Directed By: Ralph Bakshi
Starring: Jesse Welles, Bob Holt, Richard Romanus
Tag line: "A fantasy vision of the future"
Trivia: Bob Holt modeled Avatar's voice after actor Peter Falk
Wizards marked a turning point in the career of animator Ralph Bakshi, who had previously produced urban-centric movies with lots of social commentary and more than their share of sex and violence (Fritz the Cat being the most infamous of the bunch). With this 1976 film, he crossed into the realm of fantasy, a genre he would continue to explore over the course of several movies, including his 1978 version of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.
Set in the distant future, millions of years after earth was destroyed by nuclear conflict, Wizards is the story of two sorcerers: the kindly Avatar (voiced by Bob Holt) and his evil brother Blackwolf (Steve Gravers), sons of the Fairy queen Delia. After the death of their mother, Blackwolf tried to take control and set himself up as king, only to be defeated in battle by Avatar. Having languished for thousands of years in Scortch, a land populated by the mutated descendants of mankind, Blackwolf turns his attention towards “ancient technology”, instruments of war such as rifles and tanks, which he’ll use in yet another attempt to conquer the world. Avatar, who lives among the elves and fairies, is much older than he was when he first faced Blackwolf, but accompanied by both Weehawk (Richard Romanus), an Elf soldier; and the Elven Princess Elinore (Jesse Welles), the aging wizard sets off for Scortch, where he will unleash his newest invention, a robot named “Peace” (David Proval), in the hopes of preventing what would undoubtedly be a very destructive war.
At times a dark, foreboding tale of good versus evil, Wizards had all the makings of an epic fantasy; the sequences narrated by an uncredited Susan Tyrrell, which featured still images relating (among other things) the origin story of Avatar and Blackwolf, are exceptional, setting the perfect tone for a serious-minded work of fiction. Unfortunately, Bakshi tosses some ill-advised comedy into the mix that, more often than not, undermines the film’s dramatic elements. Along with moments of slapstick (provided by a couple of bumbling soldiers in Blackwolf’s army), we have Avatar himself, who, with his laid-back attitude and one-liners about his age, is closer in character to comedian George Burns than he is Gandalf the White. I also wasn’t a fan of the movie’s soundtrack, which consisted mostly of ‘70s funk (for the battle scenes) and the occasional soft piano score that reminded me of Vince Guaraldi’s compositions for Charles Shultz’s Peanuts specials (the only music that seemed to fit was Susan Anton’s somber tune “Only Time Will Tell”, which set the mood for the segments in which it appeared).
Even with the above missteps, Wizards remains an intriguing film. The fact that Blackwolf uses Nazi propaganda movies to inspire his army is downright chilling, as are some of the battle sequences, for which Bakshi relied heavily on the “rotoscoping” technique (where real-life footage is traced over to make it appear animated). Much like Bakshi’s earlier films, Wizards also has plenty of social commentary (an anti-war sentiment prevails throughout the entire movie). These elements, combined with Tyrrell’s spellbinding narration, help make Wizards a fascinating, albeit uneven, motion picture.