In a bleak future that’s a blend of World War II Europe and Tolkien’s Middle-earth, a runty wizard (Bob Holt) must save the world from fascist mutants controlled by his evil twin brother (Steve Gravers), who likes to project films of Adolf Hitler speeches during attacks. Animator Ralph Bakshi blends everything from swords and sorcery to kung fu and nuclear catastrophe in this bizarre flick, which has become a cult classic for its subversive tone.
Jason Sacks: Wizards was a strange experience for me. I started out being completely put off by the odd and sort of old fashioned ’70s animation style and its weird combination of thoroughly different elements. But the more of the movie that I watched, the more it grew on me. I liked the sincerity and hand-made nature of it. That ’70s spirit resulted in a pretty interesting kind of DIY cartoon.
Paul Brian McCoy: Was this your first time seeing it?
Jason: I vaguely remember watching it on VHS in the ’80s, but yeah basically I came to it fresh.
Paul: I hadn’t seen it since the late 80s/early 90s when I had just discovered Bakshi and was burning through everything our local cult video store had. Fritz the Cat, Heavy Traffic, Coonskin, American Pop, Hey Good Lookin’, this, and Lord of the Rings. I immersed myself. But I didn’t really know anything about Bakshi or what went into making the films.
Jason: What was your opinion of his work after watching all those movies? Obviously you were a fan…
Paul: Well, when I first watched it, I really didn’t know what to make of it. It was very different from his other work, but there were those elements that tied it all together – the sexuality, the satire of religion, the incorporation of racial and ethnic stereotypes. It just seemed to lack the edge that his other work had.
And after watching the interview with him on this Blu-ray, it all makes sense. I had no clue this was his idea of a children’s film!
Jason: It’s a really strange vision of a children’s film. For a kid’s film it has a very underground sensibility, and for an adult film it’s awfully childish.
Paul: I like how he frames it as anti-Disney, with real-life elements and no lying to children.
Jason: Yeah the director’s commentary really made me a fan of this film. Bakshi really seems sincere in his wishes to create a truly auteur style animated movie that reflected the visions of him and a handful of his creators. It’s a low budget movie full of a different sort of heart than most other animated films.
It’s all driven by Bakshi’s vision and not by the need for merchandising, which is fascinating to me.
Paul: He was working and interacting with directors like Martin Scorsese, Coppola, Spielberg and George Lucas during this time, and you get that same sense of low-budget creativity that their early films had. Everything feels handmade and textured, rather than slick and over-produced.
You really get that feel with the films prior to Wizards. After this, there’s more finesse. More money involved. This was 20th Century Fox’s first animated film, and even with a pretty miniscule $1.2 million budget, it’s much more mainstream than his earlier work.
Jason: It came out two weeks before Star Wars!
Oh, so this was really the last of Bakshi’s more “pure” films? Bakshi really sounds like he has regrets about American Pop and Lord of the Rings.
Paul: Lord of the Rings is not really like Bakshi at all, but that comes with working with licensed materials. American Pop and Hey Good Lookin’ were attempts to get back to that earlier feel, but they’re still much more polished. At least American Pop is. And then there was Fire and Ice, which kind of let everybody down. Heavy Traffic was the last really personal film he made. American Pop was pretty mainstream.
Jason: I remember seeing American Pop and feeling pretty disappointed in it. It was slick and professional and just not great.
Paul: Coonskin is a film I’d like to see given a thorough going-over. Preferably alongside Disney’s Song of the South. There’s some powerful stuff in there about being black in America in the Seventies. Touchy stuff.
Jason: Huh, that does sound interesting.
Paul: But back to Wizards!
According to the interview included on this Blu-ray, it was originally going to be called War Wizards, but George Lucas was making Star Wars at the same time, for the same studio, and Lucas asked him to drop War from his title. Both he and Lucas also had to beg for money to finish their productions – and both were denied, and had to work around it. Lucas negotiated back-end payments (which was genius in retrospect) and I think Bakshi did the same.
I’m amazed that these guys were hanging out in the same offices, moving in the same circles. Hell, Wizards even has Mark Hamill in a throwaway part as Sean, the wood fairy.
Jason: Wow, that’s fascinating.
Paul: I’m telling you, this Blu-ray (or the DVD, if you’ve not updated your tech) is worth the purchase price just for the interview with Bakshi and the director’s commentary.
I think he said this was the only interview extra he was doing for any of his releases. Hopefully that’ll change – and we’ll get more releases, too.
Jason: I loved the director’s commentary. Bakshi really sounds of his time, a unique thinker who was always scrambling to make the best movies he could at a budget that didn’t wipe out his company. I think it’s that equation that helps make this movie so special.
Paul: I’d be really curious to hear from other people involved in the productions. I was just reading an old interview with Jim Starlin today and he revealed that he worked with Bakshi on Wizards and Lord of the Rings, providing concept drawings. He didn’t have a lot good to say about it all, but he didn’t have a lot good to say about most of the people he worked with.
