Ralph Bakshi Retrospective Part 4: Wizards
Not Another Science vs. Magic Movie!
Wizards begins by politely introducing itself to us:
An illuminating history
bearing on the everlasting struggle
for world supremacy
fought between the powers of
A long way from the flat “fuck you” that opens Heavy Traffic. It’s also much more likely to induce eye-rolling from an audience that has heard this song twenty times before. “The Magic Versus Technology War” has its own page on TV Tropes, documenting this popular story format. Magic and technology almost always carry an arsenal of connotations and sidekicks into their supposedly everlasting struggle. Magic brings a certain brand of “nature,” romanticism, fantasy, and, often, mystified notions of indigenous people. See the environmental cash-in film Ferngully for an example. You don’t have to look much further afield than Bakshi’s own filmography, however, to find this trope playing out in an almost primordial form.
After all, Lord of the Rings embodies this trope, as it does so many other common fantasy conventions. It’s the ultimate tragedy of modernization, the passage of an enchanted world West into memory and its replacement by the world of technology and the mundane. Saruman and Sauron’s evil is most graphically portrayed in the imagery of volcanic wastes, ashes, and smoke––the sour aftertaste of the industrial revolution. Tolkien is a great deal more subtle than most of stories that use magic vs. technology (AKA primitive vs. industrial AKA nature vs. technology, etc.) as their central conflict, though it’s still one of the most prominent themes in The Lord of the Rings.
But let’s be careful! We are dealing Bakshi, who is well versed in the art of flamboyantly flipping stereotypes and audience expectations. Introducing the film by basically showing his thematic hand, he is able to bring the audience into a world that traffics in familiar characters and concepts while also pushing his rather unsavoury backstory on us.
The fantasy world of Wizards is that of our own Earth. The third planet from the sun burns to death in nuclear war, only to explode into new life millions of years later as the “true ancestors of Man,” elves and fairies, emerge from new forests. Meanwhile, radioactive mutants roam the wastelands beyond the new green utopias. It recalls Adventure Time in its bleak acknowledgement of humanity’s destructive potential, although the world that blooms from the ashes is far less surreal and imaginative than that show’s. We have a basically Manichean world: two areas named Scortch and Montagar (you’ll never guess which is the burned waste), two moral poles that line up as one would expect, and…two Wizards.
Our titular Wizards are Avatar, pudgy and good-humoured cigar-smoker that he is, and Blackwolf, cursed by his mother with a terrible name and by the Earth with fleshless arms and a personality befitting his moniker. The conflict in the film is between these two brothers. Blackwolf, who is condemned to live in Scortch after being defeated by his brother, seeks vengeance and global power by using old Nazi technology. Building an immense industrial apparatus, he reconstructs the armies of the Blitzkrieg from an assortment of demons, mutants, and malcontents. His most potent weapon is not tanks or planes but old propaganda from the Third Reich, salvaged from the wreck of the previous world by his minions. He infuses the old film reels and projector with his own dark magic, using them to spread chaos and fear in the enemy ranks. As one final measure, he sends out robotic assassins out to murder the leaders of the Free World (see Tolkien’s Free Peoples).
Avatar manages to convert one of these assassins into a force for good (naming him Peace) and sets out to confront his brother once and for all with the help of the elf warrior Weehawk and fairy companion Eleanor, who wants to become a full-fledged fairy and avenge her father, whom Peace killed.
Much like Lord of the Rings, Wizards is primarily a movie about people travelling from one place to another and encountering episodic adventures along the way. Though this film has the most focused plotting of any of Bakshi’s features thus far, it still manages to find ways to insert oddities and strange happenings. Giant pink mice, troublesome fairy courts, psychedelic monsters, and, yes, CBS-worshipping rabbis, abound. The scene with the latter plays as a variation of the synagogue scene from Fritz the Cat, with bumbling cartoonish soldiers gradually losing patience with the dithering men of God.
Characterization is on point, if a bit simplistic. Avatar embodies Jewish good humour and joie de vivre, and clearly begrudges his responsibilities despite ultimately being a heroic figure. Bob Holt, a prolific voice actor, gives him a fantastic gruffness and world-weary attitude. He gets few opportunities to show off his power, making it somewhat ambiguous how powerful he still remains after thousands of years, but Bakshi would rather highlight his sharp mind instead of raw sorcery. In a moment of despair, he becomes a 60s hippie throwing flowers everywhere in Scortch, breaking stealth and almost getting himself killed. I would say that he has something of the naïve idealist left in him, but it’s been smothered by years of inactivity and, within the plot itself, a key betrayal.
Blackwolf’s actor Steve Gravers delivers a suitably sinister vocal performance, and has some fun embodying pure evil. His character is rather rote––this isn’t The Last Unicorn, unfortunately––but he has a memorable design and he is all of a piece with the setting, his thin skeletal frame fitting right into the beautiful background drawings of his twisted realm. Bakshi has more interest in developing Blackwolf as a conduit of Nazi evils than as a character. He’s a classical bad guy without any redeeming qualities from birth onward. Everyone else sticks in your memory, if nothing else. Wee hawk is the noble and dogged warrior, Elinore mostly pampered and ineffective (more on her later), and Peace largely mute. Despite the fantasy story and larger scope, the characters are defined with broad strokes and in true cartoon fashion.
