Ralph Bakshi’s Wizards may not be the animator’s best film, but it’s arguably his most ambitious. The movie takes place millions of years after a nuclear war has destroyed virtually all life on Earth. From the ashes an anti-technological utopia has emerged, led by gentle fairies and elves, and other magical creatures who had chosen to remain in the shadows of the old world. Far away, hideous mutants who are descended from the all-but-extinct human species embrace the machines developed ages ago, and plot to use them in order to regain control of the Earth.
Avatar, an ancient elf wizard, leads a quest to destroy his twin brother Blackwolf, the leader of the mutants. Blackwolf has discovered a secret weapon from antiquity that will give him the power to crush the magical armies. This weapon — Nazi propaganda films — serves to both bolster the morale of his ghastly army and to intimidate the magical folk who oppose him. Fighting under the banner of the swastika, the mutants crush all opposition, and Avatar desperately tries to reach his brother’s redoubt in the province of Scortch before it’s too late. He is aided by warrior elf Weehawk, the buxom, scantily-clad fairy princess Elinor (this is a Bakshi film, after all) and assassin-robot-turned-good-guy Peace.
There are some interesting ideas in Wizards and some really great visuals (at one point we see the interior of a temple where an ancient Coca-Cola sign and a jukebox are among the relics worshiped) but the movie is also decidedly uneven. Bakshi’s rotoscoped battle scenes (taken from Alexander Nevsky, among others) don’t mesh very well with his own animation, and it’s clear the movie’s meager budget wasn’t able to support the story he wanted to tell. While there are some scenes with impressively painted backdrops, too many sport quickly-done, smeary backgrounds, and other scenes are played before stark black-and-white sketches.
In spite of its shortcomings, Wizards is a fascinating picture. Released just a few months before Star Wars, it’s a good example of what most science fiction in the 1970s looked like in the pre-George Lucas era. It’s a movie big on ideas and short on cash; there’s an unmistakable hippie vibe that runs through through it, and an anti-technology streak so broad that movies themselves are painted as a danger to peace and freedom — an unusual idea to encounter at your local cinema.
Bob Holt provides the voice of Avatar, playing him as a sort of stoner Peter Falk. Jesse Wells does the best she can with a part intended primarily as eye candy, and Mark Hamill has a cameo as a fairy king named Sean. Perhaps the best vocal performance in the movie is the splendid narration provided by an uncredited Susan Tyrrell. — Michael Popham
WIZARDS screens Monday and Tuesday, August 3 and 4, at 7:00 and 9:00 at the Trylon. Advance tickets are $8.00, and you can purchase them here.