The first time Judge Adam Arseneau watched Wizards as a kid, he thought the film was very sensible and normal. On a completely unrelated note, Adam's mother says that he ate a lot of paint chips as a child.
Our review of Wizards (Blu-ray) 35th Anniversary Edition, published March 19th, 2012, is also available.
An epic fantasy in a world of peace and magic!
Once, I heard the work of Ralph Bakshi described as an "uncomfortable mix of live action and animation." To me, this pretty much sums up Bakshi's whole career, and Wizards could be one of the strangest films ever produced by mere human beings. Finally available on DVD after much lamenting by hardcore fans, Wizards is a kinetic and psychedelic fantasy adventure through a post-apocalyptic wasteland, with fighting mutants, elves, Nazi tanks, some of the most disturbingly hilarious rotoscoping ever created by human beings, and a 1970s-era skinflick funk soundtrack to boot.
Facts of the Case
Millions of years have passed since nuclear war annihilated almost all life on the planet Earth. Civilization has been eradicated, and the few straggling humans who survive have become deformed mutants, banded together out of desperation. Slowly, the planet begins to heal itself, and after a few millennia, life begins to evolve on the planet again. Nature begins to reassert itself, and slowly, the forgotten forces of the world—the magic, the faeries, the wizards, the elves—begin to reemerge all across the planet.
In the land of Montagar, the kindly wizard Avatar rules the land with generosity and compassion. His is a land of sunshine, rainbows, and waterfalls—a total idyllic paradise. In stark contrast, his brother Blackwolf rules the land of Scorch with an iron fist. His is a land of radiation sickness, uninhabitable wastelands, and ferocious mutants. Blackwolf desires to control the planet and take over Montagar and all other lands, and wages a fierce war against Avatar. The courageous elves and faeries easily defeat the evil wizard, beating the invading army back into their own territory.
Technology has been outlawed for millennia, considered evil—the downfall of ancient society. Blackwolf, in an effort to obtain military superiority, has begun to research, excavate, and harness the ancient war technology in order to conquer the foreign lands. His finds include one horrifying discovery—Nazi propaganda films. These, his most powerful weapons, galvanize his troops into hatred and iron resolve. Soon, Blackwolf's forces sweep the world, casting despair and destruction upon the lands. Avatar, accompanied by a courageous elf and a beautiful faerie princess, sets out across the land, headed into Scorch to confront Blackwolf once and for all, and destroy the mad wizard's propaganda machine before the world is plunged into a darkness from which it could never emerge…
If J.R.R. Tolkien decided to forgo his prestigious academic career in favor of a good seven or eight solid years of LSD experimentation, he might have conceived a story similar to Wizards. Ironic, then, that the man who did conceive it—Ralph Bakshi—was deemed, based on the success of Wizards, the man to be put in charge of the animated Lord Of The Rings film…the result of which can only be described as infamous.
Wizards, in terms of experimental and unique animation, stands alone. There is nothing even remotely like it in existence, save Bakshi's other animation projects, and they hardly count for this analogy. At a time when Disney was releasing an animated version of Robin Hood, Ralph Bakshi, an upstart animator from Brooklyn, cobbled together a fantasy film full of Nazis, wizards, tanks, explosions, swordplay, fantasy, wonder, and lots of scantily-clad faerie women. Bakshi was the Frank Zappa of the animation world. Nobody could approach his level of uniqueness and esoteric experimentation. Nothing comes close even today.
Upon its initial theatrical release, Wizards opened to great success, repaying its costs in a single weekend. Bakshi and crew were elated—their animated film was going to make history, they thought. But alas, a small, unknown movie called Star Wars opened the week after, and the rest was history. Actually, to be more accurate, Wizards was history. Not only did everyone simultaneously forget that the film even existed, exhibitors actually started pulling Wizards out of their theaters in order to have more screens to show Star Wars. Thus, Wizards became virtually unknown, hardly seeing the light of day after its initial release save some atrocious VHS copies, fate having dealt it a bum hand.
Perhaps part of what makes Bakshi such an alluring, maddening, and respected figure in animation is his attitude toward the entire industry, or—perhaps with a touch of irony—an attitude he might have had for the industry were he still a part of it. From nowhere, a Brooklyn kid explodes upon the world with Fritz The Cat, Heavy Traffic, the ill-titled Coonskin, a fantastically bizarre rendition of The Lord Of The Rings, and then, for all intents and purposes, he vanishes. It was as if he had a quota of sexually and racially charged animation weirdness to dump upon the earth, and, having completed this task, fled back to his home planet of hot naked alien babes with Italian accents. The man had a vision like no other, and having said what he wanted to say, simply disappeared, leaving legions of fans hung out to dry in the breezy world of uninspired Disney animation.
So now, finally, we have a release of Wizards on DVD, and boy howdy, the film has aged without an ounce of grace. Love it or loathe it, this film is such a tragically hilarious product of the 1970s it could never have existed during any other point in human history. It is as if every animation cel were clad in checkered polyester pants. I myself remember seeing the film at an early age in the 1980s, and even then, maybe seven or eight years after its release, Wizards already felt completely ravaged by the flow of popular culture. The wonderfully psychedelic soundtrack of muted trumpets, '70s synthesizers, electric guitars, and wah-wah pedals sounds like the end result of a musical instrument fight between Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea. While unbelievably awesome and funky, it certainly doesn't help matters in the carbon-dating department.
