director Ralph Bakshi
I don’t have anything as intense as a love-hate relationship with the work of Ralph Bakshi, but I do have an odd ambivalence about his work.
Without a doubt, Bakshi’s work broke ground for feature animation with its adult content, its iconoclastic and idiosyncratic subject matter, and forging style much differentiated from the mainstream. To be honest, I’ve not seen either Heavy Traffic (1973) nor Coonskin (1975), which I understand to be his best, most personal, most radical films (definitely a short-coming on my part). However, I am not unfamiliar with him. The only of his films that I have watched in the last decade was his The Lord of the Rings (1978). But thanks to early 1980’s cable television,I saw American Pop (1981), Fire and Ice (1983) and this film, Wizards, his first foray into fantasy film.
The film opens with this very convoluted backstory about two wizards, one good, one evil, born twins to a post-apocalyptic then regenerated world of elves and mutants and all kinds of stuff. Actually, it’s probably a bit of narrative overkill, but how many films have elves with machine guns? The long and the short of it is that the good one, called Avatar, is a strange little guy with a beard, big feet and a big nose and a sort of old New York attitude. He represents magic. His brother, Blackwolf, is straight out of central casting for Rasputin, with red eyes, and a fixation on technology and Nazism. Then there are sexy fairies, robot assassins, and strange two-legged camels. It’s an odd, eclectic world.
For me, the most interesting thing about the film was its commentary on war and technology and propaganda. Blackwolf manages to raise armies from history, inspiring them with stock footage of Adolf Hitler and Nazi troops marching. When projected, this footage has more power than guns or magic, warps and drives the minions. While the commentary is interesting, it’s not entirely clear-cut.
The robot assassin known as Necron 99 gets captured and turned to good, nicknamed Peace. The magical wizard Avatar pulls out a revolver to ultimately down his enemy. Epic battle sequences are basically rotoscoped scenes from films as diverse as Alexander Nevsky (1938), Zulu (1964), and Battle of the Bulge (1965). This weird effect works within a narrative about resurrected wars and armies of the past revived for the future.
From what I’ve read, the film was made as on the cheap as could be done at the time. That is one reason for all the rotoscoped battle scenes. The animation is what is known as “limited animation”, meaning the number of frames per second are lesser, characters stop in poses, to hold time and keep the drawing to a minimum, and the effect is one of cheapness. On television, it can be almost invisible when used well. But in a feature film, cheapness comes more obvious than not.
So the ultimate result is a very strange mishmash of a story, voicing a very cynical anti-war, anti-technology motif, with a mad mixture of characters and voice acting style. It’s weird.
I watched it with the kids, who definitely found it weird. I don’t know if they found it as interesting as I did. I really need to finally see Heavy Traffic and Coonskin.