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Stephen reviews: Wizards (1977)

wizards_1Starring Bob Holt, Jesse Welles, Richard Romanus, David Proval, Steve Gravers, Susan Tyrrell, Mark Hamill

Directed by Ralph Bakshi

Wizards did pretty damn well at the box office for its first few weeks, and that was going head-to-head with Disney’s Fantasia. But it had the terrible misfortune of releasing just a few weeks before the premier of Star Wars (which is interesting since Mark Hamill also plays a minor character in Wizards). I’ll let you do your own research to find out which of those films got pulled from the theaters to make more showtimes available for the other. Since then, the film has developed a cult following, and I’ve been curious to see what was so special about it. It turns out that despite its obvious low budget, the film has a visual style like nothing else, and I can easily see why people became so enamored of it.

The story itself is nothing new, and it is very typical of an epic fantasy story. The good wizard Avatar is pitted against the evil wizard Blackwolf who has revived ancient war machines and is out to conquer the world. What sets Wizards apart is its use of varying art styles. The characters themselves look rather generic and ordinary, but the backgrounds vary greatly between locations and have some wildly contrasting styles to the character art. A lot of early rotoscoping is also used in this film, and not in the conventional way, either. The rotoscoping was drawn off stock footage in stark minimalist tone, and the film cuts back and forth between these stylized and mismatched animations with the more traditional line art. Straight live-action stock footage is also thrown about in the backgrounds and even spliced into the animation. The effect is truly bizarre, and if you’re into visually unique storytelling, then this is going to grab you and never let go.

Despite being a cartoon, the film doesn’t pander to children, and the story feels vastly different than a production made for kids. Eleanor, a ditzy girl who wears almost nothing and whose nipples are constantly poking through what little she does wear, sees her father assassinated, and the assassin is soon killed by Avatar. Eleanor then dives onto the assassin’s body and claws at him with her bare hands, screaming in rage the whole while. I had already figured out that this film would be different, but that moment really hammered the point home.

Right after that, the elf warrior Weehawk runs up and spouts a few choice emotionless lines that rather kill the mood, thus illustrating how the film can fall on its face at times. There are also some moments that just feel neglected in the editing department, moments that were quickly passed by without allowing any emotional resonance. Ultimately, Wizards is something of a B-movie, with some surprisingly drab scenes that should have had more punch. The animation is often clumsy as well. I’m not knocking the film. It had a very small budget and worked as well as it could with its limited resources. But there’s no denying that it’s a far cry from Disney’s finest when it comes to production values.

A few minor missteps can’t bring this film down, though. Some of its clumsier moments become some of the best parts. Despite being a sword and sorcery type setting, stock footage of World War II bombers and tanks are spliced into scenes with more antique arrows and spears. Rotoscoped planes fly by, and are then replaced with more standard animation of mounted bird monsters. There’s such a bizarre mismatch of styles and visuals that the whole film turns into a mysterious and bewildering adventure highlighted by a soft and lulling narration by Susan Tyrrell. This narration is like a mother telling a fairy tale to a child, and it helps bring a sense of magic to the film that elevates it beyond mere silly entertainment.

I think that is an important point to keep in mind. The problem with the fantasy genre — the problem with the fact that fantasy has become a genre — is that it has lost that sense of wonder. Too often fantasy isn’t fantastical. It isn’t awe-inspiring. But that’s exactly what Wizards is. Couched within a superficially generic story is something that can take your breath away. That alone makes Wizards worth watching.

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