Ralph Bakshi's "Wizards"

The 2004 wide-screen DVD release

Reviewed by mpn

If you were alive at the time (1977), what did you go to see at the movies two weeks before Star Wars came out?

Ralph Bakshi's Wizards was (a lot like Star Wars) a classic tale of Good versus Evil, with strange riding beasts, ray guns, swords, and weird non-human creatures. It even had Mark Hamill in it.

Originally entitled War Wizards, Bakshi dropped the War part at George Lucas' request, to avoid any confusion between the two movies.

Alas, when Star Wars was released two weeks after Wizards, which was doing quite well at the box office, all the theatres showing Wizards dropped it in favour of the new blockbuster.

The movie, wonderfully narrated by Susan Tyrrell, concerns a pair of wizard twins, of unknown fatherhood, who grow up exact opposites--one good, who loves his mother and all living things, and one evil, who delights in the twisted and dark. It's set several million years in the future, long after nuclear war has devastated Earth, in a time when magic works again, and technology is feared. Earth's recovery has left two factions: those who live in the recovered areas, consisting of elves and fairies, and those who live in the still ruined areas, deformed mutants, goons, and monstrosities.

After fighting bitterly upon the death of their mother (a fight which the good wizard wins) the evil wizard goes off into the badlands to forge himself an empire there, and instigates a series of wars against the unsullied parts of the world, which he, naturally, being an evil wizard, wishes to rule in toto.

Alas, since his minions are all cowardly poltroons, these attacks are always easily fended off by the forces of good, so he sends out armies to dig through ruins from the olden times, seeking technology to aid him in his struggle. He finds old World War II tanks and planes, along with a great collection of Nazi propaganda movies AND, apparently, a copy of Sergei Eisenstein's Aleksandr Nevsky, which he projects above the battlefield with devastating effect, imbuing his troops with great courage and instilling fear in the enemy.

Silly? Yes, but it's very effective on the screen. There are charging hordes of Teutonic knights on horseback, great volleys from 88 mm artillery, howling diving Stukas, and manoeuvering panzers in wonderful pieces of rotoscope[1] cinematography mixed in with the fighting elves and mutants. I know many people don't think much of rotoscope nowadays, but here it really works well. I love the way the charging knights acquire bat-wings and morph into the troll-like mutants.

The movie was made on a very small budget, and it shows; the graphics are done very simply, almost primitively, with parts of the story, including the whole introduction, not really being animated at all, but zooming and panning around a painting while Susan Tyrrell narrates. It's all old-fashioned stuff, too, by today's standards—no computer animation here, it's all done with cels, but it works, because the story and characters work well, and the graphical style fits the mood of the picture. It also had to work because 20th Century Fox refused to give Bakshi $50,000 to finish the battle scenes.

The art is mainly Mike Ploog, Johnnie Vita, and Ian Miller, with animation by Irven Spence and newcomer Brenda Banks. There's also some great Jim Starlin pencilling in there—if you know Starlin's work, you'll spot this the moment you see it.

Although Ralph Bakshi is pleased to call this his family movie, I've never thought of it as a kids' movie. Where I grew up it was regarded as a hippy cult classic. This is in large part due to the unacknowledged debt the film owes to the art of Vaughn Bodé. Peace is clearly Cobalt-60, and Blackwolf's soldiers are straight out of Junkwaffel and Lizard Wars. The elves and fairies, despite being (mostly) clothed throughout the movie, patently owe much to Bodé's Erotica that appeared in Cavalier Magazine in 1970–71. It just amazes me that Bakshi never acknowledges the debt. According to Bodé's ex-wife, Barbara, he and Bakshi had been discussing cooperating on a project before his death in 1975, and she has heard nothing from Bakshi since.

The director's voice-over version of the movie will not appeal to those who are not true Bakshi fans; while he starts off discussing the movie as it begins to unfold, he soon rambles off into reminiscences of his childhood love of comic books and artists, leaving the film to run, quietly, in the background. The 32-minute interview with him is much more interesting. It also contains much in the way of reminiscences, but (perhaps due to a good job of editing) it's much more structured, and features some interesting photographs; he also talks a lot about the film!

Wizards is a fine period piece. It looks dated, and may appear primitive to audiences reared on slick modern cartoons, but get past that and it's a lot of fun—a classic story of good versus evil, a love story, an indictment of fascism and organized religion without preaching, a comedy, a fantasy—well-told, and Andrew Belling's score is a work of pure genius.


[1] Rotoscope Reference here