Home Video Hovel- Wizards, by West Anthony
The ’70s were weird, man. There is a strain of technophobia that has run through our cinema for a long time now, from the bemoaning of the march of progress in Orson Welles’ 1942 film The Magnificent Ambersons (based on the Booth Tarkington novel of the same name), to the ’50s Cold War hysteria that saw atomic radiation making things very very big (The Amazing Colossal Man) or very very teeny (The Incredible Shrinking Man), to James Cameron’s dire cinematic warnings of mankind’s technological hubris (Terminator, Titanic, Avatar). It seems like it took the ’70s to fuse together a battle between modern technology and the most readily available and attractive alternative, the Tolkienesque back-to-nature faerie/hippie dream that was gradually abandoned by the Woodstock generation in favor of the pensions and vacation homes that they currently enjoy… and are in the process of denying to future generations. This sort of thing eventually gave way to the “greed is good” mojo of the Reagan ’80s, and as the “Me Decade” drew to a close one could see technophobic concerns fading toward more personal matters. For the most part. Consider two ’70s technophobe classics: in 1970’s Colossus: The Forbin Project, a supercomputer is created that instantly becomes self-aware, claims absolute dominion over the Earth and proceeds to tell mankind what to do at all times and everywhere under the threat of nuclear devastation. Later came 1977’s Demon Seed, in which another supercomputer traps Julie Christie in her house because it wants to impregnate her so she can have its baby. You heard me. This pretty much sums up the ’70s — at the dawn of the decade, computers wanted to take over the world, and by the end they just wanted to get laid. Yet there were some who still fought the good fight, who were still sounding the clarion call to throw down your pocket calculators and your Pong and instead run away to romp and frolic together in sylvan glens living off the land, at least until being torn to shreds by bears and mountain lions.
Which brings us to Wizards, a 1977 animated film whose message has been usurped by, ironically, more technologically-advanced films, but still has a great deal of natural — dare I say, unshaven — charms. When animator Ralph Bakshi (Fritz The Cat, Heavy Traffic) decided to turn his attentions to a more family-oriented fantasy story, it was inevitable that the results would still be a bit wide of the mark compared to the stuff Disney was (and is) doing. While not approaching the X-rated sex-and-drugs anarchy of his earlier work, Wizards still has its share of mature imagery and unsettling moments that are decidedly more adult in nature interspersed amongst the cuter cartoon elements. In this technology vs. magic tale set on a distant-future Earth in which we have long since been wiped out, two wizard brothers, Avatar and Blackwolf — no points for guessing which is the good one and the bad one — go to battle in an epic showdown between an army of gun-toting mutants and an opposing army of sword-wielding elves. As Avatar makes his perilous journey across various striking cartoon landscapes, he is accompanied by elf warrior Weehawk and a scantily-clad fairy hottie named Elinore. (Note to parents number one: OK, this film doesn’t approach the heights of admittedly delightful animated nudity found in, say, Heavy Metal, but the amply-endowed Elinore is always… um… cold.) Blackwolf awaits their arrival with an ace up his bony sleeve, a newfound weapon that promises to neutralize the elf army and make his mutant army invincible: Nazi propaganda films. (Note to parents number two: yes folks, Hitler appears rather prominently in this picture. So if you’re planning on showing Wizards to your wee tots, get ready to answer some heavy questions.)
Here is where we find a most unique technophobe argument for a movie: Wizards presents the notion that cinema itself can be used as a weapon of mass destruction, a concept that is undoubtedly true (witness the 1940 anti-Semitic propaganda of Jew Süss, or the more recent military recruitment poster that is Act Of Valor), but it’s so rare to see anyone in Hollywood making this argument that I give Bakshi major points for doing so, especially in what is generally considered to be a family film. In fact, this could be a potent rejoinder to Martin Scorsese’s Hugo — where that film sings the praises of cinema in a family-friendly environment, this one is the flip side, warning of the misuse of the very tools that tell both of their stories. As the fascist Germany newsreel footage unfurls, some left untouched and some rotoscoped to give it an eerie psychedelic kick, and the Nazi iconography known to any reasonably intelligent viewer is recontextualized by its animated fantasy surroundings, the effect is jarring and hypnotic. We are watching a children’s cartoon on one level, and on another we are witnessing a deconstruction of cinematic propaganda that is undeniably striking to look at; as if that weren’t enough, Bakshi uses repurposed footage from old live-action battle scenes from films such as Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky (also rotoscoped) that further turns the film into a dizzying meta-cinematic Mobius strip.
Needless to say, kids aren’t going to get any of this. But it is part of what makes Wizards remarkable among animated family films: while children can get a kick out of the splendid visuals and adorable fairies and occasional moments of kartoon komedy, Ralph Bakshi has a very potent message for the grownups about the perils of both technology and cinema whose sophistication was sorely lacking in the Disney fare of its day. And this is in no small way due to the entirely personal nature of Bakshi’s work, a singular and independent artistic vision that no corporate behemoth could hope to match. It is his independence and provocative viewpoint that makes Wizards one of the more enduring and rewatchable artifacts of its time.