Crossing Ralph Bakshi’s ‘Wizards’ (1977) Off the List

If you’re anything like me, you’ve got a list of movies that you’ve always meant to get around to, but for one reason or another just haven’t watched yet. The movie I decided to cross off my mental “to do” list recently was Ralph Bakshi’s animated fantasy/sci-fi feature Wizards.

The first of Bakshi’s animated films I was exposed to was his adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. I saw it as a wee lad of about eight and the style of that film’s animation left an impression on me. I first became aware of Wizards when I was a teenager and saw a poster for it in my local comic shop. It featured an orange guy holding a gun, astride what looked like a mutant ostrich. My cousin, who was a little older than me and very well-versed in geek culture, liked it and that’s when it landed on my radar.

Wizards is set far in the future after terrorists initiate a nuclear holocaust. It takes two million years for the dust to settle and when it does, life on the planet has changed dramatically. Few humans are left. Many of the earth’s inhabitants are mutants who live in a devastated wasteland. The one bright spot is Montagar, a land where fairies, elves, and dwarves (the true ancestors of man according to the movie’s mythology) have returned to live in peace. It is here where the queen of the fairies gives birth to the two titular wizards. Blackwolf, an evil wizard, seeks to discover and use ancient military technology to control the world for the mutants. Avatar is his brother, a good wizard who sides with the fae-folk and leads the opposition to defeat Blackwolf. To say much more than that about the plot, we’d be heading into spoiler territory.

Although it toys with heavy themes, the movie has a very cartoonish tone overall. The subject matter could potentially be grim and indeed there is violence and death involved, but the main characters are drawn in a very cartoonish way and there’s humor throughout the film. There are one or two comedic scenes involving a couple of Blackwolf’s soldiers which have nothing to do with the plot and seem to serve only as unnecessary comic relief. To me, this minimized the danger and kept me from being too invested in either the fates of the characters or the outcome of its larger conflict. I simply couldn’t take the movie very seriously. Which stinks, because I WANTED to take it seriously.

Wizards hints at themes and ideas that, if developed, could have made it a deeper film. There’s a very Tolkienesque suspicion of technology present, which is ironic when you consider that in the climax that same technology is employed by the protagonist to gain the upper-hand.

Taking this comparison to Tolkien’s work further, the wizards themselves are basically simplified versions of Saruman and Gandalf. Blackthorn, with his desire for power and will to use machinery to gain it, is the stand-in for Saruman. Avatar, siding with the elves and fairies in the fight for peace is the analogue for Gandalf. Bakshi, in fact, has said that Wizards was his “homage” to Tolkien in “the American idiom.”

When all these things are taken together, it’s enough to make me wonder if, during the production of this film, Bakshi was already thinking ahead to Lord of the Rings.

There were a few elements I enjoyed quite a bit. The backgrounds were very good. The art that depicted the various environments and settings did a great job of creating the proper atmosphere for the action. Gnarled trees, rocky mountains, and trippy forests all looked like they could have been artwork from a seventies album-cover. It reminded me a little of the work of Roger Dean and Rick Griffin.

The music was good as well. It was very much influenced by the rock, jazz, and folk of the mid-seventies. It particularly reminded me of songs like “Nantucket Sleighride” by Mountain.

Wizards is the first film in which Bakshi used rotoscoping, a technique where animators trace directly over live-action footage. The method is more famously employed in his adaptation of Lord of the Rings. It’s via rotoscope animation that Bakshi incorporates tripped-out live action footage to present large-scale battles, massive armies, and technology like tanks and howitzers. Nazi imagery is pervasive. In his attempt to recover long-lost technology to use in his conquest, Blackwolf appropriates Nazi propaganda films to bolster the poor morale and fighting spirit of his troops as well as intimidate his enemies. The Nazi symbolism is so thick that “Hitler” is even used as another name for Blackwolf at one point in the film.

Overall, I certainly recommend this movie to anyone interested in animation. It’s also worth a watch if you enjoy science fiction or fantasy. Again, I was a little disappointed that it was somewhat cartoonish in its presentation of its characters. I would have preferred something a little more serious and akin to The Lord of the Rings in tone. It’s a little trippy and probably did well with the stoner crowd back when it was released. If you’ve already seen it, put in your two cents in the comment section below … but before you do …

Look, kids! Special bonus trivia!

  • Wizards features what is probably Mark Hamill’s first voice acting work in what amounts to a glorified cameo. He plays a sprite who is killed almost as soon as he’s introduced.
  • Bakshi was forced to use rotoscope animation when 20th Century Fox refused to give him more money to complete the film. He needed to animate large battle sequences, so he ended up using footage from World War Two era news reels and films such as El Cid and Battle of the Bulge.