Ralph Bakshi has often been labelled the ‘bad boy of animation’, and it’s easy to see why when perusing his oeuvre. The obscene Fritz the Cat alone is enough to shock even the most hardened animation fans. So when Bakshi announced his desire to create a family film in 1977, people were sceptical. But, he did it, with Wizards. Or did he?
Wizards takes place in a dark post-apocalyptic future. After the world has been ravaged by technology and war, mutants and monsters walk the Earth and sacred magic has returned. An evil wizard, Blackwolf (Steve Gravers), has brainwashed an army of fascist creatures by projecting Nazi propaganda and attacking weak settlements of fairies and other mythical creatures. Blackwolf’s brother, the kindly wizard Avatar (Bob Holt), must embark on a mission to save the world from his brother’s evil grasp with the help of the scantily-clad fairy princess Elinore (Jesse Welles), the hot-blooded warrior elf Weehawk (Richard Romanus) and the misunderstood robot assassin Peace (David Proval).
Despite continuing to hold its PG rating, it is debatable whether Wizards is a ‘family’ film. Strong bloody violence, scantily clad women and Nazi imagery aren’t exactly common traits of children’s animation – but somehow, Wizards got past the censors. The deep themes of man’s dependence on technology and warfare will also surely be lost on most kids, who find more joy in colourful talking fish. But regardless, Bakshi’s attempt at a family film is admirable – and the film’s ongoing cult status shows that he’s succeeded to some regard. Most of Andrew Belling’s prog-like score holds up well as one of 1970s cinema’s best, while the voice acting is brilliant, especially from Holt as the Peter Falk-esque Avatar – and keep your ears peeled from an early performance of Mark Hamill as Sean, a fairy leader.
Wizards shows its age now, with some rather shaky roto-scoping a result of budgetary cuts. Narration is overused, some of the sound effects and score are cheesy enough to incapacitate the lactose intolerant, and often over-expositional dialogue comes off a little corny. But despite all this, it is endlessly charming and enjoyable. There’s something about it that makes the flaws seem insignificant. And even now, almost 40 years later, audiences are mystified by its power.
But hearing it described – often by Bakshi himself – as a ‘family film’, rings false. This is a dark and arguably disturbing film. Wizards is violent, inappropriate, psychedelic and sexy – everything a Ralph Bakshi film should be. But a ‘family film’? No.