The weirdest thing about Wizards is that the movie isn’t particularly weird. After all, the animated adventure was the first full-on fantasy film from maverick animator Ralph Bakshi, who made his mark with the X-rated cartoon feature Fritz the Cat (1972). Yet for this project, which is a hybrid of Tolkein-esque medieval/magic tropes and ecologically themed sci-fi, Bakshi mostly dialed back on the provocation and concentrated on spinning a yarn. Unfortunately, the yarn isn’t very good.
In the distant future, after man has turned Earth into a wasteland, two sibling wizards—good Avatar (voiced by Bob Holt) and evil Blackwolf (voiced by Steve Gravers)—battle for control. Avatar’s all about nature, since he’s a mellow little dude who lives in a castle with a sexy faerie, whereas Blackwolf is a demonic-looking creature ruling an army of hell-spawned monsters, homicidal robots, and killer mutants. The bulk of the story depicts Avatar’s difficult trek from his castle to Blackwolf’s lair for a final standoff, and a major subplot involves Avatar’s conversion of one of Blackwolf’s assassins—a robot whom Avatar captures and renames “Peace” (voiced by David Proval)—into a soldier for good.
This is all exactly as heavy-handed as it sounds, though the hipster prism through which Bakshi tells his tale makes the movie a bit more palatable than it might have otherwise. For instance, Avatar is prone to saying things like “this has been the biggest bummer trip I’ve ever been on.” He’s an appealing character, even though his attitude and lingo now seem dated.
Bakshi employs the crude but innovative animation techniques that were his ’70s signature, occasionally sprucing up traditional cel-animation shots with trippy backgrounds that are generated by optical effects. He also spotlights herky-jerky images created by filming real actors and then tracing their basic shapes onto film frames to provide an effect akin to moving silhouettes. (During the picture’s climax, Bakshi takes the experiment further by integrating live-action footage, cutting to real shots of airplanes and tanks while Avatar’s army tangles with Blackwolf’s forces.) The oddest—and least effective—of Bakshi’s gimmicks involves cutting to montages of still drawings for transitional moments. As an uncredited Susan Tyrell soberly intones expositional voiceover, renderings by comic-book/magazine artist Mike Ploog depict scenes that Bakshi didn’t bother to animate. In addition to slowing down the action, these transitional moments make the rest of the movie look crappy by comparison, since Ploog’s drawings are beautifully detailed.
Another significant problem with Wizards is that Bakshi, who also wrote and produced the film, can’t decide on a consistent tone—the movie lurches back and forth between action and slapstick and social commentary. In short, it’s a mess. Still, every so often Bakshi’s mad-scientist approach results in something exciting or funny or touching, and the one thing the movie can’t be said to lack is imagination.