Wizards (US - BD RA)
Gabe revisits Ralph Bakshi's strange mixed-media sci-fi fantasy in 1080p...
Two million years after a devastating nuclear apocalypse, mankind is left mostly in the form of deformed mutants, who roam a radioactive wasteland. An idyllic land called Montagar comes into being, where the true ancestors of man – fairies, elves and dwarves – have returned to Earth. 3,000 years pass and during a celebration of peace, Delia, queen of the fairies, falls into a trance and disappears. The fairies find her in her home and discover that she has given birth to twin wizards – Avatar, the good wizard, and Blackwolf, an evil mutant. Many more years pass and Delia dies. Excited, Blackwolf attempts to take over Montagar, but is beaten by a furious and mournful Avatar, who allows him to live. As he slinks away, Blackwolf swears revenge, and takes to building up an army that will defeat Avatar’s forces. Now, years later still (it’s implied that a lot of time has passed), Montagar has discovered the weapons he needs to destroy Avatar, and begins his attack.
As a child of the ‘80s one gets to know the name Ralph Bakshi because it is synonymous with the cartoons at the video store you aren’t allowed to watch. Bakshi deserves a lot of credit for dragging American animation kicking and screaming into a more adult arena, and his early directorial work was indelible on the face of American pulp culture, including post-hippy sardonic-festivals like Fritz the Cat and Heavy Traffic. All of Bakshi’s work is ambitious, especially his failed attempt at adapting The Lord of the Rings without the budget to do so, but Wizards may be the most ambitious due to its original script, written by Bakshi himself. The script owes a whole lot to Tolkien and a number of French sci-fi comics, but has a definite mythology all its own to fall back on. If only that mythology were better served with something other than a series of disparate battle scenes, and a vaguely defined journey across a vaguely defined terrain. There’s something to be said for the obtuse world Bakshi creates with his patchwork storytelling, but it’s incredibly difficult to even attempt to parse the plot or characters (listening to Bakshi’s commentary track marks the first time I’ve ever understood what they hell is going on).
Wizards is a mixed media film, like most of Bakshi’s studio work, utilizing cell animation, still drawings set against photographic backgrounds, and rotoscope. The stills are pretty charming in an exclusively late ‘60s/early ‘70s style (they’d probably work just as well in comic book form), while the moving bits look, well, kind of terrible, which is really sad considering what the film represents for independent animators. Bakshi’s budget constraints and all the hard personal work put into the project (the production crew was positively itty bitty) should be taken into account, of course, but the overall effect is sometimes embarrassing. The saving grace is found in the super intricate backgrounds, which work especially well against the super simplistic black and white rotoscope animation. If the entire film were something more akin to the sequences where Blackwolf gathers his army it would be easier to compare Wizards to more potent works of abstract animated art like René Laloux’s Fantastic Planet ( La Planète Sauvage). The artwork itself is also mixed stylistically, taking inspiration from Frank Frazetta, Walt Disney, Tex Avery, and even some of the early Anime that had made their way Stateside by the mid ‘70s. The blend is interesting, and among the things that make Wizards special, but the overall impact is sloppy looking and tonally sets the film in an awkward place between Bakshi’s earlier, dirtier spoof films, and his later, cleaner, more ‘realistic’ fantasy films. The bawdy, vaudevillian sense of humour is especially out of place and sinks several sequences.
When I reviewed Blue Underground’s remastered Blu-ray release of Bakshi’s Fire and Ice I noted that the format isn’t particularly kind to low budget animation. Previously unnoticeable imperfections in each cell are made crystal clear, including inconsistent colours between moving and non-moving parts of a character’s anatomy, xerographic sketchiness, and a whole lot of dirt. This print is true to the source, but brimming with all the problems you’d expect from something of this budget and age. The prevailing problem isn’t the heavy grain, which is expected, but the print damage artefacts. These are most commonly represented as short white scratches, swaths of dust, and a lot of flutter in brighter backgrounds. Occasionally big chunks of black dirt appear too, but the bulk of this kind of stuff appears to have been scrubbed from the print. The 1080p enhancement does quite a bit of good too, specifically when it comes to the sharpness of those complex background details, which never close to this defined on VHS or DVD. The colour palette is also quite a bit more vibrant than earlier home video releases, especially warmer hues. The hues are also more consistent, even though the inconsistencies of the brush strokes are so much clearer.
This DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 remastered soundtrack is often too much for the modest production, taking the quiet little original mono mix and readjusting the elements to sound something like a modern film. There aren’t many stereo or surround enhancements, but the sounds are cleaner, louder, and more sharply separated, which just acts to define their inconsistencies. Somehow the mono track, which is also included, feels a bit fuller in its flatness, and dialogue volume is noticeably more even overall. At the very least the reverb effects make a lot more sense here than they do on the similarly centered DTS-HD track, where they awkwardly wiggle into the stereo channels a bit. Outside this general weirdness, the DTS-HD track does feature less scratch, and Andrew Belling’s eclectic score sounds much better. The LFE support on the music is particularly outstanding, especially when the score gets all disco-infused and introduces funk drums and base, and the separation into the stereo channels helps set it apart from the dialogue and effects a bit better than the original mono track.
The extras begin with a commentary track from writer/director/producer Ralph Bakshi himself. Bakshi is a damn good talker who lets himself wander all over the place with his comments, some of which pertain to the specifics of the film itself, some of which pertain to his career as a whole, but most of which pertains to art and intellectualism. He makes great reasons for his bizarre stylistic choices, but is never comes across as anything less that modest. He knows Wizards isn’t really very good, but he had a hell of a time making it, and made it for all the right reasons. He admits his shortcomings, points to his homage, and generally makes a great case for art for art’s sake. Bakshi’s consistency and endurance are remarkable too. He rarely leaves empty space, and tends not to repeat himself. Occasionally he’s a little bitchy about the Disney-ification of film animation, but overall this is a great, personable track that makes for a better film watching experience.
Ralph Bakshi: The Wizard of Animation (34:10, SD) covers the making of Wizards, including discussion of his earliest work, including his adult films, which he felt were pigeon-holing him, his approach to animation and politics, Wizards’ story themes, voice actors, montage and collage, rotoscope and stock footage, music and a touching look back at his minute staff. There’s a lot of overlap between this and the commentary, but the inclusion of footage from the film, images from the production, and period photos of Bakshi working offer up a lot of important context. The extras are completed with two trailers, a TV spot, 12 still galleries, and trailers for other Fox releases.
It’s good to have a copy of Wizards lying around just to remind yourself it isn’t actually very good every five years or so. The concept of the film is too interesting to dismiss, it’s just that the actual product is more of an admirable failure. The movie’s cult of fans will be pretty happy with this release, which features a very nice and vibrant transfer that suffers a bit from the ravages of time, two solid audio options, and all the extras featured on the 2004 DVD release, including director Ralph Bakshi’s wonderful commentary and a full-bodied behind the scenes featurette.
* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Some material may not be suitable for children
Release Date: 13th March 2012
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English, Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono English and Spanish
Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish
Extras: Director Commentary, Ralph Bakshi: Wizard of Animation, Still Galleries, Trailers, TV Spots, Collectable Book Packaging
Easter Egg: No
Director: Ralph Bakshi
Cast: Bob Holt, Jesse Welles, Richard Romanus, David Proval, Steve Gravers, Mark Hammil
Genre: Action, Adventure and Animation
Length: 81 minutes