Like all the best cult films, elements that detractors would label as "bad" or "poor" or "stupid" are the exact elements that fans grow to adore. For example, the soundtrack, the horrifyingly psychedelic rotoscoping, and the copious amounts of blood, gore, and naked skin are the most debatable parts, and yet they are precisely the components that make Wizards a classic. And, of course, lest we forget the atrociously lame dialogue…oh my word, if only we could forget. The dialogue sounds exactly like Bakshi pulled random people pulled off the street and handed them lines to read into a microphone. This must be true, because even in 1977, somebody must have realized how corny this movie sounded. (The film does include a then-unknown actor named Mark Hamill doing voice work, which nerds of note may find amusing.) But this is all part of the unique charm of the film, and though you may laugh outright at it, you wouldn't change the voiceovers for the entire world.
Seeing the film this cleaned up and in its full widescreen glory is bound to make Bakshi fans all over the world feel warm and fuzzy inside. Fox has done a marvelous job of restoring this film to its original aspect ratio, with reds and greens so vivid they are a delight to behold. Nothing in the world is perfect, and this film is not without its share of aging. But all things considered, it can be unequivocally stated that Wizards has never looked so snazzy, probably not even during its initial theatrical release. Black levels are well within respectable limits, and the edges are clean, crisp, and free from anti-aliasing. All in all, quite a handsome transfer for an animated cartoon that is over twenty-five years old.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 remix does a decent job of fleshing out the incredibly tinny and compressed original mono soundtrack (which this DVD preserves as well). There is absolutely no contest comparing the new soundtrack to the old. The transition into stereo has rounded out the sound quite nicely, adding much-needed bass definition as well as clear and well-rounded dialogue. In comparison, the original mono track is distorted, indistinct, and terribly tinny, but for preservation's sake, it is nice to see it included here. A Spanish mono soundtrack is also included, which sounds virtually similar in quality to the English track.
But for the truest of diehard fans, the audio commentary and interview with director Ralph Bakshi will be the sweetest plum of all. Bakshi, who has been notorious for avoiding DVD interviews in the past, offers himself up in fine fashion, and he proves to be an outspoken, gruff-yet-friendly man with an obvious disdain deep in his heart for the virtues of traditional animation. Amusingly, during the featurette Ralph Bakshi: The Wizard of Animation, he specifically mentions that the only reason he is doing an interview for this DVD—nay, the only reason this DVD is even being released, period—is because of a gigantic Internet petition that penetrated the stony exterior and melted the icy heart of a few choice Fox executives. Let that be a lesson to all you people out there who yearn in your heart for a movie that has yet to be released on DVD—there is hope for you all!
In his tough Brooklyn accent, Bakshi works a little of every topic into his commentary and his interview: why Disney sucks compared to his films; why he got into the animation business (and then, got right out of it); how Wizards was his idea of a children's film (understandable and amusing at the same time); how great his crew was. Bakshi also supplies some of the amusing back story behind the financing and release of Wizards—like tales about George Lucas and himself begging Fox for more money for their respective projects (both were shot down). Other extras include a still gallery full of many purty pictures and some very dated movie trailers.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
In what could be the most profoundly understatements ever made in the English language, I say this: Wizards will not appeal to everyone. Anyone who has seen the film will obviously understand that for those unexposed to the works of Ralph Bakshi, a first viewing of his material comes at a high cost. You could call his films an "acquired taste," but it would be like calling the smell of gasoline, or the flavor of crocodile meat, or the thrill of naked skydiving an "acquired taste." Sure, these are all fine things (like Bakshi's films), but their inherent awesomeness will simply be lost upon the less daring, who choose to avoid irrelevant and petty things like killing their brain cells, eating giant lizards, or having an errant seagull collide at terminal velocity with their exposed genitalia. Wimps, no doubt; but alas, they are absolutely unshakable in their resolve, and there is simply no negotiation possible for some on this issue.
The punch line, of course, is what all of us Bakshi fans already know: the only way to know if you would like Wizards or not is to watch Wizards, and hope that you are the kind of person who would like it. I could tell you how combining Nazi propaganda films with bizarre psychedelic animation is downright unsettling, a profoundly disturbing experience to be sure, and yet you would have no real idea what I am talking about. It is the kind of thing that simply has to be experienced, for better or worse (like naked skydiving).
Let's not mince words—Wizards is a bizarre, messed-up film. Even the most stalwart fan could not deny the abhorrent strangeness of it. But, likewise, it would be foolhardy to argue that Wizards is anything other than a seminal and timeless classic of animation. To see this film restored in widescreen and remixed into stereo is too much of an enjoyment for mere words, which works out well, because Wizards is not the kind of film that can be described in mere words anyway.
With a MSRP of $15, there is little reason why Wizards should not adorn the DVD shelves of every Bakshi fan, or even people who think they might be Bakshi fans (a lot of them exist in a perpetual state of confusion, shock, curiosity, and bewilderment). For everyone else, if you are in the mood for something truly unique and original in this day and age of remakes, sequels, and uninspired cinema, give Wizards a spin. You are guaranteed an experience absolutely unrivaled by anything you have ever seen before—with the possible exception of some particularly aggressive and confusing LSD freakouts back in the 1970s.
Or, of course, unless you are a naked elf, and you spend all of your time fighting evil wizards and Nazi propaganda. In that case, this film might not tickle your fancy, as it would probably just remind you of a boring day at the office.
Wizards has been long overdue on DVD, so kudos to Fox for finally releasing it in excellent fashion. All non-naked elves are hereby ordered to check out this DVD. Regular humans can enjoy it too.
Also, for the record, this court does not condone or reject naked skydiving as a recreational activity, or as a substitute for the fine works of Mr. Ralph Bakshi.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary by Ralph Bakshi
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