With Wizards, Ralph Bakshi invented an entirely new category of film: pornography for families.

And it has its troubling charms.

The film is a clumsily-edited but lovingly-animated tour de force, which unites innovative technical achievements merging stock footage with dark hand-drawn art, while animating a narrative that questions war, technology and modernity.

On its paper-thin surface, Wizards is basically a Tolkienesque fantasy hero story (Bakshi would go on to bravely adapt Lord of the Rings to film animation the following year in 1978). In a post-apocalyptic future, the nuclear wastelands of the planet are home to mutated humans, living painful and miserable lives, while in the “good lands” a new generation of earth sprits are revived, including elves, fairies, and magical forces. Into this world are born a binary set of magical twins… Wizards: Avatar “the good” (voiced by Bob Holt), defending the forces of magic, and Blackwolf (Steve Gravers) who champions the miserable mutants and their technology.

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Figure 1: A Disney villain on acid, Wizards‘ Blackwolf plots the Final Solution in lands more commonly occupied by Snow White.

The long-standing weaknesses of the powers of darkness, who have continuously lost their wars against the power of magic, are at last offset by the power of a relic technology: a projector that shows images of Old World propaganda, specifically Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1935), which allows disorganized demons and mutants to over-run their historically-stronger enemies: elves, humans and fairies.

Only by setting out on quest to destroy the projector can Avatar, accompanied by the elf Prince Weehawk (Richard Romanus), Avatar’s protégé Elinore (Jesse Wells), and the android-with-a soul – Peace, prevail. Eventually passing through the kingdom of the fairies (yes, that is Mark Hamill as the voice of Sean, leader of the fairies!) they emerge at their destination: Scorch, to end the reign of terror. Famously delivering the only line anyone remembers from the film: “I’m glad you changed your name, you son-of-a-bitch” (oddly delivered by the villain’s brother, but whatever…), Blackwolf is dispatched by Avatar with a few shots from a vintage Luger; Hitler sent back to his grave and the children of light are spared another generation to frolic in the glades and forests.

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Figure 2: Weehawk, Elinore, Avatar, and Peace set off for Scorch. This aint the Fellowship of the Ring!

The film is cheap, visionary, clichéd, thoughtful, inventive, and tawdry, all at once.

The Dark Power of Rotoscope

Bakshi spent his early career serving his masters at Terrytoons Studio; he drew cells for Mighty Mouse, and my personal favorite: Deputy Dawg. He believed in the power of the animator, but reviled the studio power that restrained creative power.

As a result, Bakshi’s efforts in Wizards emerge from his longer campaign to change animation, including his visionary but unevenly-received efforts to bring gritty urban themes to animation, by adapting Robert Crumb’s Fritz the Cat (1972) to the screen (this, the first animated motion picture to receive an X rating by the Motion Picture Association of America), and by creating Heavy Traffic (1973), an animated inner-city parable that confronts the problems of race and the decaying urban landscape of its era. This was capped by his work in 1973’s Coonskin (seriously… Coonskin), a cartoon about the 1970s landscapes of New York City, in the era just prior to the moment when President Ford told the city to “Drop Dead”.  Bakshi intends a visual assault.

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Figure 3: “They Killed Fritz!”; The Vietnam War haunts the denizens of Montagar, as it did those of Carter’s 1977 America.

The look of Wizards is dominated, as a result, by a defiant combination of techniques, including hand-drawn animation, artistic stills (including a beautiful set-piece sketch of the fortress of “Scortch-1”), and animated film segments using Rotoscoping, especially to show the evil armies of “Scorch” on the move.

This last technique is the film’s signature. Rotoscoping is a technique where the animator traces over original film footage, frame-by-frame, to create a cartoon replica of film footage. In Wizards, Bakshi gloriously Rotoscopes (is that a verb?) not only Riefenstahl’s propaganda movies, but also Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky (1938), among others. Wizards plunders the greatest filmmakers of the 20th century to send its dark army into surreal motion; the effect is really impressive and he’d use it again in his brave effort to bring Tolkien to the screen the following year.

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Figure 4: A Rotoscope army rises from the surreal animation techniques of Baksh’s studio; it’s scary and weird.

Rotoscope is an approach that Bakshi would later describe as “lazy”, since it minimized other opportunities for artists to work by hand. This later apology seems disingenuous, since it is such a part of Bakshi’s artistic legacy, so much a part of his aesthetic, and so much of what any of us remember about the style and approach of his animation team.

