A 1977 movie featuring Mark Hamill about the cosmic struggle between the forces of good and evil? Wizards is of course the answer, maverick animator Ralph Bakshi’s freak-flavoured adventure, which only incidentally features Hamill, though he makes for a useful gobbet of trivia if you’re a quiz compiler.
Actually, the parallels with Star Wars are more than incidental in this one, since it really is a good v evil, tech v magic (and what was the Force, if not magic?) showdown waged between family rivals in a world far, far away – in time at least. Wizards is set on a post-apocalyptic Earth that’s still, millions of years in the future, recovering from a nuclear disaster.
In a bit of scene-setting that’s all static 2D imagery over roiling backgrounds, Bakshi sketches in the calamity, the consequences and the origin of what will become the ultimate showdown (the Darth v Skywalker moment, if you like) – two babies born to a fine woman, a yin and yang pair called Avatar and Blackwolf, who will go on to become arch rivals. No prizes for guessing which one will grow up to be the baddie.
Bakshi switches tack for the film proper – static backgrounds with some fairly basic 2D animation in front, the sort of stuff Disney was abandoning in the 1930s, with some multiplane-camera moments thrown in to suggest depth. Connoisseurs of Bakshi know what to expect – big blocks of colour used boldly, scarlets, and oranges and vibrant greens against monotone/monochrome backgrounds that are barely there in some cases, sketched rather than painted, aerial perspective to a minimum. This really is comic-book art come alive, though comic-book art of that late-60s/early-70s sort – sexualised women, guys who tend to lope, a suggestion at all times that the artist might have ingested psychedelics, the possibility that the wizard you see in front of you might turn into a bat, a cat, or a fantasmagorical doormat.
Thematically, Bakshi is on the side of magic against technology, and makes this overt with footage lifted from Nazi rallies, over which characters directly address the audience – “the ancient dictators used technology to enslave the populace,” Avatar tells us at one point (hello, Mark Zuckerberg), his never-quite-stable character switching between wise Obi Wan utterances and George Burns wisecracks out of the side of the mouth (Peter Falk was the idea, apparently), though neither of those two ever used the word “bummer”, which locates Wizards precisely both in time and cultural space.
Other vocal shadows flit. Was that one of the voice artists trying to do Winston Churchill? Wasn’t that a Beatles-y nasal twang in another character?
It’s better as a snapshot of a moment than as a film. There’s a distinct lack of dramatic tug, and Bakshi’s animation priorities now look perverse. Look at the massive amount of energy he’s put into Avatar’s youthful companion, Elinore, the buttocks, the breasts, the suggestive tilt and sway of it all.
Promising so much yet not quite delivering is a Bakshi thing – having done journeyman work on the Spider-Man TV series in the late 1960s, his feature debut, an adaptation of Robert Crumb’s cult comic Fritz the Cat, didn’t even go down well with the stoners who were its target audience. Again here, Bakshi’s sledgehammer humour counts against him, and he struggles even to stay on board with his main idea, that tech is bad and magic good.
In all, Wizards is better as a moodboard of animation styles and techniques – that’s posterised chunks of Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky you can see towards the end, as the great battle commences, alongside bits of Zulu and El Cid – Bakshi has talent to burn and knows his stuff when it comes to visuals, it’s the storytelling side of things that wanders, though it’s noticeable that the film is at its most forceful when Bakshi pares everything right back to Ralph Steadman-style angsty pen and ink.
As for Mark Hamill, he’s in there, somewhere, about 30 minutes in, says the IMDb trivia page. Hitler, he’s a lot easier to spot.
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© Steve Morrissey 2022