Wizards (1977)

Wizards first published by EyeforFilm

In 1977, Twentieth Century Fox puts out two fantasy epics that both begin with the destruction of a planet, focus on the eternal conflict between good and evil, and feature the then-unknown actor Mark Hamill. It was, however, George Lucas’ Star Wars that would capture the popular imagination and change the face of cinema forever, while Ralph Bakshi’s Wizards, released two weeks earlier, would suffer the ignominy of being pulled prematurely from theatres to make room for more screens to feed viewers’ insatiable appetite for Lucas’ space opera. Even its original title, Wizard Wars, was changed at Lucas’ request, with Fox’s full backing.

Both films offer very different retro-futurist visions. Though ostensibly set ‘a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away’, Star Wars, in fact, packages its classic fairytale narrative in wrapping that is sleek, shiny and new – all state-of-the-art special effects and readily commodifiable ‘assets’ that look towards the spirit of the decade(s) to come. Wizards may, conversely, take place in a distant, post-apocalyptic future, but it, in fact, looks back to a prelapsarian age where technology no longer exists and the magical elves, fairies and wizards of ancient times have returned, as crustily passé as the fossilised imagery conjured by any prog rock album from the early Seventies.

Where the hero of Star Wars is an adolescent hoping to change the universe, his equivalent in Wizards is an impossibly antiquated man – in fact many thousands of years old – desperate to keep things just as they have been for (literal) ages. No wonder the kids preferred what Lucas was offering them.

It is not that Bakshi’s cartoon lacks innovations altogether. Although it was a choice dictated more by economics than aesthetics, his decision to use archival live-action footage as occasional backgrounds and to experiment with lysergic rotoscoping – an effect to which he would return in Lord Of The Rings (1978) – is often genuinely striking, and certainly looks like nothing that had come before. Wizards‘ problems, however, run far deeper than its low budget – for while having so little money may, paradoxically, have liberated Bakshi from studio interference, this freedom allows him to indulge in ideas that are, metaphorically and otherwise, away with the fairies.

Elinore (Jesse Welles)

Here the screenplay, with its ‘special blend’ of child-friendly mythology, muddle-headed hippie musings, questionable ‘comedy’ and erotic innuendo, will leave many viewers wishing for some kind of tonal coherence to match the simplicity – naïveté, even – of the story. Bakshi describes Wizards as his ‘family film’, but if the streetwalking fairies, strip-teasing prisoners-of-war, and the constant déshabillé of Boop-a-like heroine/doormat Elinore (Jesse Welles), do not bring to mind Bakshi’s earlier work helming the very adult cartoon Fritz The Cat (1972), then the mutant soldier (voiced by Bakshi himself) who repeatedly shouts “They killed Fritz!” certainly will. Meanwhile, Bakshi’s unsteady hand when it comes to pacing ensures that even the massive battle sequences seem unduly dull.

“This”, declares the good ol’ schlubbily lecherous protagonist Avatar (Bob Holt) at one point, “has been the biggest bummer of a trip I’ve ever had.” Too true. Already dated when it first appeared, Wizards now reserves its place in history for two principal reasons: its ideology and imagery have evidently had some small influence on Hayao Miyazaki‘s infinitely superior Nausicaä: Valley Of The Wind (1984); and it is one of the many duff animations, along with FernGully: The Last Rainforest (1992), Battle For Terra (2007), Delgo (2008) and television’s Smurfs (1981-1990), that James Cameron might contemptuously be said to have ripped off for his own Avatar (2009).

In short, if you are not a one-time child fan of Wizards with an overwhelming sense of nostalgia, it is probably way, way too late to start liking the film now.

strap: Ralph Bakshi’s animated, part-rotoscoped adventure imagines a post-apocalyptic future of fables and fascism

© Anton Bitel