Review of Wizards (1977)

I first stumbled across Wizards on a lazy Sunday afternoon. As I often do to pass the time I was looking through some IMDB lists (underappreciated animated movies at the time) when this poster caught my eye. I knew nothing about Wizards, but I was immediately interested. I mean, look at that poster! It’s amazing! For about a day I went back and forth, reading reviews and glancing over trailers and stills before committing buy it on DVD and give it a chance. After having seen it, I can admit that, while Wizards isn’t for everybody, it certainly qualifies as an animated gem and is easily one of my personal favorite animated movies.

What is Wizards?

Wizards is kind of hard to explain without first understanding the man who made it. Ralph Bakshi was one of the more prominent animators from the 60s to the 80s. What helped him stand out from other animators at the time (like Don Bluth and those at Walt Disney Pictures) was that his movies tended to be geared toward adults as opposed to children. This isn’t shocking to us today (heck, people were actually excited when The Killing Joke announced that it would have an R rating) but many of his movies were very controversial at the time of their release.

Movies like Fritz the Cat, Coonskin and Heavy Traffic all featured surprising amounts of violence, nudity, sex and drug use and all focused heavily in the urban underbelly. On top of this, most of his movies were independently produced, having minuscule budgets and very small teams working on them. Because of this, Bakshi was often forced to be a little more creative with his animation using live backgrounds and other techniques giving his films a unique look and feel. In spite of all of the controversy surrounding them, many of his films (though not all) were surprise box office successes.

For his next film, Bakshi wanted to try something different for a change. All of his movies had been based in the “real world” and aimed toward adults. In order to, in his own words, justify his other movies, this time he wanted to make a more family oriented film set in a fantasy world, albeit with his own unique style and flare.  Thus we have Wizards.

What is Wizards About?

Wizards is set in a post-apocalyptic fantasy 10 million years in the future. When the earth is practically destroyed by an all out nuclear war the few surviving humans are forced to live in a desolate landscape cursed by darkness and rampant radiation. As generations passed, the humans became more and more mutated until many of them no longer resembled humans at all.

 On the other hand, with humanity’s eradication, creatures of magic began to reappear after having been pushed away by the expanding humans. Using magic, many of the desolate lands were healed and the fairy-folk lived together in the good lands while the vile mutants remained in the bad lands. One day, as the fairies and elves celebrated 3,000 years of peace the queen of the fairies miraculously conceived twins…wizards.  One of the wizards was pure and good, Avatar, while the other was a mutant, grotesque and repulsive, Blackwolf.
Avatar lived with the other fairies and elves and was close to his mother, being taught in the ways of magic by her. Blackwolf lived as an outcast, studying the black arts and practicing by torturing animals. After 5,000 years, when their mother passed away from old age, Blackwolf was excited, hoping to take power in the good lands. Avatar was furious and confronted his brother in a battle that nearly destroyed both of them. Blackwolf was arguably the more powerful of the two, but Avatar’s grief over the loss of their mother gave him the strength he needed. Blackwolf was defeated and banished into the bad land, promising that the good lands would be ruled by mutants.
Thus were the lands divided. The good lands, now ruled by Avatar, were known as Montegar and the bad lands, those ruled by Blackwolf, became known as Scorch. It seems that during the 3,000 years that passed Avatar worked to introduce democracy into Montegar with each race electing its own president and living in their own lands. In Scorch, Blackwolf ruled with an iron fist, using his black magic to enslave the mutants and summon demons from hell to command his armies.
Without warning, the armies of Scorch began to invade the peaceful lands of Montegar. However, despite their vast numbers, they failed to gain much ground. They would either get distracted or frightened and run off. They simply had no cause to fight.
Blackwolf was furious. He needed something to motivate his mutant armies to march forward. In desperation he sent them to scour Scorch in search of relics of the ancient past. They brought back weapons, tanks and planes, but it still wasn’t enough. then, one day, an old projector with aged film was discovered. Enhancing it with his magic, Blackwolf realized what he had found. He had rediscovered the secrets of propaganda. Now, using the images of the Nazi Blitzkrieg he has what he needs to stir his armies and invoke terror against his enemies. The final assault on Montegar is about to begin and the race is on for Avatar and his small band of heroes to reach Scorch 1 and destroy Blackwolf and his projector before it’s too late.

What Kind of Movie is Wizards?

Wizards, on the surface, is your fairly standard fantasy/adventure. A small band of heroes embarking on a quest into the lands of a dark overlord. What sets it apart, however, are its animation and setting. Post apocalyptic fantasies are not the kind of movie that you see very often (for whatever reason) but it makes for some great visuals and a unique style.

Wizards’ characters aren’t anything special, for the most part, but they get the job done. The aforementioned Avatar and Blackwolf are your respective protagonist and antagonist. Along for the ride we also have Elinor, your obligatory love interest, Weehawk, the gruff yet supportive side character, and by far the strongest character of the film, despite very little dialogue, Peace.

