Wizards is a 1977 American animated post-apocalyptic science fantasy film directed, produced and written by Ralph Bakshi and distributed by 20th Century Fox.
The film follows a battle between two wizards of opposing powers, one representing the forces of magic and the other representing the forces of industrial technology.
Earth has been devastated by a nuclear war instigated by five terrorists, and it has taken 2 million years for the radioactive clouds to once again allow sunlight to reach the surface. Only a handful of humans have survived the apocalypse, while the rest have changed into mutants who roam the radioactive wastelands. Eventually, humanity’s true ancestors – fairies, elves and dwarves – resurfaced and live in the idyllic land of Montagar in peace for three millennia.
While her people celebrated 3,000 years of peace, their ruler Delia, queen of the fairies, fell into a trance and left the party. Puzzled, the fairies followed her to her home and discover that she has given birth to twin wizards. They were the kindhearted Avatar who spent much of his boyhood entertaining his ailing mother with beautiful visions and his mutated brother Blackwolf, who was pure evil, never visiting his mother, but spending his time torturing small animals. When Blackwolf learned of their mother’s death, he attempted to usurp her leadership, being defeated in a duel against a grief-stricken Avatar. Blackwolf left Montagar with a vow to return and “make this a planet where mutants rule”.
3,000 years later, Blackwolf has risen to lead the dark land of Scortch, where he and his vast army of goblins, ogres, wraiths, demons, dragons, and mutants salvage and restore ancient technology. He tries to attack Montagar twice, but is foiled both times when his mutant warriors become bored or sidetracked in the midst of battle. Blackwolf then discovers an old projector and reels of Nazi propaganda footage, using his magic to enhance it for psychological warfare: inspiring his own soldiers while horrifying enemy troops into submission.
Meanwhile, in Montagar, Avatar has become a tutor tasked with training the president’s daughter, Elinore, to become a full-fledged fairy. Suddenly, the president is assassinated by Necron 99, a robot sent by Blackwolf to kill all believers in magic. Avatar confronts the robot and battles it using brain reading. Necron 99 loses the desire for war and Avatar changes his name to Peace “in the hopes that he will bring it”. Avatar learns from the robot that the “dream machine” – the projector – is Blackwolf’s secret weapon, inspiring his armies with images of ancient warfare. Avatar, Elinore, Peace, and the elf berserker Weehawk set out to destroy the projector and save the world from another Holocaust.
In a forest inhabited by fairies, Peace has an intuition that something is amiss shortly before the group is accosted by the leader of the fairies, Sean. Weehawk realizes that Peace is missing, when an unseen assassin kills Sean and kidnaps Elinore. Avatar and Weehawk begin to search for Elinore in the forbidden Fairy Sanctuary, but Weehawk falls into a chasm and insists that Avatar leave him and find the girl. He locates her, captured by fairies and small human-like creatures, just as she is about to be killed. Avatar attempts to explain that they did not kill Sean, but the fairies do not believe him and shoot him with an arrow. Wounded in the shoulder, Avatar refuses to fight back, which impresses the fairy king. Instead of executing them, he merely teleports Avatar and Elinore to a snowy mountaintop. Avatar and Elinore resume their journey, despite the poor conditions, but they soon realize that they are wandering in circles. Peace, along with Weehawk (who he saved from a vicious monster in the chasm), find Avatar and Elinore. Together, they find their way out of the mountains. Soon, Avatar and the others encounter the encamped army of an elf General who is preparing to attack Scortch the following day, but Blackwolf launches a sneak attack that night.
Elinore is outside with Peace when she accidentally disturbs his internal conflict with one of Blackwolf’s demons, which Avatar quickly dispatches when it attempts to hurt Elinore. But when one of Blackwolf’s battle tanks arrives to destroy the camp, Elinore kills Peace, then manages to disable the crew before she climbs into the tank as it drives off with Avatar and Weehawk watching in confusion.
The next day, Avatar and Weehawk enter Scortch by ship and make for Blackwolf’s castle, while the General leads his elf warriors in a bloody battle to distract Blackwolf’s forces. The pair split up, Weehawk tracking Elinore while Avatar goes after Blackwolf. Weehawk nearly kills Elinore, but she explains that Blackwolf had been controlling her mind ever since she first touched Peace. Blackwolf declares his magic superior to Avatar’s and demands his surrender, Avatar admitting that he has not practiced magic for some time and offers to show Blackwolf one last trick that their mother showed him when Blackwolf was not around. Avatar then pulls a Luger gun from his upper left sleeve and fatally shoots Blackwolf. With the loss of their leader and the projector destroyed, the mutants give up fighting. With Montagar’s safety secured, Weehawk returns home as the new ruler, while Avatar and Elinore decide to start their own kingdom elsewhere.
- Bob Holt – Avatar, an old but powerful wizard.
- According to Bakshi, he is an old magician who does not trust himself to do the job right, but he has a heart of gold and cares deeply for his friends and doing what is right.
- Jesse Welles – Elinore, a fiery fairy and Avatar’s love interest.
- Richard Romanus – Weehawk, an elf berserker.
- David Proval – Necron 99/Peace, Blackwolf’s former minion.
- He is renamed Peace by Avatar.
- Steve Gravers – Blackwolf, Avatar’s evil twin brother and main antagonist of the film.
- James Connell – President, the leader and Elinoire’s father.
- Mark Hamill – Sean, son of the king of the mountain fairies and captain of the guards.
- This is his film debut and would later star in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope.
- Susan Tyrrell – Narrator (uncredited).
