to the radiated parts of the planet. We go from the static images (honestly, the best the film looks is in these static images because Bakshi is, quite simply, just not a very good animator) to the present day (either 3,000 or 5,000 years later, there’s some disagreement on that) where the good one, Avatar (Bob Holt doing an inexplicable Peter Falk impression) sits in a tower with the president (James Connell) of something and the president’s daughter Elinore (Jesse Welles), a fairy (even though the president isn’t a fairy) that Avatar is teaching to become a full fairy in command of all of her magic, or something. He then goes into another extended flashback sequence that Avatar himself doesn’t narrate, for some reason, that goes to the uncredited Susan Tyrell, talking about how the bad one, Blackwolf (Steve Gravers) has been consolidating “bad magic”, technology, especially old technology that is, literally, millions of years old to accumulate power including his secret weapon…a projector with Nazi propaganda on it that turns his ineffective troops who keep getting lost and slaughtered when they try to invade the good lands into unstoppable killing machines for…reasons. Oh, and Blackwolf sent Necron 99 (David Proval) to assassinate some of the magic lovers in the land to weaken them (why doesn’t Necron need the propaganda? I dunno), killing the president and the fellow soldier of Weehawk (Richard Romanus), an elf warrior. This all takes 20 minutes in an 80-minute long movie, and we barely have any sense of what the actual conflict or even main character is. This movie is a complete mess.
So, Avatar captures Necron 99 and changes his name to Peace when he instantly becomes good because reasons (if Avatar can quickly change the bad things to good, why doesn’t he…you know…do that more often? Why is Avatar’s magic consistently so awful and ineffectual in any and every circumstance even though he’s supposed to be the most powerful wizard on the planet other than his brother Blackwolf?). Avatar, Elinore, Weehawk, and Peace set out to destroy the projector and end the war forever.
Alright…I have so many questions about how badly this whole thing is set up, but I’m willing to let a bad setup go if the story that plays out is interesting, compelling, or at least basically entertaining. What we get is pure frustration instead. In Bakshi’s previous work, he simply made pretty much no effort to tell a consistent narrative from beginning to end. Fritz the Cat, Heavy Traffic, and Coonskin are all just a series of loosely connected vignettes that sort of come together to make something approaching a story (they never really come together, though). Wizards is Bakshi’s first attempt at a plot driven narrative, and he simply has no idea what to do to make that happen. The constant start and stop of the overlong opening is evidence of that in spades, but the encounter with the fairies in the forest is another big example.
The four set out on their adventure and come upon the fairy forest where they are accosted by a host of tiny fairies (why isn’t Elinore that small? I dunno) where their leader, Sean (Mark Hamill) chastises the childlike fairies for treating their guests so badly while Avatar explains that the animosity between elf and fairy is diminished over the years (something that someone like Weehawk should know already) before Sean is shot by an unseen force outside of view. Peace goes chasing. Weehawk thinks Peace did it. Avatar and Elinore are captured and taken to the fairy king. Elinore has unknown magical powers to mage gargoyles come alive and defend her. Avatar pleads his case and convinces the fairy king to let them go. The king agrees, teleporting them to the middle of a snowy mountain pass. They trudge around for a while until Weehawk and Peace whom Weehawk learned did not do the killing find them and they continue on as before. The only thing that gets changed through all of this is Weehawk sort of trusting Peace a little bit more, a character change that means absolutely nothing since they barely interact for the rest of the film and Peace just gets killed before the climax anyway. This extended sequence does all but nothing while just giving the characters something to do for a few minutes so they don’t instantly end up at Blackwolf’s doorstep the second they leave home. It’s a waste of time.
They meet up with some other elves that Avatar has a history with, elves that are preparing an attack on Blackwolf’s base. As they sit around, Elinor touches Peace which does something about a connection with Blackwolf that lets his consciousness into the area, or something, knocking the four off of a cliff and into an area where a lone bad tank shows up, killing Peace, and Elinore willingly jumps into the tank for no reason. We learn later that she was possessed by Blackwolf, but it doesn’t matter because nothing is changed by this at all. Avatar and Weehawk sneak into Blackwolf’s palace while a battle breaks out outside, Avatar shoots Blackwolf dead with a gun, Weehawk saves Elinore, and the killing of Blackwolf ends the conflict outside because easy fantasy resolution.
