Pioneering animator Ralph Bakshi is known mostly for the adult-oriented work he created back in the mid to late 70's—"adult" as in mature and socially consciousness, although Bakshi wasn't shy about the sex and violence in his 'toons. Looking back at the studio system now against when Bakshi was guiding his first all-ages feature, Wizards to the screen, it's hard to imagine modern studios taking a chance on Bakshi who had a reputation for earning X-ratings for his satirical, anti-Disney work.
Spiritually, Wizards is directly related to works like Heavy Traffic and Fritz the Cat (and what I wouldn't give to be talking about a Blu-ray release of his American Pop), but instead of funny, troubled animals and people in urban settings, Wizards was the director's first real stab at fantasy, bringing to screen a vision of a world annihilated by science, reborn in magic, and about to face another technological holocaust. Not for everyone, and certainly not inline with a modern definition of kids' film, Wizard is nonetheless, potent, heady stuff 35 years after its debut.
Wizards is, appropriately enough, the story of dueling wizards. Twin brothers born from a fairy queen thousands of years ago, the good one, Avatar, has fallen into a state of pickled laziness while the evil one, Blackwolf, has taken his resentment against all perfectly-shaped living things and decided to wage war against the world using his army of mutants. Avatar, joined by the fairy princess Elinore, the elf spy Weehawk, and assassin-turned ally Necron 99 (who is renamed "Peace") trek across the Earth to stop Blackwolf and his new secret weapon, Nazi propaganda movies that both inspire the evil wizard's troops and terrorize his enemies'.
We can look back at the late 70's and early 80's as the period when a lot of young filmmakers rediscovered the pulps: either as more or less direct translations for the modern era (Flash Gordon, Indiana Jones) or rich variations that were still rooted in the pulp tradition (Star Wars*, Conan the Barbarian). And so it goes with Wizards, the first of three fantasy features produced by Bakshi, along with his collaboration with Frazetta, Fire and Ice, and Lord of the Rings, but the film we're talking about today is more socially conscious and motivated than the other two and transparently so.
Bakshi is direct in his imagery and his messaging: the drumbeat of war and the rush of new technology is killing us. As Blackwolf unearths the tools of the past, things get worse in the present, and magic starts to recede and is destroyed. As far as the animation goes, it's not nearly as polished as some of the Disney product of the era (which holds a special kind of distaste for the director), but with its mix on montage elements, exaggerated, chunky cartoon designs, and rotoscoping, it looks like nothing else you can see today. The actual plot is honestly written if a little clunky (it's the kind of story for kids where absolute good is sweet and pretty and absolute evil is ugly and repulsive), but given the story's earnestness, you can mostly forgive the lack of nuance. It's got heart, I tell ya.
Coming to Blu-ray and getting a nice digital polish 35 years after its initial release, Wizards is far more than a simple animated curiosity, but a surprisingly dark, dangerous, and compelling piece of fantasy fiction when animation was allowed to go off script a little.
*I'm including Star Wars here because the healthy dollop of mysticism would have felt out of place in the serials that inspired it to a very real extent.
Presentation and Disc
On the half hour interview piece that is included on the disc, Bakshi tells us that the commentary track he provides for the Wizards Blu-ray will likely be the only one he does for any of his films. And while that's a shame, we should enjoy the directory's animated chats about his work and career across both the commentary and Ralp Bakshi: The Wizard of Animation featurette. Bakshi is funny, angry, and still picking fights after all these years, drawing the curtain back on bits of history you might not have known (for instance, Wizards opened two weeks before Star Wars and beat Fantasia at the box office). The book-style set includes a 24-page booklet with an essay about the film as well as process and promotional art from the movie's initial release.
As for the movie itself, while I've never seen it on previous formats, it looks like Fox did their best to find clean materials for the Blu-ray, which tends towards a little dark and muted, but part of that is simply Bakshi's chosen aesthetic. No huge issues with grain or artifacts, and it's likely this is the best the movie has looked since Bakshi chose the final cut 35 years ago.
Wizards will be available on Blu-ray March 13th from Fox.