Saturday, May 12, 2012

I'm Glad You Changed Your Last Name: Wizards

When you’re young, cartoons are for kids. Some deal with death (like Littlefoot’s mother in 1988’s The Land Before Time), but it wasn’t until I saw Wizards (1977) that I realized animated films could be for grown ups. While some cartoons dealt with grief and loss, Wizards dealt with genocide, propaganda, despair.

There are other adult themes in this movie.
After the opening exposition about how "the world blew up in a thousand atomic fireballs," we are told that magic, monsters and mutations have replaced humans. Groups of strange creatures appear out of the gloom carrying machine guns, and the narration picks up again: "He is called Necron 99. He is one of Blackwolf's assassins." The film cuts to an elderly gnome reading to children; Necron 99 appears in the doorway and shoots the old man dead.

Wizards does not shy away from horrible things: Dread permeates the whole movie. The antagonist in the film is a wizard named Blackwolf who discovers a superweapon from the old world: a film projector loaded with Nazi propaganda. When viewed by Blackwolf’s minions, it induces bloodlust, but the armies of good only stare at the images in shock--the reaction of my younger self as well. As the elvish defenders of a battle are slaughtered, one of them stares wild-eyed at the carnage. The camera cuts to the bottom of the hill on which he is hiding; his sword tumbles down and breaks.

On rewatching, Wizards is ham-handed. The evil forces identify with Hitler, pilot World War II Nazi tanks and planes, use Lugers and wear Swastikas. A villainous toadie eats a side of beef upon which is stenciled the Star of David.

Other flaws are apparent: Chunks of it are narrated storyboards (though used here to much better effect than in 2008’s REPO!), and the animation is rough; there's frequent rotoscoping (something of a Bakshi trademark). Wizards feels crudely stitched together; scenes that focus on the main characters are split by comic interludes--it’s a strange film that can be both dark and campy at the same time.

Despite its flaws, I have a soft spot for Wizards. I saw it at a much younger age than I should have; amazingly, Wizards is rated PG.

Some material may not be suitable for children.
I grew attached to the characters, especially Peace (a reprogrammed and renamed Necron 99). The simplistic art lends itself to odd but unique character designs. The good wizard, Avatar, looks like a clown wearing Mickey Mouse gloves; his evil brother, Blackwolf, has exposed elbow bones which I'm sure inspired the look of World of Warcraft's undead. It also has the greatest final confrontation between two wizards I've seen on film.

More than anything, Wizards was an early attempt to introduce darker themes into kids' animated films. Don Bluth, creator of the aforementioned Land Before Time, was the spiritual successor to Bakshi’s efforts, but Bluth’s works were more coherent and successful--it’s why movies like The Secret of NIMH (1982) and An American Tale (1986) are considered classics and Wizards is considered cult.

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