Okay, this story is a complete mess. It’s repetitive, moves nowhere, has little in the way of actual character, and is way too easily resolved. Whatever. I’m more flabbergasted at how Bakshi seems to have absolutely no idea how his visuals work. First, the big thing, is that this is the first appearance of rotoscoping in his released films (I believe he was using them in the development of Hey Good Lookin’ which was taking forever to complete and got released several years later), and it really brings out the complete incoherence of how he approaches visuals. It seems obvious that he thought he had the money to animate a big fantasy battle, but when he got to the actual task, he needed a shortcut. So, he took footage from a few movies (Alexander Nevsky, Zulu, Patton, and a couple of others), cheaply rotoscoped them, drew a bit on them, and let it be. Hell, there’s untouched footage from a WWII movie (I’m assuming Patton) that shows up for roughly two seconds of screentime. If this approach had been considered from the beginning, he could have brought some thought to the idea, using rotoscoping exclusively for the bad characters, animating them in a completely different way from the good characters, in a way that helps visually identify how they’re different. Instead, it’s just randomly done near the end to cut down on costs, and it’s ugly to boot.
Bakshi was a bad animator. Sure, he had a team of animators (I looked through the filmographies of the lead animators, and most barely had any experience, and most of the experience was in Saturday morning cartoon shows), but he was obviously hands-on at a pretty minute level. He had real problems with figures in motion, and one of his reasons for pursuing rotoscoping was to try and conquer, shortcut essentially, the motion issues he had. So, his fully animated characters move stiffly and weirdly while his rotoscoping isn’t done fully right because it was done too quickly. On top of that, the animated characters never rise beyond the level of Saturday morning cartoon characters. They are flat, lack shadow and definition, and his grasp of three-dimensions in a two-dimensional space is a factor of his issues with motion. You take any still of purely animated characters, and they really look like they belong on a cheaply produced animated show from the 70s, and this is a feature film with a budget of a couple of million dollars. Main character models are barely detailed while smaller characters are often just colored blobs. He continues his effort of using still photos and random stock footage as backgrounds, making the characters clash with their environments. There are even a handful of comedy bits, usually involving gas-masked wearing bad guys, that are really just completely flat images that let the unfunny bits of slapstick play out without any cutting, feeling like a holdover from bad, early silent films.
I kind of hated this film. It’s dull, boring, and borderline incomprehensible. The fact that Avatar kills Blackwolf with a gun, a piece of technology instead of his own magic, is just another decision on his part that shows that Bakshi really had no idea what his images might mean. There’s also the use of the Nazi imagery which ends up being a shortcut to make his bad guys really bad instead of actually building up reasons for their badness other than ugliness and attachment to something we’re already supposed to hate. The idea that the death of the projector ends all evil in the world is so childish and inconsistent with what came before in the narrative itself (Blackwolf wasn’t bad because he saw Nazi things, he was born bad) is ridiculous.
Really, Wizards is awful and easily Bakshi’s worst film up to this point.
10 thoughts on “Wizards”
You are so far convincing me that my impulse to avoid him was the correct one. Sounds like a tough grind to work through his movies.
Curiosity killed the cat, is all I’m sayin’.
Watched this a couple of years ago: an occasional flash of visual interest… aaaand that’s it. Hypothesis: Animation is a great medium but as time goes on it becomes too labor intensive ($$$) and too dominated by oddballs.
A very good theory, especially when considering hand drawn animation specifically. Computer based animation (most of today’s animation) has really dragged down costs, though.
Which is why CGI dominates. Also why “Cal-arts” style is so popular today: quick & easy to draw.
There is a neat YouTube show with artists Richard Friend and Kelsey Shannon who sometimes breakdown Disney films, and they point out how Disney would cut costs but still manage to make an artistically compelling film. EG 101 Dalmatians cut every corner it could, but the art still breathes. Worth a gander.
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I tried, really hard, to give Wizards a fair shake. I had seen it before, back in the 80’s it was a frequent reference to ‘cool animated movies for adults’. I’ve seen people seriously argue that Wizards is better than Miyazaki’s ‘Castle of Caglisotro’. To that, I invite you to watch the anime, then watch Wizards again.
