I first saw Wizards at the strange age of 7, when a baby-sitter attempted to pacify me through video. On the afternoon lineup were a couple of Disney movies, a reel of old black and white cartoons, and this one video to which the store had lost the box. But they were pretty sure it was a cartoon, so show it to the kids. I mostly ignored the other films; they were fun, but standard kiddy fare. And then this mystery film came on the screen. It started with no bright colors, no music, just a picture of a huge book and a dry-voiced narrator introducing the story as: “An illuminating history of the battle fought between technology and Magic …”
I was stunned. There was a battle! There were hideous ugly mutants! “The world blew up in a thousand atomic fireballs?” Some one had made a fantasy cartoon without assuming that the audience had brains of tapioca! I was hypnotized until the movie ended and then demanded to see it again. And again. And then it disappeared back to the video store, and I lost it for years. But eventually I hunted down the tape, at the far more cynical age of 15, and was happy to discover it had lost none of its punch.
So what about Wizards managed to catch a 7 year old’s notoriously short attention span and entertain a teenager suffering from fantasy overload? Certainly, the basic plot was nothing special. In Magic’s corner, representing the forces of good, nature, and free love, are the elf Weehawk, the fairy princess Eleanor, and the Wizard Avatar. They set off to put an end to Avatar’s evil brother, Blackwulf, who is backed by hoards of stupid mutants and WW II era technology, but who has still managed to lose the war so far. Good vs. Evil, fairies vs. mutants … pretty standard stuff.
What sets Wizards apart is how Bakshi handles the stereotypes. Eleanor swings her sex appeal around like a weapon, playing the naïve as a political tool. Most delightful to me are the elves. At a time when Tolkien influence had seeded fantasy with languorous elves prone to reminiscing at the drop of a hat, Weehawk and his fellow elves were nasty, brutish, and short. There are fat little fairies, weirdly incompetent robot soldiers, and religious parodies that blew right by me the first time I saw it.
Not to say that Wizards is subtle … Ralph Bakshi has been accused of many things; subtlety is not one of them. The Blackwulf/Hitler comparison is made as obvious as possible, with the aid of giant swastikas painted on everything. The mutant/robot armies alternate between comically moronic and cruel, and the characters are painted in giant sweeping strokes. And, this being a Bakshi film, rotoscoped Nazis, Vikings, and Zulus(!) march about the proceedings with abandon. But the weird sense of fun running through the whole thing keeps the heavy symbolism from getting oppressive.
In the end, Wizards is a cult film. Like other cult films, it’s not necessarily perfect, but it is always energetic. The small budget is often grievously obvious, and the plot is simplistic at best, but Eleanor shows more personality in five minutes than the average Disney heroine in an entire movie. If you need your fantasy sleek and pretty, this probably isn’t the film for you. If you’re willing to accept some grit in the course of something a little different, give Wizards a try.
(Twentieth Century Fox, 1977)
Wizards is available on DVD and through many streaming services.