Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Friday, August 24, 2012

Director Report Card: Ralph Bakshi (1977)

4. Wizards

“Wizards” is a film that could only happen in the seventies. For a number of reasons. First off, the film is a fantasy epic set on a post-apocalyptic Earth, ravaged by nuclear war. This combination of fantasy tropes with World War III and science fiction was a common feature in 1970s sci-fi novels and pulp. “Wizards” would be the first film to bring this style of fantasy fiction to the big screen.

The second reason “Wizards” was distinctly a product of its decade is because, simply put, this movie could never be made today. I was legitimately shocked to see the 20th Century Fox logo before the opening credits. Made on a modest 1.5 million dollar budget at the same time as “Star Wars,” it was Fox’s first animated feature. Because of the low budget, the studio let Bakshi do whatever he wanted. A major studio would never take a chance on a cult-favorite filmmaker to mount a project like this today. “Wizards” represents a more subversive, free period of studio animation, when pretty much anything was possible.

This is a weird movie too. It says a lot of about how damn weird Bakshi’s previous three movies were that this was a major step towards mainstream acceptance. Fusing wizards, fairies, and elves with robots, machine guns, and, especially, Nazi propaganda is strange enough. You also have weird stuff like oddball looking two-legged horse… Things, a president (Why is there a president in a fantasy setting?) who wears a mask for some reason, and a few scenes of typically weird, off-hand Bakshi tangents.

All of this is even crazier since “Wizards” is Bakshi’s self-described “kid’s film.” The movie's rated PG, though that rating was much more permissive in the seventies then it is now. You have numerous scenes of characters being bloodily shot down by gun fire in close-up. An early, very effective scene is of a group of elves in a World War I-style trench, overwhelmed by the enemies’ force, leaving a young solider totally traumatized. Truthfully, just the image of Hitler and goose-stepping soldiers is enough to freeze the innocent elfin people in terror. The juxtaposition of cutesy fantasy characters standing aside barbwire fences and Gatling guns is inherently kind of unnerving. The quantity of sex is reeled way back from Bakshi’s previous films, but even then one of the main characters is a busty, scantily clad fairy princess with perpetually erect nipples. Early on in the film, you see a ground of fairies dressed and acting as streetwalker prostitutes. There’s even a brief shot of a topless pixie with bouncing boobies. More over, all the themes of Nazism, WWII propaganda, magic vs. technology, and the cost of war are bound to go over the heads of the kiddies. I guess the point I’m making is that children’s cinema was very different back in the 1970s. The movie certainly has more in common with “Heavy Metal” then with whatever Disney was doing at the time.

Five paragraphs in and let me take a brief segue to explain the film’s premise a little. It basically boils down to the rivalry between two thousand years old wizards: Avatar, a stoned-out old hippy, and Blackwolf, a fascist tyrant. In classic fantasy style, Avatar is joined on his quest by a motley band of heroes: Elenor, the hot fairy princess out to avenge her father’s murder and hot-headed elf warrior Weehawk. Along the way, they encounter a fairies, elves, giant spiders, ice caps, fogs of evil, all on their quest to battle evil and restore balance to the world. This probably makes the film sound like your typical fantasy flick and completely undersells all the weird, subversive elements in here.

The film opens with a live-action shot of a book, classic Disney style that explains the movie is all about the conflict between magic and technology. This might seem like the film lazily spelling out its theme but it’s actually a subversion. If anything, the film is about the inherent neutrality of technology. The character of Peace is a robot storm trooper initially programmed to kill but later reprogrammed to be good. He’s a hero throughout most of the film. Avatar magic-zaps a juke box in early up and uses modern technology during a key moment of the film. Ralph has said the film is meant to be an allegory about the creation of Israel and needing to keep an eye on the ever-present threat of fascism. The latter point is obvious, considering the villain of the film uses ancient Nazi propaganda to rally his apathetic soldiers. I don’t really see the former. Bakshi is obviously terrified of Nazism but doesn’t make much of a point beyond that.

