The last time I saw Ralph Bakshi’s Wizards was in high school, late at night in a friend’s basement, on a grainy VHS that had already been rented a thousand times before. Even now, watching the cleaned up transfer on the 35th Anniversary Blu-ray release of Wizards, I can’t help but think, to paraphrase Rick James: cocaine is a hell of a drug.
Born of ‘70s psychedalia, Wizards is a definitely a counter cultural product. At the time of its release, Bakshi was best known for underground cult classic, Fritz the Cat, the first animated features to receive an X rating from the MPAA. Wizards was his first foray into family fare, one that comes with a heavy environmental and anti-technology message.
While toned down for the audience, Wizards bears many of Bakshi’s trademarks. Full of dark, hallucinatory images, and buxom, scantily clad females fairies, the world of this film is not as innocent as Bakshi would have you believe. There are double entendres, sexual innuendo and, most jarring of all, real life footage from Hitler’s Germany.
At its center, Wizards is a warning, a parable of unchecked reliance on modern technology, and weakened democracy that gives birth to a frightening new version of fascism. In a post-apocalyptic world, eons after civilization was destroyed in a thousand atomic fireballs, a pair of twin wizards are born. Avatar (Bob Holt) is the good brother, while his sibling, Blackwolf (Steve Gravers) rules over the twisted mutants who inhabit the wasteland. When Blackwolf calls forth an army from the dark shadows of hell, Avatar, along with an elf warrior, a busty young fairy lass, and a reformed robot assassin named Peace, trek across the scorched earth to stop a new, rising Reich and prevent war from once again swallowing the planet.
As this is Bakshi’s attempt to make a family film, the more adult themes of his earlier work is absent, or at least somewhat buried. Already mentioned are the barely clothed female characters, all with the requisite prominent nipples and thongs, but there’s more than the soft porn look that calls into question Wizards status as a movie for the whole family. There’s brutality and murder, hideous creatures, torture, implied sexual violence, and then some. Kind of grim to watch, with kids in the audience. Then again, don’t kids love barely clad babes and horny mutants? To be honest, the mutants should probably check their libidos anyway, as the voiceover announces early on in Wizards, each and every birth is a new disaster.
Bakshi isn’t one to rely on a single style of animation. As a result, the artistic style of Wizards runs from cuddly Hanna Barbera style woodland creatures to a version of Rotoscoping, where live action film is traced by animators. Different styles are employed to fit the needs of various scenes; to enhance the emotional impact of a moment. At times this has great impact, like when Bakshi adds wings, horns, and tails to footage of Nazi storm troopers, but it also makes Wizards feel at times jumbled and pieced together. But in a weird way that fits the fractured narrative, which shuffles along and makes great leaps with little provocation or cause.
The messages of the movie—about fragile peace, war, and reliance on technology—resonate today as much as ever. A funky acid rock score keeps things pumping and adds to the general incoherence of the plot and psychedelic vibe of the movie. All in all Wizards is uneven but entertaining. This is a film best viewed late at night, ideally impaired in some manner of your choosing, and if you have a buddy who lives in his parent’s basement, that’s where you want to watch it, slouching on a second-hand couch while you eat Fritos and drink Mountain Dew.
As a 35th Anniversary Blu-ray, you would expect Wizards to come with a bunch of extras, and it does. A collection of theatrical trailers, TV spots, and a stills gallery are rather pedestrian and forgettable. The disc comes with a 24-page booklet, introduced by Bakshi, and is full of writings about the movie and rare Wizards concept art. Through sketches and paintings you can see the evolution of the characters.
Bakshi himself is a great storyteller, a fact on full display in a 34-minute documentary about him. He is full of stories from his early days in an animation studio. Documentary is the wrong word, as this feature is just an extended interview, though that doesn’t make it any less engaging. He expounds on his stylistic choices, his mash up of styles, and how the most successful animation relies on heart over slickeness, among numerous other topics. The feature commentary with Bakshi is a extension of the doc, as he talks about the movie, but also peels off on tangents. It’s fun to hear him talk about his interactions with George Lucas, who was working on Star Wars for Fox at the same time Bakshi worked on Wizards
All in all, this is a solid package. The extras pull off being interesting and entertaining at the same time, and enhance your viewing experience, which, in the end, is exactly what they’re supposed to do.