Richard RomanusDavid ProvalMark HamillBob Holt
Medium: film
Year: 1977
Writer/director: Ralph Bakshi
Keywords: SF, fantasy, post-apocalypse, animation
Country: USA
Actor: Bob Holt, Jesse Welles, Richard Romanus, David Proval, Jim Connell, Steve Gravers, Barbara Sloane, Angelo Grisanti, Hyman Wien, Christopher Tayback, Mark Hamill, Peter Hobbs, Tina Romanus
Format: 82 minutes
Website category: Fantasy
Review date: 21 May 2012
It's a bit weird and rubbish, but still easily mad enough to be worth watching. Ralph Bakshi makes a fantasy film to which you can take your children... or at least that was the plan. The MPAA rated it PG though, so who am I to argue? It's a cult classic, apparently.
To recap, Bakshi's previous animated films had been the X-rated and massively controversial Fritz the Cat, Heavy Traffic and Coonskin. His fourth film had been going to be Hey Good Lookin', but Warner Bros deemed it "unreleasable" because it was mixing live-action and animation (eh?) and shelved it. It eventually got a theatrical release in 1983, but in the meantime Bakshi had started doing fantasy. Wizards was his first stab at the genre, after which of course his next film was of course The Lord of the Rings.
The problem with Wizards is that it's a mess. It would be wrong to call it incoherent, because the plot is simple, kiddie-friendly and makes sense. Nevertheless plot structure clearly hadn't been at the forefront of Bakshi's mind when he was making his earlier features and it's not really a priority here either. I like the world. I think the characters have promise. I think the whole thing shows a ton of personality and I can easily see myself watching it again, just for the sake of spending more time in Bakshi's imagination. However at the end of the day, the plot's a mish-mash of genre formulae, surreal juxtapositions and a Nazi/Jewish allegory. The movie lacks narrative drive. Our heroes almost potter to their confrontation with the villain. This makes for a film that's unique and interesting, but perhaps less compelling than a stupider but more conventional film might have been.
It's still worth watching though, if only to check out (heh) Bakshi's idea of a (heh heh) family film. There's no doubt it's him. This movie includes:
1. A naked girl with huge boobs as a main character. Well, nearly naked. She's wearing a see-through strippogram outfit. However she's also a fairy and has butterfly wings.
2. An all-powerful wizard who's a hairy little guy who looks like a hobbit and talks like Peter Falk.
3. A world of cute elves and fairies that also happens to include a Nazi army of death that goes around shooting people in execution-style killings. After that, they invade. Oh, and there are also fairy prostitutes.
4. Bulbous two-legged horses that look like something from Dr Seuss.
5. A phallic tower that you'll be telling the children is mushroom-shaped.
6. A backstory in which civilisation was blown up millions of years ago by terrorists, leaving mankind's descendants living alongside fantasy creatures in a world that's outlawed science and technology. What's more, the film is sort of behind this. The scientists are the villains and the technology they're keen on rolling out involves guns, bullets, bombs and tanks.
I love the film's style, although a lot of it was forced on Bakshi by budget constraints. He did the whole thing on a budget of 1.1 million, which even in 1977 was no money at all. That's roughly 5% of what Disney was spending on their bad animated movies at the time. Thus Bakshi was shooting his pencil tests with no intermediate stage and having to invent the rotoscoping techniques he'd use in The Lord of the Rings. He asked Fox for a budget increase, but they rejected this idea and instead suggested he pay the remaining budget himself. (George Lucas was doing Star Wars for them at the same time and asked the same question in the same meeting, only to get the same answer. Lucas and Bakshi even shared Mark Hamill, about which Lucas had been helpful enough that Bakshi changed Wizards's title from War Wizards because Lucas thought it sounded enough like Star Wars to confuse people.)
Thus this film has rotoscoping sequences taken from Zulu, El Cid, Patton, Battle of the Bulge and Alexander Nevsky. It has Nazi newsreel footage, including material that I suspect was shot by Nazis. It has scenes that aren't animated at all, but instead have a narrator telling us the backstory while we look at motionless drawings... which is surprisingly wonderful, because those drawings have far more richness and character than Bakshi could afford in the animation. They're juicy. I particularly love their hair and clothes. The animation itself is simpler, but it still has plenty of character and I enjoyed it.
Amazingly (for me) it also has backgrounds by Ian Miller. If you're not familiar with Ian Miller's work, google him. Just... wow. For me, seeing Miller's stuff in this film was as exciting as it would have been to see Searle or Scarfe. Mike Ploog's in there too, but that wasn't as big a deal for me as I hadn't grown up with his stuff.
Then there's the movie's allegorical side. The villain has swastikas, talks of "tomorrow's master race" and has his subordinates saying "Seig Heil." A carcass being hung up and bitten to pieces has a Star of David tattoo. However at the same time, there's also a sardonic reference to religion (pinball machines, a jukebox, a Pepsi-Cola sign, an Oscar statuette, etc.) and two really weird priests. They were possibly the goofiest thing in any Bakshi film yet.
Then there's the apparent anti-technology stance. This could have been disturbing, but in fact turns out to be thought-provoking. Look in particular at the gun that gets fired at the end. I'm not a gun nut and I normally don't care who's firing what, but that's a Luger, i.e. pretty much the definitive German pistol in World Wars I and II.
Overall, I'd have to say that it's a lesser film than Bakshi's previous three, but only because of its subject matter. Fritz the Cat, Heavy Traffic and Coonskin are every bit as random and unstructured, but their explosive subject matter is what makes them important. They're obscene, angry and true to what was on the streets at the time and there's nothing else like them. This on the other hand is about elves and wizards. I like fantasy, but at the end of the day it's hard to argue that this matters in the same way as those earlier Bakshi explosions. It's thus harder to get past the fact that the film's storyline is meandering and undramatic.
However at the same time, I think it does transcend that. Bakshi crams so much into this film that the storyline is only half the story. There's a ton to think about, then on top of that another ton of unique visuals to make your eyeballs steam. It looks kind of cheap. That's because it is. However it also looks kind of brilliant and I think it's that too. All that allegory, juxtaposition and weight of future history creates a world like no other and personally I'd say it's definitely worth experiencing.
"The few remaining mutants who still fart." Note: it's really "fought", but that's how it sounded to me in that accent.