Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Wizards who don't age well

I didn't mean to parallel Daniel's 1970s-film reassessment, honest: I had this entry prepped a few days ago. I see it as proof of positive zeitgeist.

Got home late on Saturday, surfed the premium channels for a semblance of entertainment. Found something that I used to consider very entertaining. Not sure what changed.

The film in question is Wizards, Ralph Bakshi's animated fantasy from 1977, released four months before Star Wars. I thought this film was the absolute apocalypse when it came out, the best animated film ever. So did all my friends. It was a staple at midnight screenings, and I must have seen it (and, as I worked the midnights sometimes, screened it) a dozen times.

So I let Wizards unspool and I settled in. In ten minutes, I was exasperated. By the time a half-hour had gone by, I was aghast. After 80 mercifully short minutes, I was questioning my sanity.

This film, which I loved so much in younger days, was absolutely terrible.

Thirty-two years after it's release, I was seeing Wizards for what it was: A unique sort of failure. Mr. Bakshi had set out to make an animated fantasy-comedy: He objectively failed on all three fronts.

Fantasy: The story concerns the struggle between twin wizard brothers-- one good, one evil-- in a far-off future Earth. The good one (a cross between Gandalf and underground cartoon character Cheech Wizard) lives in a realm full of magic, elves, dwarves, etc., while the evil one rules a land full of technology, orcs, and mutants. The McGuffin is unearthed Nazi propaganda: The bad, Sauron-like wizard uses it to motivate his mutant underlings to take over the world. A quest is then organized by the agents of good to travel to the blah blah blah to defeat the blizblaz of the himham. Alright, it's Lord of the Rings: Details are lifted numerously and wholesale from Tolkien. But it's more of a mash-up: Fantasy vs. Sci-Fi, magic versus technology, fairies versus radioactive Nazi mutants. Bakshi sort of squishes it all together, and it's so ridiculously overdone it's hard to care what happens at the end.

The final stroke of the story-- exactly HOW good Avatar bests his evil brother Blackwolf, is a •••spoiler•••, so I won't reveal it. But I will say it completely negates Bakshi's carefully lifted-- er, carefully built premise.

Comedy: The funny parts are painful. Bakshi's way of lightening the mood in Wizards is to stop the story cold for borscht-belt schtick. Not to geek out, but it's sort of hard to get into the D&D mood when the lead character sounds like Peter Falk and rich New York accents come out of half the character's mouths.

Animation: If you see a cool sequence once in Wizards, you'll see it two more times at least. Bakshi reuses his cels more than Hanna-Barbera ever did. A 12-cel action cycle (for instance, Nekron 99 galumphing along on his two-legged whatever) will be spun out for minutes at a time. The battle royale at the end is thickly padded with rotoscoped (i.e. xeroxed) battle scenes from Zulu, Patton and El Cid.

I know hand-drawn animation is an expensive, labor-intensive endeavor, and Bakshi and Disney were the only ones putting out feature animation in the 1970s. But sheesh.

Seen anew, it is easy to figure out why I liked Wizards so much when it first came out: There was literally nothing else like it out there. It had a hip, cynical sensibility, and it aligned with late-hippie core beliefs: magic good, technology bad. (Apparently, the concept for the film was hatched in late 60s, which explains things a little.)

But between 1977 and 2009-- from Star Wars through the Rings trilogy to Pixar and Harry Potter-- the bottom bar for fantasy films has been raised to the very apex of Hollywood. Wizards is a representative of a time when American animation was dying out, and fantasy films were scrubbing around the margins for studio financing. These may be factors in the film's many shortcomings, but I can't help but feel we all gave it a pass back then because it was the only game in town.

--Skot C.


  1. I suspected as much - though I may still have to endure that journey myself... Duh...sorry...was just channel surfing and ran across the TMNT CG version from '07 and saw some Buzz Lightyear-looking guy speaking with the unmistakable voice of Sir Pat. Disconnect.

    Anyway, Wizards. You're right. It, and Fritz the Cat, are on my list of reevaluation screeners. I was pretty sure they wouldn't hold up, though I still have a fondness for the character design (Nekron 99 in particular), in a static sense. Your comment regarding "giving it a pass back then because it was the only game in town" sums up something I've been thinking about lately, in terms of fantastical film fandom - actually, all sorts of fiction. Back in the '70's, to be a fan, you largely HAD to watch whatever was showing - on tv, or theatres, because you didn't have the choice: it was on, here and now, and if you didn't see it, you didn't get to see (insert your genre). No "on demand". No internet. No home video. We did have books and documentaries, and conversation with peers, all of which drew on the years of other people having watched whatever they could lay eyes on. It became the currency of genre fandom. It’s something lacking to a certain extent today, largely because 1) you can watch anything you want, any time you want, and with so much instant material available, like YouTube, someone can easily be overwhelmed with the volume of it, and settle for the familiar (how many people settle for a funny cat video), and 2) with about a century of product to draw on, there’s remarkably little older material available in digital form (though I have been DVRing TCM like mad – with the advent of streaming video, we will likely be seeing a larger body of material owing to the fact that it doesn’t require the studios/distributors to invest in actual physical copies of films – finally saw the Edison Frankenstein, which I thought only existed as a few photos). So yeah, we may have had a greater tolerance for utter tripe because of when in life (how old we were) and when in history (before having a choice in what we saw) we were first exposed to it. Still, as you pointed out, it WAS the cutting edge for its time (Bakshi has always favored experimentation over the tedium of number of frames) , and the “borscht-belt” humor and New York accents were a deliberate counter-genre choice. Obviously compared to say “Lord of the Rings”, where immersion is its primary goal, “Wizards” might be jarring – but then, so is “the Forbidden Zone”, and I just watched it again a few years back, and taken for what it is, it still stands up (had “Pico and Sepulveda” restuck in my head – I hear Elfman is considering a sequel). But I’ll trust you on the tedium – my own memories are spotty, and primarily focused on Nekron 99, the rotoscoped stock footage, and, of course, Elinore (hey, I’m a guy – waddaya want?). Which means I’m going to add Fantastic Planet to the rewatch list – because I hated it when I was a kid, so maybe there was something more going on there (though I doubt it – it’s going to be weird, awkward, and foreign, I just know it).

    Anyway, thanks for the warning.

  2. Er, what you said. Less choices, we had to settle for crap back then, etc. It's part of the much larger picture of media expansion, of course.

    Interesting you'd bring up FANTASTIC PLANET. I saw this at the Rio when I was a kid, double-featured with 2001. I would also give this one another try-- but attempt to see in in something like an unedited European version. I remember the last time I watched this film was on cable, while having lunch (mac and cheese) and something about the visual texture of the film made me physically ill.

  3. The best and maybe only good thing about WIZARDS was the poster. Which I own, by the way.