You can put Ralph Bakshi with Don Bluth under the heading of “Animated film directors who almost kinda pulled it off.” While Bakshi’s “Heavy Traffic,” “American Pop,” and “Fritz the Cat” were vibrant, consistent works, “The Lord of the Rings” was a butchered mess, and “Wizards” was plagued by variations in tone that veered from dark and serious one moment to almost Looney Tunes-like the next.
“Wizards” is set thousands of years in the future, in a time when life has begun to flourish again on the Earth, after a series of escalating nuclear conflicts all but wiped it out. Mutated humans roam one part of the world while fairies and elves live in another. When the fairy queen gives birth to twin wizards named Avatar and Blackwolf, however, life takes a turn for the worse, for Blackwolf is an evil wizard. He leaves for the lands populated by the mutants, amassing them into an army and excavating ancient technology for his own use. When he discovers Hitler’s propaganda films, he uses them to both spur on his forces to fight harder and demoralize the elves who stand against him. An elf named Weehawk joins Avatar, a fairy named Elinore, and Peace, one of Blackwolf’s assassins turned to the side of good, in a quest to end Blackwolf’s tyranny.
This storyline sounds dark and brooding, and the DVD cover certainly evokes a similar feeling, but “Wizards” suffers from those aforementioned inconsistencies in tone. For example, Bakshi throws in unnecessary diversions in the form of some of Blackwolf’s goofy soldiers, who engage in routines straight out of Abbott and Costello or Laurel and Hardy. Even the mighty wizard Avatar seems like a goof–Bakshi notes in both the accompanying featurette and his commentary that Avatar is in love with Elinore, but that barely comes across in the film. Perhaps he should have spent more time deepening his main characters’ relationships than throwing out one-off comedy routines.
Some can’t stand Bakshi’s use of rotoscoping in “Wizards” (he used it extensively in “The Lord of the Rings” too), but I can understand that he was working with an incredibly limited budget, especially when compared to a typical Disney film. His use of actual World War II footage, mostly culled from Leni Reifenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will,” works well as the source of Blackwolf’s army’s strength, but when he switches to rotoscoped versions of the footage, his intent becomes muddled. Blackwolf’s armies use replicas of World War II era German tanks and planes, represented as rotoscoped versions of themselves, and Bakshi employs rotoscoped footage from films set in the Middle Ages to show the wizard’s vast army, but what about the rotoscoped German soldiers we see? Has Blackwolf somehow cloned German soldiers from World War II?
Bakshi also extensively uses still images that he zooms in on or pans across, and the film even opens with a live-action shot of a book in a desert. In addition, you’ll notice a few instances where animation is repeated. If such obvious corner-cutting bothers you, then you should probably stay away from “Wizards,” although you should realize that if Bakshi hadn’t employed those techniques, the film would have never been made. If you’re a fan of this film, however, you may be disappointed by the way it looks on this DVD: scratches, dust and other imperfections often litter the frame, especially during sequences where multiple elements were composited together (a common problem with older films; look at some of the special effects shots from the DVD release of “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” for another example). Of course, one can’t expect that Fox Home Video would have been willing to invest the money in extensively cleaning up the print for a minor movie like this one.
Ironically, though, “Wizards” might have done pretty well at the box office and been remembered better if not for a little movie called “Star Wars” that opened a few weeks after it did and drove all the competition out of most theaters. Bakshi relates this during “Ralph Bakshi: The Wizard of Animation,” a 34-minute featurette found in the Special Features section of this release. It’s a nice treat for Bakshi fans, covering his early career and delving into the difficulties he faced while making “Wizards.” A gregarious New Yorker, the director obviously loves telling stories about the good old days, and there are plenty to be found here. He says at the end of the featurette that “Wizards” is the only one of his films on DVD that he’s doing an interview for, so that makes this release a must-have for his fans, even if they’re not thrilled with this movie.
Also of note is Bakshi’s commentary, which features more of his tales about the old days, including stories about Frank Frazetta visiting the studio and freaking out all the artists, who were unnerved by his presence. He also notes that acclaimed comic book artist Jim Starlin, who isn’t listed in the credits, drew many of the still images used in the film (Mike Ploog, another comic book artist who is credited, drew most of the others). However, one gets a sense of melancholy while listening to Bakshi wistfully talk about the “old school animation techniques” he used and how many of those tricks have been lost to the computer age. He also says that many of the people who worked with him on “Wizards” and his other animated films are all dead now, which drove him out of the business, but he does mention that he’ll do a sequel is anyone is interested (nudge, nudge). He also reveals that a “Wizards” comic book might be in the work at DC Comics, if Mike Ploog is willing to draw it.
The other special features found on this disc include two film trailers, a TV spot, and 12 galleries—11 full of character sketches, including early versions of Elinore, and one featuring lobby cards. Considering that “Wizards” wasn’t a major film, this feature-packed DVD shows that Fox Home Video is willing to cater to a niche. Highly recommended for fans of the film as well as Bakshi aficionados in general.