“Hitler is dead again.” Thus concludes Ralph Bakshi’s Wizards. If that sounds like a really weird way to end a paint-by-numbers Tolkien pastiche, it’s no more strange than the idea of a PG-rated family film coming from the man who gave the world its first X-rated animation with Fritz the Cat. Award Bakshi some points for working outside his comfort zone, but we’re going to have to take them back (and then some) for producing this misguided, muddle-headed message movie. Viewers will stumble upon the notion that Wizards has some things it really needs to get off its chest from the moment it fades in on an open book, its ornately hand-lettered script heralding “an illuminating history bearing on the everlasting struggle for world supremacy between the powers of technology and magic.” Bakshi, though, apparently harbors some suspicions as to audience literacy rates, since he takes the trouble to have a narrator (voiced by Susan Tyrrell) read it aloud, before she launches into the Bakshiverse’s protracted backstory, illustrated by still-life animated tableaux backed by stock live-action effects of the smoke-and-mirrors variety.
See, after nuclear war blows the world to bits—only it doesn’t really since, you know, the world’s still there—technology falls into disrepair, and magic gets the nod for a full scale revival. One day, the Fairy Queen (that sound you hear is Edmund Spenser turning over in his grave) gives birth to twin sons, Avatar and Blackwolf. (Guess what? They’re diametric opposites! Go figure.) When the queen dies, her boys squabble over their inheritance, come to blows, and Blackwolf winds up banished. Fast forward 3,000 years. Blackwolf’s been a busy beaver, excavating old technology, slapping parts together, until he’s got his very own munitions factory up and running. Coming across an old movie projector, Blackwolf switches it on and, lo and behold, there’s Adolph Hitler pontificating in that charming low-key way he had. Cinema, so it seems, is the terrorist’s ultimate dirty bomb. Screening Triumph of the Will against the clouds lowering over a battlefield scares the shit out of the elfin forces amassed against him.
Wizards is never less than visually compelling. The various animation techniques reinforce rather than distract from each other. What doesn’t sit so well together: constant seismic shifts in tone. Bakshi has an unfortunate knack for derailing scenes just when they appear to be gaining some traction, tossing in comic asides that betray the sensibility of a shticky Borscht Belt standup with piss-poor timing. Granted, in previous films like Heavy Traffic and Coonskin, broad caricatures were the ideal vehicle for Bakshi’s brand of relentless social satire. In a kid-friendly fantasy flick, they’re a trifle less explicable. Bakshi seems determined, moreover, to shoehorn his “Never Again!” sloganeering in wherever and whenever possible. As raw material for an entirely different sort of project, these ideas might be intriguing enough, but viewed cheek by jowl with heaping helpings of childish slapstick and effete whimsy, they certainly appear to make strange bedfellows.
Despite time constraints and budgetary limitations, responsible for a residue of slapdash haste clinging to portions of the animation (flickering colors and issues of intermittent, unwanted transparency being two of the biggest offenders), Ralph Bakshi's Wizards boasts a uniquely varied visual style, owing in part to the diverse hands at work on the film. Comic-book artists Ian Miller and Mike Ploog were responsible for many of the intricately detailed backgrounds and narrative interludes. Other segments sport rotoscoped animation that works over scenes from other films like Battle of the Bulge and Eisenstein's Alexander Nevsky, when Bakshi isn't simply splicing in live-action clips from Leni Riefenstahl's notorious Triumph of the Will. More times than not, Wizards's 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer favors diversity over drawbacks, making it a serious improvement in picture quality over the 2004 DVD release: bright-hued colors are uniformly vibrant, blacks deep and dense, and outlines well defined. The Master Audio track detonates some impressively percussive thumps in the lower registers, but the upper end often sounds thin. Dialogue varies in clarity. Andrew Belling's incredibly diverse score, produced entirely on a single synthesizer, is what will give your home theater system its money's worth.
Extras are ported over from the 2004 DVD. Bakshi's commentary track and the making-of documentary tend to overlap each other, sometimes almost word for word; nevertheless, they're different enough, and interesting enough, to warrant individual attention. The documentary delves deeper into Bakshi's early days with the Terrytoons animation studio. Bakshi is particularly proud of the way he went from lowly cel polisher to full-blown animator in one fell swoop, avoiding the protracted apprenticeship process altogether. Bakshi also clearly relishes his self-appointed role as the anti-Disney, a rough-and-tumble teller of truths unafraid to go up against Disney's polished hucksterism. (Adjudicate for yourself the proper levels of salt consumption with which to accompany Bakshi's hyperbole.) Bakshi recounts budgetary battles with the studio, trimming the name down from War Wizards at George Lucas's behest, signing up Mark Hamill as voice talent, and discusses his early interest in fantasy and love of comic-book art. For someone unafraid to toot his own horn at Book of Revelation decibel levels, Bakshi spreads the love around, speaking almost worshipfully when it comes to the stock company of animators and illustrators he assembled and worked with over the course of his directorial career—i.e., from Fritz the Cat to Cool World. Other features include extensive stills galleries, portioned out to various characters, animated environments, and promotional materials. The Blu-ray comes in a DigiBook package filled with character line sketches and other Wizards-related artwork, as well as an introduction from Bakshi and a short essay on the film.
In honor of its 35th anniversary, Wizards wants to put a spell on you with this flawed but visually arresting Blu-ray transfer, ensconced in its DigiBook packaging like an incunabula stuffed with extras.