Posted: 03/13/2012

 

Wizards: 35th Anniversary Edition

(1977)

by Jef Burnham



Now available on Blu-ray and DVD from Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment.


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The release of Star Wars in 1977 seems to have forever obscured the theatrical sensation that was writer/producer/director Ralph Bakshi’s Wizards, which grossed over $9 million at the box office before being replaced in many theaters nationwide by George Lucas’ mega-hit. With a budget of $1.2 million, Wizards constituted something of a triumph for Bakshi, who viewed the success of this, his first family film, as a vindication of the controversial, adult-oriented animated films he had made prior to Wizards. Thirty-five years later, this animated gem has at last received the home video release it deserves in this must-own Anniversary Edition.

This ambitious fantasy epic takes place long after our world has ended in a nuclear holocaust. In the wake of our destruction, elves, faeries, and dwarves have descended from man in the land of Montagar, but the radiation plaguing the wastelands of Scortch has also created an endlessly mutating race of hideous beasts that serve the evil wizard Blackwolf. The film follows Blackwolf’s brother, the great wizard Avatar, who sets out with the warrior elf Weehawk, the fairy-in-training Elinore, and the robot Peace to end Blackwolf’s war on the peaceful races of Montagar.

In every way keeping with the very definition of a family film, Wizards offers content to engage children and adults alike, and not just superficially either. In fact, the film’s thematic elements will likely be beyond the comprehension of the film’s younger audiences. For Bakshi’s post-apocalyptic fantasy presents audiences with a thematic thread warning that fascism, once defeated, remains ever-ready to rise up once again. This theme surfaces as Blackwolf, after excavating Scortch for the technologies of past civilizations, inspires his mutant armies in battle with what he refers to as the “ancient secret of war”: Nazi propaganda films projected onto the clouds!

With regard to the animation, Wizards reflects the mixed-mode method of animation typical of Bakshi’s work from this era. This represents a style of animation to which the average filmgoer will, in all likelihood, admittedly be wholly unaccustomed. But if you give it a chance, I wager you’ll find it interesting at the very least. Rather than adopting a unified style for the piece, Bakshi employs a variety of animation techniques throughout, each intended to trigger a specific emotional or intellectual response in the audience. In Wizards, Bakshi combines traditional cel animation not only with live action, archival footage (as with the Nazi propaganda films), but also with a unique variation of rotoscoping that Bakshi developed specifically for Wizards with the aid of IBM. Much of this pseudo-rotoscoped footage, Bakshi reveals on this release, he pulled from the films of Sergei Eisenstein, specifically Alexander Nevsky. Additionally, the background elements include traditional water colors (for Montagar), intricate ink drawings (for Scortch), and live action footage of clouds and smoke billowing off of dry ice.

Does it always work? Not always, but more often than you might expect. In particular, the pseudo-rotoscoping, which Bakshi utilizes exclusively to represent the armies of Scortch’s assault on Montagar, have a truly unsettling effect, and no doubt will give some children a good-natured fright. When the animation does not work, it comes off as merely awkward. I would cite some of the comic scenes as being particularly awkwardly timed. However, the failure of the film therein ultimately results from the film’s low budget and Bakshi’s valuing of heart and emotionality in his films over polished animation. And if Wizards has anything to offer, it certainly has big ideas and heart in abundance.

Fox delivers a visually spectacular transfer of Wizards for the 35th Anniversary Edition, an experience heightened by the Blu-ray’s rich picture and sharp colors. The film’s barebones audio mix ultimately results in an often less-than-impressive audio presentation on Blu-ray, but the one thing it does nicely is highlight Andrew Belling’s marvelous synthesizer score. You’ll definitely want to pick up the Blu-ray if you’re a fan of Bakshi, or even just animation in general. Now if only we would see Bakshi’s other groundbreaking 70s work receive such wonderful home video treatments.

Special features include commentary by Ralph Bakshi, in which he discusses the various animation techniques that went into the creation of the film; “Ralph Bakshi: The Wizard of Animation,” a 35-minute interview with the director; a still gallery; a TV spot and theatrical trailers; and a 24-page booklet that merely reiterates much of what Bakshi relates in the interview and commentary. The booklet does, however, include some of the original concept art as well as poster concept art.

Jef Burnham is a writer and educator living in Chicago, Illinois. While waging war on mankind from a glass booth in the parking lot of a grocery store, Jef managed to earn a degree in Film & Video from Columbia College Chicago, and is now the Editor-in-Chief of FilmMonthly.com.



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