Ralph Bakshi’s transition from edgy X-rated animation (Fritz the Cat, Heavy Traffic) to more family-oriented fare was, to put it mildly, very rough. Yes 1977’s Wizards is a bit of a cult classic now, and yes, I do understand why: it’s so weird, trippy, and just plain Bakshi (both in his signature “underground” animation style and jazzy, dated score) that his devotees were—and still are—sure to instantly lap it up. That doesn’t change how much I dislike this awkward mashup of child-targeted fantasy and adult subject matter, though.
Wizards’s basic premise sounds like fairly routine fantasy material: after the Earth is dramatically devastated by nuclear war, all that’s left are humanity’s “true ancestors” (that is, fairies, elves, and dwarves), as well as grotesque mutants and a few unaffected humans. 3,000 years later, two powerful wizards are born: the kindhearted Avatar, and his evil, mutated brother Blackwolf. Upon growing up, the latter attempts to seize his deceased mother’s throne, and is banished from the peaceful town of Montagor as a result—though not without vowing to take it back one day, of course.
So far, pretty typical (and bland) kid-targeted stuff. It gets far less kid-friendly, though, once Blackwolf happens to find an old projector of—are you ready for this?—real-life Nazi propaganda and WWII footage, and uses it to rally his followers and startle enemy troops into stunned submission. It may sound like I’m joking here, but trust me, I’m not. I’m really, really not.
Yeah, yeah, I know what Bakshi’s point of this is. He’s trying to communicate a message about how propaganda can manipulate dozens upon dozens of people, and make them do unimaginably terrible things. There’s a far better way to do that, though, than having a central antagonist literally transform himself into a Hitler-like figure (again, not joking), and flashing images of Nazis, gunfire, and atomic bombs over the screen in a PG-rated family film (the term “family” being used extremely loosely, mind you).
Worse, despite the PG-13-level amounts of violence and sexuality (the film’s main female character, Elinore, lets her nipples visibly poke through her skimpy outfit in nearly every scene), Wizards doesn’t even work as something secretly intended for more mature audiences. A film like Watership Down works as this because its more disturbing elements (including graphic, bloody animal fights) seamlessly slide into the story, and add frighteningly realistic stakes to everything going on. The heavy themes of this film, on the other hand, are jarringly at odds with the lighter fantasy antics, leaving me thoroughly confused as to who Wizards was really intended for. Perhaps we’ll never know.
Even if all this Nazi nonsense didn’t make it into Wizards, it would still be a really, really undercooked mess. The characters are uniformly flat and one-note, the story is disjointed and unengaging, the voice acting ranges from passable to just plain bad (and doesn’t even match the characters’ mouth movements at times) and the ending barely makes any sense (where did Avatar get that handgun from, anyway?).
Granted, as you might expect from Bakshi, some of the cartoonish backgrounds and character designs (particularly the one presented in the poster) are striking. However, the live-action backgrounds and badly drawn-over live action footage (all a result of Bakshi not having much money at the time, admittedly) are really bizarre and unsightly, which probably increased the film’s cult appeal even more. Indeed, those searching for a “weird” cult oddity will be satisfied here, but everyone else is better suited checking out Hayao Miyizaki’s fantastic Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind instead.