But the images are not alone in disrupting animation. The sound also does strange and powerful work. Susan Tyrrell’s narration is cold, cryptic, and spooky. The soundtrack is smart, synthesized, and inflected with jazz. And the voice acting is totally memorable; this because it also absolutely refuses to play to expectations. Instead of cute British voices, which remain the staple expectation for all American audiences for Tolkienesque characters to this day, Bakshi insists that the cast sound, basically, like Brooklyn. Weehawk could as easily be fighting to return The Warriors (1979) to return to Coney Island as he is to be struggling to defeat an ancient wizard. Bakshi shatters expectations and creates something crude and familiar this way. It’s cool and memorable.

Is this a Kid’s Movie?

Ralph Bakshi insisted, on the release of his jaggedly-edited epic, that this represented his own effort to make a “family film”. Having rampaged into the public with disruptive animation style and his own production company, he wanted to do something bigger, to show that it was Disney films that were out-of-step, insane, and a product of a racist imagination, rather than their art house alternatives. His films, by contrast, would be a radical children’s alternative, filled with big themes, honest imagery, and a confrontational space for families to have meaningful experiences, ones that would require discussion when the lights came up in the theater. Wizards is Ralph Bakshi at the high water mark of a radical alternative to conventional family animation.

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Figure 5: Blackwolf holds court at his headquarters in Scorch, with dancing skulls at his disposal, set within a Nazi throne. The symbolism isn’t especially subtle, but that’s probably good.

And is it transgressive? Children today consume violence at astronomically higher levels than those portrayed in Wizards. The body count is literally incalculable in the average Marvel comic film outing, where whole cities melt amidst superhero duels.

But Wizards makes the violence perilously intimate, real, and traumatic. It is truly terrifying when thousands of mutants and demons over-run the trenches occupied by the army of over-confident elves. With the sky filled with images of Hitler’s war machine, the effect is blistering, personal, and tragic. After this scene, notably, the war machine moves on, but a surviving elven youth is left, addled among the mountains of the dead, in an evident state of post-traumatic stress that is enormously disturbing. That simply didn’t happen in The Aristocats.

Conversely, the female characters are hugely problematic. Elinore is smart and active, but she spends a lot of time giggling. Her filament-like garment is male fantasy of the worst kind. It is bland violent male imaginary and hard to watch without cringing.

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Figure 6: Avitar and Elinore; a cross between 1960s television animation and crude 1970s sexual fantasy.

Is this mix bad for kids? Yes and no. This is a document about violence, in a sense, and not merely a vehicle through which it becomes a means for selling tickets. Bakshi knows this, and his film is one with some value to families.

But the thematics and images are profoundly dated. The narrative structure is beyond the pale.

I’ll be honest. As hinted in the introduction, I find the setup offensive. The sufferers of nuclear war, salvaging amidst the ruins, are a presented as a malign evil, while those who live in a world free of poison are presented as their moral superiors. This is an inversion of the environmental politics of our era, where the worst is heaped on the weakest and those who enjoy a healthful environment do so at the expense of others. How much more interesting the movie might have been if Avatar had championed the poisoned and forgotten mutants and Blackwolf the easy-going elves!

Surely this will need a discussion between me and my son.

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Figure 7: The “deplorables” of Scorch. Demons and mutants are relegated to the badlands, and their monstrous leader promises them a way out. Surely this theme deserves a revisit in 2016.

The scantily-clad women and fairies in the feature, moreover, are not presented in some honest, simple, and empowering way; Bakshi is ogling his own animated creations. This probably wouldn’t help my son understand anything about sexuality. With an interest in allowing him to discover human bodies (someday), in a fair and equitable set of encounters, there is nothing wrong with near-naked women, but the tone of the film is far from the best way for him to get it.

But, as I’ve said elsewhere in this blog, the actual “lessons” of most films are thoroughly forgettable. Instead what matters is the material and emotional fact of their impact. And in Wizards, Ralph Bakshi created a singular, un-reproducible, and entirely unique cartoon. Nobody will ever make a movie like this again (for better and for worse). As such, I think it’s one I won’t keep my son from seeing. But I better be ready with a bravely sophisticated feminist contextualization when it happens.

I hope I’m ready when the time comes.

My own response to the movie: Good.

Chances Alexander will like this feature: Good. So, I’d better be ready to discuss!