20th Century Fox is issuing a beautiful 35th Anniversary Blu-ray edition this week of the 1977 cult fantasy epic Wizards. Wizards is the brainchild of legendary and anarchic animator Ralph Bakshi, the same guy responsible for the original filmic adaptations of R. Crumb’s Fritz the Cat in 1972, and for Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings in 1978. Fox’s anniversary reissue of Wizards comes complete with commentary, interactive concept art galleries, and a short but comprehensive making-of documentary, and is presented in a full-color illustrated hardbound storybook case.
Having ruffled some feathers in 1975 with his release of the unapologetically race-oriented Coonskin, Bakshi decided to dial it down for awhile and wait for the storm to blow over, pitching a movie to Warner Brothers with a standard good vs. evil fantasy backdrop – without cursing or overt sexuality – that could be easily marketed to family audiences. With typical iconoclastic gusto, however, Bakshi set his children’s movie in a post-apocalyptic wasteland mired in the process of slowly repopulating itself with elves, fairies, and other magical creatures, previously driven into exile by ravaging populations of Homo Sapiens.
The renewed, mystical dominion of peace, love, and tummy laughs is threatened, however, by a mounting scourge of post-nuclear mutants and demons trained to instigate a genocidal takeover. The ringleader of the totalitarian backlash is a dangerously powerful evil Wizard named Black Wolf, and prophetically, the only person capable of sabotaging Black Wolf’s horrific plans is his brother Avatar, who has lived for centuries in the Good Lands, drinking, smoking, and partying with fairies, and communing peacefully with nature. Avatar was once considered the most powerful Wizard in history, but old age has caused his powers to atrophy, and he now seems incapable of even the most cursory magical retaliation against Black Wolf.
Avatar’s magical apprentice and unrequited love object is Eleanor of Montagar – a giggly, voluptuous, and viciously ass-kicking future Fairy Queen a fraction of Avatar’s age. When Eleanor’s father is assassinated by one of Black Wolf’s robotic thugs, Avatar resolves to journey to the land of Scorch, where Black Wolf’s headquarters are located, and avenge the murder – despite Avatar’s dwindling faith in his own abilities.
Wizards was a groundbreaking and bizarre movie when it first came out, and a film like it could probably never be produced today, especially for family audiences. Even in a fantasy film that takes place in an ageless universe far in the future, Bakshi takes time to stage elaborate satirical sequences about the impotence of organized religion in the face of real tragedy, and the vapid moral precepts of mid-ranking military personnel. Being of Jewish ancestry, Bakshi boldly incorporates Swastikas and Nazi propaganda footage into the sequences at Scorch, establishing a stark and painful historical parallel that would be unthinkable in a modern animated production.
Aside from its thematic content, Wizards is visually beautiful, melding a range of incongruous art styles into a seamlessly expressive collage landscape. Big-eyed, apple-cheeked fairies and elves battle indistinct, writhingly impersonal demon hordes created with primitive rotoscoping techniques, and background artists Mike Ploog and Ian Miller work together to contrast the Fairy Lands – rendered with soft lines and vibrant ink washes – against the mechanical, obsessively detailed nib pen geometry of Scorch. The film’s expressive detail combined with the resonance of its story and themes make it a truly unique accomplishment, although to call it Bakshi’s masterpiece would do his previous films a disservice.
My only complaint about the 35th Anniversary Blu-ray is that it doesn’t contain any new material – the featurette and commentary track, though immensely entertaining, both appeared on the Wizards DVD release that was issued several years ago, as were the trailers and production art galleries. The design for the storybook cover looks nice, though, and it’s a relief to see the original cover art restored (I wasn’t a fan of that weird, cluttered, maroon-gradient thing they did).
Even if you own Wizards already, the 35th Anniversary Blu-ray is worth the price of a double-dip, if only for the personal gratification of seeing the film finally get some respect. Ralph has made it publicly known that he’s game for a Wizards sequel at some point, so if you’re a fan, now is a good time to stand up and show your enthusiasm. On the other hand, if you’ve never heard of Ralph Bakshi before, this release is a perfect opportunity to acquaint yourself.