Remember that part in Indiana Jones: The Title IX Violation where an Arab character twirls a scimitar around and Harrison Ford just casually shoots him dead? Wizards did that same gag four years earlier, and I want you to know that.
Three million years after a nuclear apocalypse, the Earth has mutated into a kind of high fantasy setting where people use magic (although there are mutants and caches of old weaponry waiting to be discovered). The queen of the fairies falls under a spell and gives birth to twins: the peace-loving Avatar and the malign Blackwolf, who discovers a trove of Nazi propaganda and decides to bring about a second Holocaust.
Wizards is sprawling, louche, animated movie, with no modern counterpart. It’s fundamentally and quintessential a movie by Raph Bakshi: whether this is a compliment, criticism, or neutral observation is your call.
It has little overriding style or aesthetic. It’s just the stuff Bakshi likes piled into one movie: namely British fantasy, a gritty countercultural vibe, big tits, and belabored social commentary. None of the ingredients really mix that well, which is kind of the point. Bakshi seems to be jarring your senses on purpose, playing off the flying sparks as jagged pieces of movie grind together.
This was his first (and most successful) flirtation with a Tolkien-style setting, and it works because it’s filtered through a lot of 70s decadence and doesn’t take itself seriously.
JRR Tolkien had become a mainstream craze in America during the hippie years (to his horror), with kids reading Lord of the Rings as an allegory for their times. The Shire was Woodstock, magic was weed/psychedelia, Gandalf was one of the wise elder “beats” (Ginsburg, Burroughs, Kerouac), Sauron was the Man, Saruman was a sellout to the Man, and so forth.
Bakshi was always more of a hippie observer than a hippie (1972’s Fritz the Cat is full of criticism for the excesses of the 60s counterculture), but he shared their fascination with Tolkien’s world, and the way its mythic setting cuts across cultural lines. Whether you’re an elderly Oxford don or a “turned on” flower power freak, everyone appreciates a well-kept garden, and everyone hates the bulldozer destroying it.
But when you combine hippie and Tolkien sensibilities, the result isn’t that coherent. The main thing you’ll notice about Wizards is how little it gels, and how awkwardly the parts fit together.
The art style is all over the place. Certain characters are drawn in a cheap TV cartoon style. Others (such as Blackwolf) are drawn in a more classicist Disney fashion. There are incredibly detailed backgrounds (and even rotoscoping), which really look odd next to the minimalism of the main cast.
I assume Bakshi wanted the film to look the way it does: like cels from wildly different films composited together. Illustrator Ian Miller and artist Mike Ploog contributed work, but they were deliberately kept separate during productiion. It’s heavily “influenced” by Vaughn Bode, as Bakshi would belatedly recognize. The movie occasionally feels crafted by a committee living on separate continents, communicating via carrier pidgeons.
Sure, the disjointedness make it a charming and personable movie. You come to love the incongruence, the way you enjoy the big, awkward stitching on handmade clothes.
But the tone never settles, and that’s a bigger problem. Wizards is a kids’ movie with bouncing boobs and swastikas. And the pacing is just bizarre. The first part of the movie is turgid: information and story lore gets dumped on the viewer with a tractor, and there’s ultimately little need for any of it.
It does get a lot better as it progresses. The battle scenes are thrilling, and Bakshi’s world is huge and vivid. He communicates sheer immensity better than most directors. You feel space and scale exploding out of the frame. The music is fantastic.
A tighter writing job would have helped focus the movie more, perhaps at risk of losing its unique aspects that make the film memorable. But there are many other directions Bakshi could have explored. What if he’d made a straight childrens’ film? Or doubled down on the political commentary?
As it is Wizards has themes, but no real time for them. The Nazi wizard angle is a fascinating one. The links between the real-life SS and such occultist movements as Ariosophism are fun to blather about (as many people have, ie Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke in his book Black Sun), but that aside…isn’t propaganda a kind of magic? The ability to control minds with images and words? Does it make more sense to regard Leni Riefenstahl as a filmmaker, or as a witch?
But this is pretty inconsequential in the film: Blackwolf inspires his soldiers with grainy old film clips of violence and war and Hitler speeches, and that’s it. Is that the essence of Nazism, according to Bakshi? Sound and fury? An angry, shouting man? Or is there an ideological component to fascism as well? It’s interesting to me that the world Wizards proposes (which is full of degenerate mutants, and an innately evil enemy who cannot be redeemed or saved) is probably more of a fascist one.
Matt Lakeman once wrote:
I have a friend who was a state-level legislator in the US for many years. Though ideologically libertarian, he ran as a Republican. He once told me that 80% of voters in America are actually libertarians. The problem was that 80% of voters are also actually Republicans. And Democrats. And progressives. And communists and fascists and monarchists and anarchists, and every other political ideology imaginable. They all want lower taxes but more social services, and to avoid wars but a strong foreign policy, and personal liberty but a safety camera on every street corner, etc. Thus, the key to my friend’s electability was to inspire their libertarian values while not triggering every other contradictory value they incoherently held.
This is basically Wizards. It’s trying to be everything for everyone, and scarily often, it succeeds. What do you get out of a movie this eclectic? Confusion? A desire for clarity? Or the sense of wandering in a delirious bazaar, overloaded with colors and noises and scents? For me it’s overwhelmingly the third feeling. It’s a flawed but impressive work, and at the top tranche of Bakshi’s work.$i;?>
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