At the end of the film, Bakshi completely upturns his own thematic conceit. Magic vs. technology gets recontexualized within a moral sphere, emphasizing individual virtue more than one’s alignment one way or the other. After all, the elves our protagonists meet in the desert have no compunction about using stolen firearms to fight for their freedom. And while Avatar objects to this initially, he has a few tricks up his sleeve that genuinely surprised and delighted me when he pulls them off. Bakshi manages a similar magic act, setting up expectations one way and then yanking the rug out from under us. It’s not the most subtle or incisive commentary––it’s still Bakshi after all––but continues a proud Bakshi tradition of valuing pragmatism and survival instincts over purity and idealism.
In interviews, the director has made it clear that Wizards deals with the Holocaust founding of the State of Israel and the creation of a Jewish homeland. Considering the blatant invocation of Nazism as absolute evil and Bakshi’s Jewish heritage (often incorporated into his other works), this is unsurprising. In fact, he tips his hand by using the word “holocaust” in the script, though in this case referring to the fiery destruction of the entire world. Part of Avatar’s motivation is that humanity used weapons of war to destroy the world once, and he is trying to prevent it from happening again. This echoes the call to remember often invoked in Holocaust literature, calling on the power of memory to convince future generations of human beings into saying “never again.” Avoiding a repetition of the Holocaust is the entire stated reason for such literature to exist. Wizards is, in a less direct way, another call to remember, using Nazi stock footage and explicit themes of genocide and global destruction to recall both the general horrors of modern war and the Third Reich’s particular crimes against the Jewish people.
Hammering this home is the final line of the film’s narration. Once the battle is won and evil vanquished, the narrator says:
“Hitler was dead again
…They could live once more in peace
in the land they loved so much.
Wizards’ Earth was destroyed the first time by human irrationality and overreach––the nuclear devastation that levelled the world was started by a small band of terrorists and started a confused chain reaction. In Bakshi’s creation, therefore, those who destroyed the world are not the bearers of absolute evil but rather the subject of a dark joke. Hitler and the NSDAP, however, are so rotten and black-hearted that their legacy outlives the mistaken destruction of the world for millions of years, resurfacing in the hands of another Hitler, who has to be vanquished once again for the good people of the world to be free and at ease. Living in their own “god-given” land, a curious turn of phrase for a filmmaker who has shown some interest in religion but never in such an unironic way. If we take this as a uniform endorsement of the Israeli state, this is an unfortunate message of solidarity with a settler colonial project. On the other hand, it can be read as a hope that Jewish life will be safe in the world now, safe from future genocide and oppression wherever it exists, and that is something to be fervently wished for.
Rotoscoping: Our New Best Friend
Rotoscoping is perhaps the only old-school animation technique that does not have an instant charm for people accustomed to the sterility of modern CGI. It’s often perceived as alienating and not-quite-real, somewhere beyond the stylized naturalism of Disney and cartoon stretching and squishing. Here a highly simplistic version of rotoscoping was used to fill out battle scenes Bakshi could not afford to finish in the allotted budget. Using scenes from old historical epics like Alexander Nevsky, he and his animation team convey a sense of scale that could not have been achieved with their extremely limited budget. It has a striking quality that also reminds the viewer that Bakshi has always been a collage artist at heart. Contrasted with teh more cartoony elves and fairies, the posterized cavalry have an ominous quality to them, something Bakshi would continue to explore in his next project, The Lord of the Rings. Rotoscoping would be a major part of his career from here on out, so it’s worth noting its debut.
Elinore and The Two Mothers
Elinore, the fairy princess of the story, is drawn with very little clothing and for much of the running time is either tied up or under mind control. She’s a fairy tale damsel in distress with a layer of 1970s horniness painted over her, at least for the most part. At the beginning she is the one who shakes Avatar out of his complacency and throughout she demonstrates that she has at least some competence with a sword and a blossoming set of magical powers. What happens, though, is that she gets removed from the film altogether when the final battle arrives, rescued by Weehawk (after he slams her with a distasteful slur rather than just calling her a traitor), and becomes Avatar’s girlfriend with little or no setup. They have some friendly and playful banter throughout the movie, and Avatar magics her a cloak during a snowstorm, but her actual impact on the plot is minimal for a supposedly central character. Unfortunately, she comes across as window dressing, a bit of sexualized fan service fit for the cover of a dire fantasy novel. The only other major female characters in the story are Avatar and Blackwolf’s mother and Blackwolf’s concubine/wife/kept woman. Both of them are feeble mother figures, and the latter’s fate is never properly resolved. All the women are vulnerable to the film’s at time clipped pacing, and if the outfits they wore were the only issue I would be merely annoyed rather than somewhat disturbed.
Wizards takes Ralph Bakshi’s highly personal brand of filmmaking and transposes it onto a high fantasy skeleton. Streamlining his episodic storytelling and adopting, with some caveats, the stark moral duality of Tolkien-derived fantasy, the filmmaker achieves something quiet unique. it has definite problems, especially (again) in its treatment of women characters and the restrictions of its low budget, but I rather like the movie nonetheless. If only because of its blunt subversion of its own stated premise and its weird combination of the personal and the fantastical, the child-friendly and the, well, not, Wizards is another qualified triumph.