The main positive attribute in the film’s favor is its truly memorable characters. Avatar is an awesome protagonist. He’s not quite like any other wizard you’re likely to see. Frequently swishing booze and honking on a cigar, he’s massively laid-back and comes off like a stoned George Burns. (Though the director and voice actor Bob Holt patterned him after Peter Falk.) The character is primarily characterized by his age, tiredness, and grumpiness. He’s also a little bit of a dirty old man, though how couldn’t you be with a mostly naked babes pressing her giant tits in your face at all hours of the day? His relationship with the rest of his magical band provides a lot humor and warmth. Blackwolf spends most of the film darkly brooding in his fortress stronghold but his ominous voice and tyrannical reign makes him a legitimately intimidating villain. He even has some ambiguity, since sometimes his war seems based out of finding a better home for his radioactively mutated brethren. Even the little Mark Hamil voiced blonde fairy is a lovable persona.

Despite the relatively straight-forward story, the movie still makes room for weird, unrelated asides that characterized the filmmaker’s previous films. Throughout several scenes, the movie focuses on the clueless soldiers of Blackwolf’s army. Bakshi himself voices a solider ranting and raving over a fallen comrade named Fritz. (No doubt, a reference to this.) Later on, one solider has to convince a reluctant gunner to go to war with him. In the film’s funniest, completely unrelated sequence, two soldiers march into a church, filled with religious symbols among them an Academy Award and an old Coke sign, and have to deal with the long winded rantings of a pair of theistic Jewish rabbis. (Bakshi continues to have a strange relationship with his raised religion.) When that ends up taking too long, the soldier just bomb the church. Even the scene of Weehawk and Peace lost in a cave with a poison spewing giant spider seems kind of unrelated to the main story. 

The film was a low-budget affair and that is all too obvious at times. This marks the first time Bakshi used rotoscoping as a budget-saving, corner cutting method. The scenes of Blackwolf’s army assembling is mostly composed of black silhouetted rotoscope footage from old war epic, among them “El Sid” and “The Longest Day,” with a few horns, wings, or red eyes drawn in. While this is occasionally effective, especially when scored to the film’s anachronistic disco score, the technique is generally overused. When the characters have to interact with a rotoscoped tank, it becomes particularly awkward. Another money-saving method is the film’s use of still illustrations. Don’t get me wrong, they are very nice looking illustrations but the camera panning over unmoving pictures really don’t cut it. There’s way, way too much of it here. Susan Tyrell’s laconic narration doesn’t help much either, besides adding to the fairy tale feeling. A few frames of animation are reused as well. My only other major complaints about the film is a character’s sudden moral turn midway through, the off-hand way that moral turn is resolved, and the use the most egregious fantasy cliché: The villain’s lair exploding with his death. The following ending is a bit abrupt as well.

It goes both ways because there’s some beautiful animation in “Wizards.” Shots of random mutant goons messing around in a crowd are beautifully animated. The film’s mat-paintings and backgrounds are frequently gorgeous. Particularly Scorch, the villain’s evil city, which looks like a cross between Coruscant and “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.” While the seventies animation has certainly aged some, it’s still a unique looking film, no doubt.

“Wizards” is a stone-cold cult classic, too weird for widespread mainstream success but too creative to be ignored. It signaled some changes in Bakshi’s career, not all of them good, but it stands on its own. Maybe not a great film, but a damn good one. [Grade: B+]


Sean Catlett said...

It's been awhile, but I remember peace dying out of hand (spoiler) and the old wizard being immune to irony as he kills the main villain with a pistol. Is that right?

Bonehead XL said...

Those things both happen, yes.

bnmiweaver said...

I saw the movie first time when I was stationed in Germany and was glad to see it still around today.
In the last scene I remember that Avatar and his brother have several rounds of magical combat ( Avatar turned one assult into a boquet of flowers) but haven't been able to find that version. Does anyone know where I can find it?