There was the 60’s, and there has been an interminable “now” that started sometime in the late 70’s and will apparently last until the oceans rise enough to wipe out any memory of Justin Bieber, Twitter and energy drinks. But for a very short historical moment in the early to mid 70’s Hollywood made a kind of last-ditch effort to hold on to some sort of originality and idealism. Ralph Bakshi’s Wizards, which was released two weeks before Star Wars in 1977, is one of the last great examples of that beautiful childish idealism. Being that director Ralph Bakshi is the guy who created the edgy animated films Fritz The Cat, Heavy Traffic and Coonskin, it is a childishness cut with gritty realities, sexy heroines and a real sense of moral outrage and philosophical clarity.
Wizards takes place in the distant future, when a post-nuclear apocalypse has returned the Earth to a more primitive state, and divided people into the good - represented by conventionally drawn, cute, round fairies and elves - and the evil - mutants, goons and all sorts of bio-mechanoid beasties who carry weapons, dressing and behaving like Nazis. In fact the evil leader, Blackwolf, has dug up all sorts of buried badness from the past. Most importantly, he has stumbled upon a movie projector and footage of Adolph Hitler and the blitzkrieg and has used it to not only bring his mutant hordes together as an army, but also to terrify and ultimately defeat and enslave the elves. He is determined to rule what is left of the world. Conversely, his brother, Avatar, is an old-school, cigar chomping, boozing, lusty old wizard who is all things good but would rather be left alone to spend his retirement among the succulent female fairies. OK, enough about the specifics of the story, because they can make Wizards sound like a conventional family, fantasy film. And it is certainly not that. It is enjoyable for both kids and adults to watch, but at the heart of this unique animated work is a dead-serious polemic about the dangers of technology and how easily it can be used by the dark side.
Using the Nazi imagery makes for a very understandable antagonist, and casting Avatar and the elves as long-haired, lusty earth children lends a post-60’s wistfulness to their plight. The story rolls through journeys and battles that bring about a redemptive and enjoyable resolution, but the real focus of Wizards is the constantly unexpected and innovative animating techniques employed by the fearless director Ralph Bakshi. Combining his years of conventional training at Terry Toons with the psychedelic consciousness of the times and his own frightening and forward-thinking fear of fascism and over-reliance on technology, he creates a universe where, McLuhan-like, “the medium is the message.” It is in the very swirling, mixed-media originality of his animation techniques that Bakshi most eloquently makes his case. When contrasting a kaleidoscopic freak-show of drooling, skeleton nazi monsters and stock footage of Hitler’s minions goose-stepping their way to hellish infamy with a pastoral animated world of busty hippie chicks flying around a “Garden Of Eden” on gossamer wings, one didn’t need to be a genius or on LSD to make the right choice.
It is because Wizards is so clearly directed, and that the groundbreaking animation techniques are so vivid and so powerfully reinforce the moral tone of the script that it has lost none of its greatness in the almost 40 years since its release. It feels as fresh and fun as the first time I saw it, and it has lost none of its punch.
- Paul Epstein