Wizards takes the time to explain that Peace was originally Necron 99 and one of Blackwolf’s assassins. However, after an encounter with Avatar early in the film he becomes an ally helping the team of heroes reach Scorch. Throughout the movie it’s never clear just how loyal to Avatar peace is and his ark is surprisingly well done in spite of the short run time. He has some dialogue here and there, but I would have personally preferred him as a mute. Still, he manages to be the most memorable character in the film (despite maybe Blackwolf) and manages to help Wizard’s cast really stand out.

What Kind of Animation does Wizards Use?

Wizards’ animation is very unique. As stated above, Wizards is a 2D animated film by Ralph Bakshi and, as is standard of much of his earlier work, was made for an incredibly small budget of just over $ 1 million. Such a small budget left the bulk of the animation to a small team of animators and often forced Bakshi to use multiple techniques to get the scenes he wanted.

Throughout Wizards’s run-time roughly 60-70% of the film is done in traditional cell animation as pictured above. Again, the film was made on a remarkably small budget with an even smaller animation team. In order to save costs, most frames of animated footage were “first drafts” meaning that whatever was drawn ended up on screen. Because of this, from time to time the viewer can see the quality and style of the hand drawn animation vary slightly from scene to scene depending on who the animator of that particular sequence was. Sometimes the animator would focus on smoother and more restrained movements, other times (particularly on the mutants) it would be more on humor and a more sketchy, grotesque appearance. The quality of the lip sinking also seems to vary rather drastically, being good one scene but with little apparent effort in another. Fortunately, each sequence, in spite of its shortcomings, has its own strengths as well. One particular scene in which Elinor, one of the team, is being held captive by fairies the lip sinking is pretty much non-existent but the colors and movements are pretty remarkable.

However, during Wizards’ prologue and from time to time over the course of the film, still images by Michael Plugg of Marvel fame are shown to move the story along. These are consistently impressive and do a good job setting the mood for each scene as well as advance the story very well.

Finally (and perhaps most jarringly) there is a fair amount of rotoscoping in Wizard’s battle scenes. Rotoscoping is a fairly unique animation technique in which animation is done over live footage (as opposed to a blank cell). It was nothing new when this film came out (Godzilla’s atomic breath had been put on screen using rotoscoping since the 60s) but what Bakshi did with it is pretty unique. Since there was not enough money to animate the gigantic battles that he envisioned in Wizards’ final act he took battle footage from older films (be it on horseback, tanks, planes etc.) and, projecting it onto a transparent screen, drew over all of the characters in each frame, adding on wings or horns or whatever he felt like. Doing this frame by frame he managed to create some visually uncanny imagery.

The sheer veriety of Wizards’ animation techniques leads to a consistently inconsistent animation spectacle. This fact alone seems to be the main point of division between those who love the film (like myself) and those who do not. Suffice it to say, Bakshi’s unique visual style is either going to make or break the movie for most audiences. However, if you’re willing to stomach the constant shift in style and technique you’ll be getting some of the most interesting visual animation you’ll every see on screen.

How are the Music and Audio in Wizards?

Music is a very important part of any film to me. As to be expected from everything else covered here the soundtrack for Wizards is pretty bizarre yet likable if you know what you’re getting into. Composed by Andrew Belling the soundtrack, much like the visuals, were bound by a small budget and team. In fact, to my knowledge, Andrew Belling composed the entire soundtrack by himself with nothing but a synthesizer. However, the range of sounds and rhythms that he manages to generate is pretty impressive and his musical queues manage to enhance the imagery (which is what they should be doing anyway) without overpowering them.

As far as sound effects, they are fairly minimal and don’t fair nearly as well as the soundtrack does unfortunately. They aren’t terrible but they do feel a bit cheap and fail to generate much impact. On top of that, from time to time the timing with the animation on screen seems a bit…off. Again, it’s nothing terrible but it does leave something do be desired.

Finally comes the voice acting. Like the rest of the film it’s consistently inconsistent. Avatar and Blackwolf are both done well enough and manage to stand apart from each other.  Mark Hamill makes a cameo as the king of the mountain fairies (and he does well…he is Mark Hamill). The rest of the cast range from fine to passable with the sole exception being the aforementioned Peace. Again, it’s not terrible but his voice just doesn’t fit his design and character. Fortunately he has very few lines and as a character himself he is very likable so I can forgive it. Still, it is worth mentioning.

Is Wizards a Good Movie?

Admittedly, this is a pretty hard question to answer. Wizards isn’t going to appeal to everybody, but I don’t think that it was intended to. However, if you look at the film in terms of the whole package I think it holds up pretty well. It’s rare for a movie to pull off bizarre well and this movie does. It’s definitely its own thing, but for what it is it does it well. If it had had a larger budget and crew I think it could have been something truly remarkable. As it is though, there’s enough good stuff here to love it.

How do I know Whether or Not I’ll Like Wizards?

As stated above, Wizards is a good movie, but not one that everyone is going to like. As evidence of this, Wizards is one of the few movies I know of where both the positive and negative reviews seem to have convincing arguments. For me, whether or not you like Wizards is going to depend heavily on your opinion of the animation and tone. If the story and comments I made above seem intriguing to you then, by all means, check it out. You’ll probably like it. It’s certainly not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, but for those who enjoy it, like myself, they tend to enjoy it a lot. Check it out and see what you think.