This was a career retrospective in Back Issue! #48, from the early 2000s.
Also, did you see that Mike Ploog did the historical illustrations for the Montregar sections?
Jason: They’re absolutely beautiful illustrations, too. Daniel Elkin would love them. 🙂 I loved how Bakshi is obviously a huge comics fan.
Paul: Yeah. As much as I loved those Ploog illustrations, I was completely blown away by the pen and ink backgrounds in Scortch. Those were done by British illustrator Ian Miller and were just mind-blowing. I want prints of that shit!
Jason: Man, that work is absolutely mind boggling in its detail and complexity. Every brick is in its right place and it looks fantastic on Blu-
ray on a big screen. And I understand why Bakshi is defensive about it, but I liked the rotoscoped bits.
Paul: It does look great. I was blown away by the backgrounds in nearly every section of this film. It’s just a beautifully put together piece of work. And when you have those classic cell animation characters interacting in front of it, it’s like a time capsule of how these things used to be done.
The rotoscoped and film/photo backgrounds were amazing, too! Completely groundbreaking. Starlin bitched about that, too. But he clearly has no idea what he’s talking about at that point.
Jason: Yeah it really is quite gorgeous as a work on its own and as a time capsule too. Like I said, I was initially put off by the combination of styles, but it totally won me over. And the people who work on something often have no idea how good or bad something can be.
Paul: What did you think of the story?
Jason: Just a lot of fun – very strange and trippy with Hitler imperiling the lovely mystic creatures, but that just made the movie better.
Paul: The story was what put me off back when I first saw it. I thought it was a strange anti-war piece and wasn’t sure what to make of the whole technology vs. magic approach. Especially given how Avatar finishes off his final confrontation with his evil twin Blackwolf. There’s a contradiction there that didn’t sit well with me back in the day. I thought it was cool (“Let me show you a trick Mother taught me when you weren’t around.” BANG!), but thought it kind of undermined the philosophy of the film. Now, I’m not so sure. Bakshi is never as simple as black and white, even though the genre seems to be lending itself to that interpretation.
Jason: On one hand, shooting the villain is using his own tools against him – a kind of judo move that finesses the villain. OTOH it seems a bit out of character for Avatar.
I can appreciate the contradiction you talk about – and that’s part of why it doesn’t feel quite like a family film. My 12 year old watched it while I did and she didn’t like it much – too much strangeness for that anime fan. She felt it wasn’t quite the family film that she likes to watch.
Paul: That’s interesting!
Jason: Of course, she’s used to anime tropes too.
Paul: I’d imagine that’s a common response to the kids that the film is aimed at. Even when it was released.
Jason: It honestly seemed more like a midnight movie to me than a family film.
Paul: Was she as distracted by Elinore’s protruding nipples as I was?
That just seemed inappropriate.
Jason: YES – Leah’s first reaction was that she shouldn’t be watching the movie because it seemed inappropriate for her. I have to agree, and her bikini bottoms were inappropriate too.
Paul: Bakshi’s idea of family-friendly!
Jason: He’s definitely an old hippie! So… bottom line?
Paul: This is definitely worth picking up, especially if you’re into animation history and want to see how things get done when shit gets real. Even the packaging is amazing, with a nice with a 24 page booklet filled with art and notes on the film. But, to be honest, it’s one of Bakshi’s lesser works. I’d much rather see a nice Blu-ray release of Heavy Traffic or Coonskin. They both have issues, but damn if they aren’t brilliant in their own ways.
Jason: I was completely surprised by how much I enjoyed this movie. As someone who doesn’t have the background with Bakshi’s career that you do, I thought this movie was an intriguing first view into the man’s work and made me want to see more of his movies. I’d love to see Heavy Traffic and Coonskin, and I think I saw Fritz the Cat on Netflix.
Paul: Fritz is entertaining and weird. Crumb hates it from what I gather.
Jason: Well, I’m sure he won’t hate me for watching it. 🙂 And if he does, well, I’ll just buy more of his comics.
Paul: Just as a last note, I read online that Wizards was proposed as the first part of a trilogy. In his interview, Bakshi acted like that was never really going to happen, but I saw that as late as 2008 there was still talk of a sequel and even a comic continuation. I just want to go on record as saying those are great ideas and I want them to happen.
Jason: Wow I’d read that comic!
Paul Brian McCoy is the writer of Mondo Marvel and a regular contributor to Shot for Shot, Streaming Pile O’ Wha?, and Classic Film/New Blu, all here at Comics Bulletin. His first novel, The Unraveling: Damaged Inc. Book One is on sale now for Kindle US,Kindle UK, and Nook. You can also purchase his collection of short stories, Coffee, Sex, & Creation at Amazon US and UK. He is unnaturally preoccupied with zombie films, Asian cult cinema, and sci-fi television. He can also be found babbling on Twitter at@PBMcCoy and blogging occasionally at Infernal Desire Machines.