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Wizards (Ralph Bakshi, 1977)
Ralph Bakshi is nothing if not an original. Wizards, his 1977 post-apocalyptic fantasy is, like all of his features, proof of that. Bakshi’s filmmaking is sloppy and slapdash at times, to be sure, but it is also uncompromising. Whatever your take on his films, there’s little denying that he makes them like no one else. Set two million years after a nuclear war wipes out most of humanity, this idiosyncratic adventure offers a titanic clash between good and evil. Good and evil are embodied here, in typical high fantasy fashion, by two brothers, named Avatar and Blackwolf, whose attempt to seize control of the world provides the most salient element in the film’s overstuffed plot.
What is most surprising watching Wizards some thirty five years after its release is how crass, violent, and vulgar it is at times. In a time when animated features are fully bowdlerized for the sake of children, the thought of a studio-produced cartoon that features buxom fairies and no small number of cusswords is almost unthinkable. Characters are routinely killed by sniper fire, here, and by the film’s end the on-screen body count numbers in the dozens. It is something of a pleasant surprise to see an animated film that doesn’t assume that we need to be coddled at every moment. More problematic, though, is Wizards’ plot. Blackwolf, the evil dictator uses an unearthed Nazi propaganda film (it appears to be Triumph of the Will) to inspire his army of heretofore unmotivated goblins and skeletons to wreak havoc. This material is not offensively deployed, but surely some audience members will find Bakshi’s invocation of Hitler and swastikas in an otherwise simple fantasy film as being offensive in principle.
Just as Wizards takes place in a futuristic fantasy realm where remnants of contemporary civilization remain, Bakshi’s approach is an amalgamation of styles and tones. Slapstick comedy is pushed up against violent combat. Melodramatic court intrigue meshes with the adventures of a road movie. Barely disguised live action is barely integrated with the highly stylized animation to create visual effects that are often striking (footage from Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky is repurposed to give motion to Blackwolf’s troops). In some respects Wizards is hopelessly dated. The first battle scene, for example, is underscored with disco music. In more important respects, such as in its assumption that there exists an adult audience for animated films, it still feels ahead of its time.