I have always preferred Ralph Bakshi's flawed but imaginative adaptation of The Lord of the Rings to the more critically and publically embraced, but in my opinion workmanlike, live action versions by Peter Jackson. Bakshi's version, while meandering and badly written, not to mention incomplete, is a fascinating and at times disturbing piece of work, thanks to its tone and bizarre use of high contrast live action footage xeroxed on to animation cels, creating a look unlike any other. Therefore, I jumped at the chance to view the film he made prior to The Lord of the Rings: 1977's Wizards, a supposedly family-oriented feature using many of the same techniques and styles.
At some point in the future, several atomic explosions destroyed much of Earth, splitting it into a wholesome land called Montagar and a post-apocalyptic wasteland called Scortch. Those living in Montagar abandoned technology and lived in peace for many years, as elves and fairies began to populate them. In Scortch, however, hideously deformed creatures roamed and continued to multiply. Two twins are born in Montagar, Avatar and Blackwolf. Blackwolf is trouble from the moment he is born, and is eventually exiled by his brother. He goes to Scortch and takes control of the mutants and goblins who live there, determined to return one day and have his revenge. Time passes, and Blackwolf uncovers many of the technologies of the past, including guns, tanks, and most importantly, Nazi propaganda films. With the power of these films, projected into the sky for all to see, Blackwolf whips the mutants into a furious rage, and sends them out to take over Montagar once and for all. Meanwhile, Avatar, now an aged and addled old man, sets out to destroy Blackwolf's projector, along with Elinore the fairy princess, an elf named Weehawk, and "Peace", a robot originally sent by Blackwolf to kill Avatar, but now being used for good.
Despite this rather unconventional backdrop, much of the film feels like a very traditional swords and sorcery affair. The voices, character designs and indeed the quality of animation are a lot like what you might expect to find in a second rate piece of made-for-TV animation. I kept having nightmare flashbacks of The Smurfs as I was watching (although this film came many years before that little disaster), which is not a good thing by any standard. These elements of the film have a syrupy, cutesy feel to them, despite Bakshi's claims that he wanted to avoid talking down to the audience. That said, however, one visual element that certainly does work is Marvel Comics veteran Mike Ploog's beautiful pencil artwork, used at various points as a backdrop for Susan Tyrrell's narration.
In contrast, around a third of the material in the film is a lot darker in nature, combining Nazi propaganda films with doctored footage from films like Zulu and El Cid. To explain, Bakshi ran out of money during the making of the film, meaning that there was no way for him to animate the numerous battle scenes that appear towards the climax. To solve this problem, he took large amount of footage of soldiers, tanks and so on, and photocopied them on to animation cels with an extremely high level of contrast. This creates a very bizarre "shadow puppetry" look, with ragged silhouettes rushing about the screen, often against live action sky backgrounds. To be honest, I actually think this is a very interesting style of filmmaking, and it works quite well in its own right. However, when placed in between and against the cutesy cel animation, it looks wholly out of place. I have never seen this film, or The Lord of the Rings, which uses similar methods to greater effect, on the big screen, but I can only imagine that this would have made for an extremely visceral and perhaps downright disturbing experience.
Innovative technologies aside, the film is actually quite tedious. Outside the post-apocalyptic idea, the plot is generic and uninspired. I found myself looking at my watch several times, and despite a running time of only 80 minutes (including credits), I often found myself bored. Bakshi may be an extremely innovative and talented filmmaker, but here he doesn't seem to be able to bring much to the subject matter. The result is a film that feels confused, muddled, and interesting not from a storytelling but a technological perspective. If, like me, you found Bakshi's interpretation of The Lord of the Rings to be interesting, then you should at least check this film out. Otherwise, it probably isn't worth investigating.
The film is transferred anamorphically in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1. As was the case with the DVD of The Lord of the Rings, there are a number of shots that look vertically compromised, suggesting that Bakshi was animating with a 1.33:1 aspect ratio in mind. That said, the composition seems to be pretty slipshod anyway, so it is possible that the film was shot to work in both ratios. In any event, on the commentary track he talks at length about how pleased he is with the work Fox has done on the transfer, so it seems at least to have his approval.
The transfer itself is pretty damn good. The colours are rich - too rich, at times, because some hues look uncharacteristically out of place when placed against more drab backdrops. This, however, is a fault of the colour styling and not the transfer itself. The level of detail is quite high too, and there is no obvious edge enhancement. The compression is also handled well, which is particularly impressive given the grainy look of the source material and the frequent uses of fast-moving, high-contrast stock footage. There is a fair amount of negative damage at times, but this is probably representative of its original theatrical presentations, and I'm sure the World War 2 source materials wouldn't have been in the best condition to begin with. Overall, it looks like a product of its time, which is absolutely fine by me.
The audio does not fare quite so well. Separate stereo and mono tracks are included, which is strange, since as far as I can tell the original mix was 2-channel, making the mono track an odd inclusion. However, it is quite possible, given that Dolby Stereo was relatively new at the time, that Bakshi created two separate mixes. In any event, both tracks sound relatively similar, the only real difference seeming to be some minor channel separation in the musical score. The audio in both is a bit rough, although the dialogue is perfectly clear. In all, the audio is reasonably similar to the rather unpolished look of the animation.
A Spanish mono track is also included, as well as subtitles in English, French and Spanish.
Menus & Packaging
A nice, straightforward, static menu screen is used, featuring a drawing of Peace on his steed. The same image is used for the cover art.
My review copy came with no insert, but I'm not sure whether or not this will be true of the final release copy.
Compared to the thoroughly disappointing DVD of The Lord of the Rings from Warner, Fox has put together a pretty good line-up of extras.
Commmentary - Ralph Bakshi narrates this feature-length commentary, talking about why he made the film and discussing the various people who worked on it. It's a little rambling, and there are a number of silent gaps, but it remains relatively interesting.
Ralph Bakshi: The Wizard of Animation - This excellent 30-minute interview with Ralph Bakshi covers everything from his beginnings as a cel-cleaner at Terrytoons to the production of Wizards. Bakshi is a great storyteller, and although he has a tendency to go off on long diatribes that appear to have little to do with the matter in question, he is always entertaining to listen to, although he doesn't seem to be quite as outspoken here as he has been in previous interviews (he certainly lays into Disney mercilessly, though). It is also interesting to hear about his experiences with George Lucas, who was working on Star Wars at the same time Bakshi was creating Wizards, and how both were refused a budgetary extension by the studio. Overall a highly interesting piece, and it's a shame that Bakshi says this will be the only DVD interview he will ever do.
Two theatrical trailers and a TV spot are also included, as well as an excellent, extensive gallery of character designs, backgrounds, rough animation drawings and lobby card reproductions.
On paper, it doesn't sound like much, but there is a wealth of good information here, especially in the Bakshi interview and in the galleries. It's certainly nice of Fox to invest this effort in a little-known film like Wizards.
Overall, this is a nice package for fans of the film, and while I don't suppose there are all that many people who will be interested, this DVD may be worth acquiring for those with enough of a curiosity to see it. While I am not exactly enamoured by the final result, I can't deny that there are a number of interesting ideas in it. Therefore, I can only urge potential buyers to see it for themselves and make up their own minds, as the DVD is very reasonably priced.