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Wizards 35th Anniversary Edition

by Shawn Stone on April 4, 2012

When Wizards was released in 1977, it turned Hollywood’s view of feature animation on its head. The film’s success proved that there was a market for more than children’s fairy tales (though Wizards was consciously designed as a fairy tale that could be enjoyed by children); and it made it possible for filmmaker Ralph Bakshi’s company to make The Lord of the Rings.

In Hollywood, animated fantasy was the exclusive domain of Disney. Unfortunately, Walt was dead and the studio’s production processes and approach to storytelling had become hidebound. Enter Bakshi, a do-it-yourself director-writer-animator and head of his own mini-studio. Brooklyn-born Bakshi had come up through the old animation studio system (at Westchester-based Terrytoons, the home of Mighty Mouse and Heckle and Jeckle), then made a name for himself in the early ’70s making urban, adult-oriented animated features like Heavy Traffic and the X-rated Fritz the Cat. Looking to change direction, he pitched Wizards, a post-apocalyptic tale of elves and fairies vs. robots and radiation-scarred mutants, to 20th Century Fox—and to his surprise, they said yes.

The characters are eccentric, funny, bizarre and thoroughly winning. The good wizard, Avatar, is Gandalf gone to seed: He drinks too much, smokes cigars, is given to mumbling and is fixated on Elinor, a scantily clad, half-fairy creature who is what used to be called a “sexpot.” They don’t look like conventional fantasy heroes, but Bakshi makes you believe in them. Blackwolf, the evil wizard, appears at first to be conventionally drawn; then you look closer, and realize that radiation has rotted the flesh from his arms, and the exposed bones have a comical quality.

The biggest knock against computer animation, in its current highly refined form, is that it’s too realistic. It’s not, to borrow a phrase Ren and Stimpy creator John Kricfaluci often uses, “cartoony.” These characters are cartoony as hell.

What ultimately makes Wizards so engaging is the way various styles of animation are combined to tell the story. The nightmarish, abstract battle scenes are riveting and frightening, in contrast to the often whimsical adventures of the heroes. And Bakshi’s use of Nazi imagery and Hitler footage is startling, effective and completely of its time—no one today would dare to try this, let alone pull it off.

The Wizards 35th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray comes in the lovely book-style packaging Fox often employs for its prestige editions. The 24 glossy pages inside the hard cardboard cover include an essay and production credits, but their main attraction is a wonderful array of production art, promotional images and period photos of Bakshi and company at work.

The background layouts are richly detailed. The early concept drawings, rife with nudity, suggest that Bakshi could have easily gone in the direction of “adult” animation again. And the character and object drawings created to guide the animators are fascinating. From them we learn that Bakshi dubbed one set of voluptuous-but-tiny female creatures “Buzzy-Bee Berkeley Fairies.” The robot Peace’s blob gun (aka “Peace’s piece”) is described with evocative skill: “Think of the shape as being as precise as if it had been dipped in hot chocolate.”

The Bakshi-centric extras were mostly original to the 2004 DVD version, and are a total gas. There’s a featurette-length profile of Bakshi that lets the avuncular, often hilarious filmmaker do all of the talking; an entertaining director’s commentary; trailers and TV spots; and a gallery of production art.

Since the original film was sourced from so many different materials and optical processes—cel animation, recycled war movie and propaganda footage, rotoscope printouts generated by IBM (?!)—the Blu-ray image doesn’t have the eye-popping clarity associated with, say Disney restorations or the latest Pixar release. This is an auteur’s feature.