It’s no Heavy Metal, that’s for sure.
I have a theory: Ralph Bakshi just wanted to bang his drawings. Over and over again, you get someone who is literally or figuratively an author self-insert to gets to bang a big titty woman, often of an exotic background or coloration. Because the natural pairing in this movie ought to be WeeHawk and Elinor (even though he’s basically a feral beast and she’s a slutty airhead), but no, Elinor is all for Avatar…the….avatar for Bakshi. Subtle this movie ain’t.
It boggles my mind just how influential Bakshi is. You look at his friends and supporters and it’s people like George Lucas, Martin Sorcese, Francis Coppola, Frank Frazetta. These are all men of talent, Frazetta was a literal art prodigy. And then you have Bakshi and he’s a fuckup who can’t write and can’t animate and for YEARS people gave him money.
I think he just made a big splash with Fritz the Cat in NYC and rode that into unearned fame.
Anyway, Wizards…most of the film is static background images with narration and camera movement, sometimes with live action backdrops dropped in. This is garbage tier animation you see in an anime when they run out of money. When you do have characters animated, they’re mostly exaggerated cartoons, ill-defined with a lack of a black boundary you’d see in good animation. The story just doesn’t hold me. Its not even consistent, as it starts off saying how this is supposed to be Magic vs Technology…but it isn’t even consistent there. The elves have technology, Avatar even magics up a jukebox for….reasons. Magic doesn’t seem stronger than technology (see the ending), technology doesn’t seem inconvenienced by magic.
Well, apparently Nazis are still a huge threat, millions of years after the death of Germany.
This movie ought to be my wheelhouse, it has titties, fairy hookers, and the bad guy gets killed with a gun at the end. But I have only contempt for Wizards.
“I have a theory: Ralph Bakshi just wanted to bang his drawings.”
Ah, I see you’ve watched Cool World.
The use of the Nazi imagery is just Exhibit Y of how Bakshi didn’t understand imagery. He just knew that Nazism was bad. It was the ultimate bad. So, to push the idea of fighting the ultimate bad in his fantasy adventure, he used Nazi imagery. That it came more than thirty years after the fall of Nazi Germany makes it all the worse, because it feels like Bakshi felt like he was being brave in using it. “I’ll show the squares in this fantasy adventure,” sort of stuff. It’s the thinking of a high school student, not a middle-aged man.
I know the Lucas connection (Hamill having his small part in Wizards happened because this and Star Wars were in production at the same time), but I don’t know the connections with Coppola or Scorsese. I’ve looked the tiniest bit, and I couldn’t find anything. What’s there?
The enduring appeal of Bakshi really escapes me in general, though. It doesn’t seem to be a mainstream thing (his highest rated film on the IMDB is American Pop at a grand 7.1, everything else being in the low 6’s or below), but there’s definitely a fanbase that has latched on and won’t let go. If the animation was good, at least, I would get it on some level, but it’s regularly awful. It’s ugly to look at, ugly to watch, and just not fun.
He talks about in the book ‘Unfiltered’, which you can read/borrow on Internet Archive. I’m pretty fed up with Bakshi’s content so I can’t say I recommend it, but he talks about being friends with Spielberg, Coppola and Sorcese. More infuriating or maybe not surprising is Quentin Tarrantino did the foreword, praising Bakshi.
I guess it’s a time and place thing where the hype and audacity overshadows any objective look at this crap.
In the moment, the rule breaking of Bakshi against what had become the moribund Disney machine must have been different, and perhaps even refreshing. He was out there, outside the studio system, part of the New American Cinema making a splash and meeting financial success. In a less awful example, Scorsese and De Palma were appearing on talk shows together talking about how they influenced each other. And I like early De Palma a good bit, but there’s a different level of talent between the two that makes the comparison a bit off. Still, Scorsese recognized some kind of kindred spirit, in no small part because of their shared home town, which Bakshi also shared.
Tarantino liking his stuff doesn’t surprise me at all, to be honest. It really does feel like it’s in his wheelhouse of personal tastes. Tarantino’s tastes strike me as generally kind of…different from mine. At least he can take that sort of influence and make it into something more.