While there are other animation studios, when it comes to feature-length movies of the sort in the U.S. Disney has largely been the go-to since the 1920s. Dreamworks did challenge them somewhat, and still does, but in the United States Disney is really the only studio that is equipped to do animation on large scale. They have the budgets and creative talent, and, unfortunately, they also have a large population of people who think cartoons are just for kids.
There have been some exceptions in recent years - Beavis and Butt-head Do America and The Simpsons Movie come to mind (it was made before Disney bought Fox), but those were already well-established television programs. Same with South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut. They are shows for adults, but before they ever got to the big screen they had to be on television longer than most live-action shows have to be, and all of them were comedy. Sure, there was was a sequel to Heavy Metal, but less said about Heavy Metal 2000 the better.
There was one person that tried to change the American perception of animation: Ralph Bakshi. He started out in adult animation, and by that I mean an X-rated cartoon called Fritz the Cat, based on a character by underground comic artist R. Crumb. He followed Fritz with Heavy Traffic and the controversial Coonskin, both of which contained his own signature style and sealed his reputation as an outsider challenging the norms of what an animated film could be in the U.S. With that under his belt he decided to try something a bit more mainstream: Wizards.
Millions of years after a nuclear war, and three thousand after the good wizard Avatar (Bob Holt) banished his evil twin Blackwolf (Steve Gravers) from the Goodlands, the latter has amassed an army of mutants, goblins and demons to invade the land of the Elves and Fairies. As explained in the beginning, all the races from our folk tales came back to life after humanity was gone from the Earth. Unfortunately, many relics were left behind, and Blackwolf is able to motivate his armies with footage of Hitler's rallies. In order to stop his brother Avatar travels with the Elf Weehawk (Richard Romanus), the Fairy queen Elinore (Jesse Welles) and Peace (David Proval), a robot formerly known as Nekron 9000 that Blackwolf sent out as an assassin. Together they plan to travel to Blackwolf's capitol city of Scorch One, turn off the projector and end the war.
Susan Tyrrell's narration at the beginning promises so much. Millions of years of history, a devastated planet renewing itself, battles between good and evil, goblins armed with guns and armies of Elves using magic to defeat them. It all sounds so promising in the beginning, like a story so epic that it could only be told through animation, and one that is so bold that Disney would not touch it.
If only this was so. I have seen other work by Bakshi, but the main one that most people will be familiar with is the movie that followed this one: The Lord of the Rings, which incorporated The Fellowship of the Ring and most of The Two Towers, in rather truncated form, and never followed up with the rest of it. One of the key problems with Bakshi is his overuse of rotoscoping, which is the technique of taking live action, painting over it and incorporating it with the rest of the animation. Modern examples would be A Scanner Darkly and Waking Life, but instead of using it creatively like Richard Linklater did, Bakshi clumsily tried to incorporate it into what little animation he did do. At least in The Lord of the Rings he animated over actors using leftover costumes from The Planet of the Apes for the Orc scenes. Here he just takes war footage from Alexander Nevsky, Zulu and other films, changes the film to negative and does some minor touch-up to make the shadow armies that Blackwolf summoned from Hell.
It is also as if the movie was only half finished when it was released. A good portion of its short runtime is Tyrrell narrating over what look like storyboards for scenes of the film that were never realized. Yes, they are nice to look at, but would have been even nicer if they were moving and telling a story rather than requiring someone to tell us what is going on. What was actually animated and filmed is not much better. Bob Holt is doing a Columbo impersonation for his role of Avatar, Blackwolf never becomes a fully developed villain and neither Weehawk nor Elinore are given much of a role. It also doesn't do much to make the story any clearer, although there is not much going on to begin with; it's only Bakshi's lack of cohesive story telling that makes it feel like there might be some underlying theme. Other than "technology is bad, war is bad and I hate nukes," it's a pretty shallow exercise that never comes together in the end.
Another thing that hampers Wizards is its tone. For an epic battle of good and evil that we are supposed to take seriously - Blackwolf is trying to base his new society on Nazi Germany, on top of it all - there is way too much slapstick. There's a kangaroo creature hopping (with comedic "boing!" sounds) after a group of mutant hookers, there's the whole "They killed Fritz!" routine with one of the stormtroopers, and then the whole sequence with the priests. None of it is funny in the least. It is humor one would see in a child's cartoon.
There is so much promised in this movie, from Peace/Nekron 9000 on the poster sitting on his weird mount to a weird mix of science fiction and dark fantasy, that is never realized. Unfortunately, that seems par for the course of many of Bakshi's movies. It devolves into barely watchable rotoscoped stock footage, bad comedy and, for all that is happening, a world that I ceased caring about five minutes after the narration ceased and the rest of the movie started.
Time: 70 minutes
Starring: Bob Holt, Jesse Welles, Richard Romanus, Steve Gravers, Susan Tyrrell
Director: Ralph Bakshi