(Check out my previous Ralph Bakshi feature review here: Coonskin)
After the completion of his third animated feature (released in 1975), Ralph Bakshi jumped immediately into another project called Hey Good Lookin’. Like his three previous films, it was about life in the city and dealt with many of the same themes of his early work. The film premiered at a few festivals, but Bakshi could find no one to release the film theatrically, and as such, it whiled away in obscurity for the next seven years and the production company’s who funded it wouldn’t see any return on investment for quite some time.
Somehow, despite Bakshi’s last theatrical release (Coonskin) being a controversial picture that consequently didn’t run in many theaters and made a fraction of its budget back, and his most recent picture being unreleased, he still managed to secure funding for a new picture through Fox. However, this small miracle of funding probably wouldn’t have been possible if Bakshi had set his sights on another street picture with controversial political content and another X or R rating. This time around Bakshi ensured his film could receive financing by changing his focus to the fantasy genre, stripping away much of the political and sexual content that had become a staple of a Bakshi Animation, and setting his sights for a PG rating (the most family friendly rating he had ever received).
The film is a vast sci-fi fantasy epic set in a post-apocalyptic landscape millions of the years into the future after an atomic war. Since the event, technology was outlawed across the planet and as a result, magic has reappeared and relative peace prevails despite the existence of mutated demon-like human beings with an evil instinct living in the wastes not far from the more civilized elf-like, fairy-like and dwarf-like mutated humans. But one day a miraculous event occurs and a pair of magical twins are born to the Queen of the elf-lands: one of which is good and affable and uses the power of white magics, while his brother is mutated, antisocial, sociopathic (he tortures small animals in his youth), and relishes in the learning of black magic at any opportunity he gets. When their mother dies, the two battle for domination and the good wizard wins and banishes his brother to the wastes where for the next three thousand years he continues to learn the black arts, subjugates the demon-like irradiated mutants, and collects as many artifacts of the Earth’s technological past as possible.
The film represents a skeptical view of technology and the ambiguity of its effect. The dark wizard BlackWolf uses the technology to arm his warriors with guns and bombs that are much more effective than the spears and swords of his brother Avatar’s elf army. But in the hands of good, they could likewise be used to purge the world of evil forces, say if Avatar )voiced by Bob Holt, using his best Peter Falk impersonation) had harvested them first and used them to destroy his brother (something he will eventually do). BlackWolf discovers ages-old Nazi propaganda, which he uses to confuse and scare the enemy elf forces while simultaneously inspiring and driving into a berserk frenzy his own demon forces. The background Blitzkrieg propaganda films are modified versions of scenes from old war epics like Alexander Nevsky, Battle of the Bulge, El Cid, Patton, and Zulu. Overlaid over top of these scenes are old, unused stock footage, rotoscoped images created for Wizards, and traditional 2-D animation in a montage that evokes rather than recreates battle and makes the war scenes all the more frenetic.
The film is a commentary on social engineering through technology and industrialization, which can create beautiful things, but more often than not only lead to dependency upon machines. It critiques ideology through laying bare its relationship to new technology and how things like propaganda and advertising are almost impossible without technology. Most importantly Bakshi makes apparent the culpability of technology in circumventing the better rational side of the people to uncover the darker fascistic side always hidden below. His formulation is the stimulation of fear in a populace plus religion (or similar ideological structures with a metaphysical structure and a large social capital and store of apparatuses) yields hysteria, which can all be accomplished through propaganda and the resultant hysteria can be channeled toward any cause.
And this is dangerous, but Bakshi’s fantasy seems to suggest, at first, that the proper move is to return to an idyllic past, to a base world plus magic. The proposition tugs at the heartstrings, as the film errs not toward religion (which he renders foolish and shows to be culpable with consumerism and techno-fetishist dependency as the temple of the Elves is full of jukeboxes and Coca-Cola signs), but toward mysticism and a spirituality divorced from social structures like the Church. However, even mysticism and spirituality is ultimately bullshit ontologically and the New Age has been shown time and again to be nothing but a new consumerism, and a religious consumerism devoid of any tradition at that. So the Luddite push is not only unrealistic, but leaves us without the technologies that can benefit humanity and leaves us with a consumerist spirituality alone that is just as open to potential use toward a fascist cause.
In this way, Wizards is an extremely radical film that doesn’t make a strict nature/culture distinction as in most benign, asinine animated films. Here, magic and technology are ultimately the same and cannot be easily divorced from one another. In Avatar’s revolutionary usage of technology to fight technology, he shows its power, that it is a valid tool for good just as it is a valid tool for evil, and that the intention of the user is the only criterion that gives any meaning to the the tool itself, which is valueless and ambiguous without it. And by doing so, Bakshi shows the way to disarm an ideologue, whether a fascist or a terrorist: remove the religion/metaphysics at the core of the hysteria.
In a way, this is what Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels tried to do more than a hundred years prior in claiming that religion was the opiate of the people. But they erred in their formulation of Communist ideology by including History as a World-Historical force, a force that was necessarily moving toward some end. They erred in a second metaphysical assumption of the People as a new god. The first is a Hegelian assumption and the second a Christian one, and together they were the end of Communism, the negation within a negation of their own form which led ultimately to the death of traditional Communism as The People are stupid and weak-willed, and History is not directed toward any end except entropy.
Wizards was both a high critical achievement for Bakshi and a strong philosophical statement, which later developed into a cult film. It was released two weeks before Star Wars (and actually under the title Wizards as opposed to War Wizards at the request of Bakshi’s friend George Lucas) on a limited theatrical run during which Disney re-released Fantasia in every theater Wizards was playing. The gambit didn’t work and Wizards made back its $2 million USD budget in just the first week and a half, ultimately made $9 million USD at the box office despite having a limited run to accommodate more theaters for the Star Wars phenomenon, and put Bakshi in the best position to fund more work since Fritz the Cat.
Although the film was successful, and Bakshi had scripted a sequel and planned to make Wizards into a trilogy, it would be almost 40 years until he got around to potentially making it. In 2015, Bakshi claimed that he was finishing a new script for the sequel and had plans to seek out funding for the film as soon as possible. However, as of 2018, nothing has yet to materialize, and at almost 80 years old, Bakshi may never complete the film, which is something of a minor tragedy for fans of Wizard and fans of Bakshi like myself.
[Next up: The Lord of the Rings]