Ralph Bakshi apes Bodé to make one of his most entertaining movies
Twentieth Century-Fox
Directed by Ralph Bakshi
USA, 1977
Read about Ralph Bakshi and within the same sentence you'll probably see him referred to as the "bad boy" of animation (see, I just did it now). It's a title he's earned. Many of his heavily urban feature films, such as Heavy Traffic, Fritz the Cat, and Coonskin have come under fire for being sexist, racist, and misogynist. Under his aegis, even the relatively tame Mighty Mouse and the rest of his Terrytoons pals gained an edgy, subversive streak in the sadly short-lived New Adventures of Mighty Mouse TV series.

When people start taking shots at poor Ralph, I point them to what is probably my favourite of his productions: Wizards.

Wizards concerns a post-apocalyptic Earth, where magic--and, to a lesser degree, science--exist side by side. Blackwolf, an evil sorcerer, is using technology and WWII propaganda to mount a devastating campaign of conquest. Avatar, a reclusive wizard, is drawn into the war against the encroaching forces of Blackwolf, who happens to be his evil twin brother.

Joining Avatar in his half-hearted quest is Elinore, the buxom and scantily-clad princess, who is studying magic under him; Weehawk, the gung-ho warrior; and Peace, a robot assassin ensorcelled by Avatar after he kills the president in Avatar's home.

A simple description of the rest of the film would sound pretty straightforward: our heroes travel great distances, are captured, escape, make allies, endure great peril, and eventually reach Blackwolf's lair so that Avatar can confront his errant brother. It's no great surprise that Avatar kills his brother, and the good guys escape just as Blackwolf's stronghold falls apart.

What is a surprise is just how much fun this movie is. It's as if Bakshi realized that there's very little new in the fantasy/quest genre, and decided to use it as a backdrop on which to hang other stuff.

First is the character design. Most of the characters look like they've been lifted right out of one of Vaughn Bodé's underground comics--you almost expect to see the Cheech Wizard strolling by. Although streamlined for animation, the characters have the same kind of quirky appeal that make Bodé's characters so much fun. The only trouble is, Bodé's name is nowhere in the credits, and yet the movie definitely owes a debt to him. Shame on you, Ralph.

Avatar puts a delightful spin on the standard all-knowing wizard/leader character. He seems less like Gandalf or Merlin and more like a tired, old New Yorker who spends half his time muttering to himself while everyone else scurries around excitedly. It's almost as if he's saying, "Look, I'm a good guy and the main character. I can't lose. Why should I get worked up?"

One aspect of Wizards sure to annoy some animation purists is Bakshi's trademark over-reliance on rotoscoping (a process by which live-action film is traced over.) While not as bad as some of his other films (in particular, Lord of the Rings is badly afflicted by rotoscoping), it still gets tiresome after a while.

There are a few truly laugh-out-loud scenes sprinkled throughout Wizards, but really, everything is designed to get at least a chuckle out of the audience. While the film is a little bit dated (it was released in 1977), it's still worth the price of rental. If you like your fantasy with a generous touch of levity, go have a look and see if Ralph deserves a break.

Originally printed in Parsec vol. 2, no. 4 (Winter 1997/1998)