We all know that animation is not always for children, but this family film has sexualised fairies, gory battles and Nazi imagery. One of the strangest cartoons ever – this is Wizards.
Ralph Bakshi is known as the force behind eccentric animations such as Fritz the Cat, the first-ever animated film to receive an X rating. Bakshi brings adult animation into the mainstream and is one of its most significant practitioners. Wizards is his “homemade” family film and remains one of the most attractive and sceptical animated movies ever made.
The stunning animations throughout are based on Bakshi’s high school drawings. It appears to be nothing more than a good vs evil plot, but it so much more than that. You can see this in the animation style that changes dramatically from scene to scene. The background is a product of several separate artists in different media, giving the film some tonal whiplash.
Wizards is about the aftermath of the world after it is blown to pieces by nuclear war. Technology has fallen into shabbiness, humanity is mostly wiped out, and magic and magical creatures have taken over.
The Fairy Queen gives birth to twin brothers, Avatar and Blackwolf, who are yin and yang and both grow up to be authoritative wizards. When the Queen dies, the boys have a tiff over their legacy and Blackwolf ends up being exiled after losing in magical combat to Avatar.
Three thousand years later, the world faces the prospect of uniting under Blackwolf’s fascism. An elderly and hopeless Avatar (who appears to sound like Columbo) returns to the fight, half-heartedly. The good vs evil is not anything new when it comes to fantasy films, but in this one we have an ancient war between Industrial Technology (the bad guys) and Magic (The good guys). These are presented in black and white shades, with the bad guys being nothing more than blundering Nazis and the good guys naughty fairies and decent knights. This primary metaphor is only enhanced by the film’s eeriness.
The film’s constant is the rotoscoped stock-footage scenes of African warriors and WWII combat, with wings and glowing eyes painted into the moving figures. In Wizards, unlike some of the other Bakshi films, it is evident that the base of some of the animation is taken from other films and World War II footage of Nazi soldiers and tanks. One piece of footage has Blackwolf’s troops exemplified by rotoscoped footage of Zula warriors from the film Zulu, which does feel a little uncomfortable in today’s society.
Wizards has an unprofessional and thoughtless feel to it, and the script stumbles through sections with little sense of direction or energy. The narrative is often given to us in exposition dumps. Bakshi is using conventional techniques, but including disgusting imagery to create an engaging story which makes us question what we are seeing.
Bakshi seems to be in self-destruction mode by derailing scenes as they appear to be going somewhere, only to have them tossed aside for some shticky stand-up at the most inappropriate moments. Broad caricatures are ideal vehicles for Bakshi’s brand of relentless social satire. Remember, Wizards is supposed to be a kid-friendly fantasy film and these just seem out of place. Bakshi once again has his “Never Again” vibe to the film.
There are attempts at dark comedy that don’t quite work within the settings of the film. The humour gives the bad guys a Punch, from Punch and Judy, kind of vibes – the comedy highlighting their brutality. The other type of humour used is old school zany slapstick, something which is evident in the way the characters are drawn. Many of the characters feel like a creation of Robert Crumb rather thank Bakshi, while some of the characters more simple design is like those of Wendy Pini’s work for Elfquest.
Wizards is, if nothing else, visually exciting, even with the odd and often tonal shifts. The animation makes that sense of nervousness fun to watch and enchanting. Today, Wizards is a fascinating view, with hand-drawn fantasy stories no longer appearing relevant; echoing the relevance of Bakshi war.
We know that computer-generated animation can be a little hit or miss and, for me at least, there is a yearning for that traditional animation which has become less popular since the start of CGI films. Some could argue that it goes beyond just the technology. Stories no longer invigorate and extend our imagination like they used to.
Today, we are surrounded by scepticism, advertising, and fake news, and the more we acknowledge that it exists, the more power it gets. When we feel overwhelmed by it all, we stop challenging it. We need to remember that in this war it’s inspiration and resourcefulness that are the most potent weapons we have.
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