I believe it was Tolstoy who said that all happy families were alike, but that every unhappy family was unhappy in its own way. A similar thing can be said of movies. Good movies are just that – good. Consequently they’re difficult to review, and that is why I review so many movies of questionable quality.
Bad movies, on the other hand, come in many varieties, from the painful to the merely boring. And then there are what I call Perfect Storm bad movies – films in which lunacy, sincerity, and ineptitude come together. Wizards is one of those films.
(Now, I know the “ineptitude” point is no doubt going to get me some flak from the Ralph Bakshi acolytes, but trust me – watch Wizards when you are sober and no longer fifteen years old. You’ll see what I mean.)
Wizards is one of those films that was both ahead of its time and incredibly dated the moment it hit screens in 1977 (it didn’t help that its brief moment of box-office glory was stolen the very next week by this other movie you might have heard of – something called Star Wars). This is apparent from its first frames, which use a cheesy futuristic typeface and have Tangerine Dream knockoff music. Lengthy voiceover tells us how the world was destroyed by nuclear war, and after many thousands of years Earth is finally being restored. In the “bad” lands are what’s left of humanity, mostly reduced to mutants and monsters. The “good” lands are populated by fairies and elves, who are supposed to be beautiful and awesome but for the most part end up being twee and annoying.
One day two wizards are born: the cuddlesome and good one is Avatar, the creepy-looking bad one is Blackwolf. Maybe if their mother had given them names a little less stereotypical things might have worked out differently. Anyway, years pass. Avatar is now an older dude who seems to have gotten a bit lazy and mostly likes to hang around with zaftig fairy princess Eleanor. Meanwhile, Blackwolf has gone full-throttle evil and we know this because he has red eyes and parts of his arms are raw bone, as if he’d been spending some vacation time in the Men Behind The Sun prison camp. For years Blackwolf has been leading armies of demons and mutants in an effort to take over the Keebler Cookie Factory, I mean the good fairy-and-elf lands, but with no success. But now he’s uncovered a secret weapon – something that will both inspire his troops and demoralize the elven warriors. What could this weapon be? Ordinarily I wouldn’t spoil it since it’s the jaw-dropping peak/nadir of the film, but here goes: it’s stock footage of Hitler and Third Reich propaganda.
And this is all just the backstory, folks.
The plot itself gets in motion when an assassin named Necron 99 kills a fairyland president who just happens to be Eleanor’s father. This gets Avatar off his ass and he takes Eleanor and an elf warrior named Weehawk to go after Blackwolf. They’re guided by the assassin, who’s undergone a personality transformation thanks to… um, I’m not really sure. Magic? Brain damage? Plot convenience? Anyway, Necron 99 is now renamed Peace (you may have gathered that subtlety is not this movie’s strong point). And off they go to stop Blackwolf and his army.
The really vexing thing about Wizards is that it’s best known for the things that are its biggest flaws. For an animated film, there’s surprisingly little animation in it. Lengthy chunks of the film are told using still drawings with voiceover by an uncredited (and quite good) Susan Tyrrell, and Blackwolf’s army is largely depicted by rotoscoped footage from live action films, primarily Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky. The animation itself is repetitive, cheap-looking, and ugly even when it’s supposed to be depicting the peaceful fairy and elf lands. Which is a shame because when taken as individual images, some of Bakshi’s creations are quite striking (a prime example is the famous poster with Peace on his two-legged steed). Moreover, some of the backgrounds in Blackwolf’s land are captivating – post-nuclear industrial wreckage with a M. C. Escher twist.
But even if the animation were stronger and more consistent, it wouldn’t change the fact that the story of Wizards is trite and hamfisted. Entire plot threads and characters, such as the other assassins and Blackwolf’s queen, are brought up and then discarded. The use of Nazi imagery as an example of ultimate evil is understandable, yet this aspect of the film is so heavy-handed that the whole thing ends up being almost offensive. Similarly unsubtle is the “Nature and magic is good, technology is evil” theme repeatedly brought home in the film, though it gets a nice subversive touch in a cynical ending that seems to say that while peace and love is cool, sometimes to get things done you need to fight fire with fire.
Wizards isn’t a good movie, and yet it’s so out there, so crazy that it sticks in the mind afterward and while you may not like it, you have to admit there’s nothing else out there quite like it. And you won’t forget it. This may seem like a backhanded compliment, but in an age when so many bad films vanish from memory the moment you leave the theater, it’s not so bad.
For those who actually like the film on its own merits (I know you’re out there), the DVD has a bevy of fine extras: commentary by Bakshi, a short documentary about Bakshi as well, trailers, TV spots, and more.