- Ralph Bakshi – Fritz/Lardbottom/Stormtrooper (uncredited).
- Angelo Grisanti – Larry the Lizard (uncredited).
Ralph Bakshi had long had an interest in fantasy, and had been drawing fantasy artwork as far back as 1955, while he was still in high school. Wizards originated in the concept for Tee-Witt, an unproduced television series Bakshi developed and pitched to CBS in 1967. In 1976, Bakshi pitched War Wizards to 20th Century Fox. Returning to the fantasy drawings he had created in high school for inspiration, Bakshi intended to prove that he could produce a “family picture” that had the same impact as his adult-oriented films.
The film is an allegorical comment on the moral ambiguity of technology and the potentially destructive powers of propaganda. Blackwolf’s secret weapon is propaganda, used to incite his legions and terrorise the fairy folk of Montagar; but Avatar’s willingness to use a technological tool (a handgun pulled from “up his sleeve”) destroys his evil twin. Bakshi also states that Wizards “was about the creation of the state of Israel and the Holocaust, about the Jews looking for a homeland, and about the fact that fascism was on the rise again”.
British illustrator Ian Miller and comic book artist Mike Ploog were hired to contribute backgrounds and designs. The crew included Vita, Turek, Sparey, Vitello and Spence, who had become comfortable with Bakshi’s limited storyboarding and lack of pencil tests. Artist Alex Niño signed a contract with Bakshi to work on the film, and was granted a work visa, but was unable to gain permission from the Philippine government to leave for the US until two months afterward, and later found that by the time he had arrived in the US, not only had the film’s animation been completed, but Niño’s visa did not allow him to submit freelance work on any other projects.
The film’s main cast includes Bob Holt, Jesse Welles, Richard Romanus, David Proval and Steve Gravers. Bakshi cast Holt based on his ability to imitate the voice of actor Peter Falk, of whom Bakshi is a fan. Welles, Romanus and Proval had previously worked with Bakshi on Hey Good Lookin’, where Romanus and Proval provided the voices of Vinnie and Crazy Shapiro, respectively. Actress Tina Bowman, who plays a small role in Wizards, has a larger role in Hey Good Lookin’. Actor Mark Hamill (of Star Wars Fame) auditioned for and received a voice role in the film. Bakshi states that “He needed a job, and he came to me, and I thought he was great, and Lucas thought he should do it, and he got not only Wizards, he got Star Wars.” Bakshi had wanted a female narrator for his film, and he loved Susan Tyrrell’s acting. Tyrrell performed the narration for the film, but Bakshi was told that he could not credit her for her narration. Years later, Tyrrell told Bakshi that she got most of her work from her narration on the film, and that she wished she had allowed him to put her name on it.
John Grant writes in his book Masters of Animation that “[the] overall affect [sic] of the animation is akin to that of the great anime creators – one has to keep reminding oneself that Wizards predates Miyazaki’s The Castle of Cagliostro (1979), not the other way round. […] The backgrounds […] are especially lovely, even the simplest of them; and in general the movie has a strong visual brio despite occasional technical hurriedness.” Notable artists involved in the production of Wizards include Ian Miller, who produced the gloomy backgrounds of Scortch, and Mike Ploog, who contributed likewise for the more arcadian landscapes of Montagar.
Bakshi was unable to complete the battle sequences with the budget Fox had given him. When he asked them for a budget increase, they refused (during the same meeting, director George Lucas had asked for a budget increase for Star Wars and was also refused). As a result, Bakshi finished his film by paying out of his own pocket and using rotoscoping for the unfinished battle sequences. According to Bakshi, “I thought that if we dropped all the detail, it would look very artistic, and very beautiful, and I felt, why bother animating all of this? I’m looking for a way to get realism into my film and get real emotion.” In his audio commentary for the film’s DVD release, Bakshi states that “There’s no question that it was an easier way to get these gigantic scenes that I wanted. It also was the way that showed me how to do Lord of the Rings, so it worked two ways.” In addition to stock footage, the film used battle sequences from films such as Zulu (1964), El Cid (1961), Battle of the Bulge (1965), and Alexander Nevsky (1938) for rotoscoping. Live-action sequences from Patton (1970) were also featured.
Vaughn Bode’s work has been credited as an influence on Wizards. Quentin Tarantino describes Avatar as “a cross between Tolkien’s Hobbit, Mel Brooks’ 2000 Year Old Man, and Marvel Comics’ Howard the Duck” and Blackwolf as physically similar to Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible. In Jerry Beck’s Animated Movie Guide, Andrew Leal writes that “The central figure, Avatar […] sounds a great deal like Peter Falk, and clearly owes much to cartoonist Vaughn Bodé’s Cheech Wizard character.”
As War Wizards neared completion, Lucas requested that Bakshi change the title of his film to Wizards in order to avoid conflict with Star Wars, and Bakshi agreed because Lucas had allowed Mark Hamill to take time off from Star Wars in order to record a voice for Wizards.
Response and Legacy
Although Wizards received a limited release, it was very successful in the theaters that showed it, and developed a worldwide audience. According to Bakshi, he was once interviewed by a German reporter who was unsure as to why the Nazi Swastika was used to represent war. Bakshi said “I didn’t get any criticism. People pretty much loved Wizards.”
Audio clips from the film have been sampled by Toxik on the album Think This, Cypress Hill on the albums IV and Skull & Bones, Vanilla Ice on Platinum Underground and 65daysofstatic on the album Volume 1: Then We Take Japan.
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment responded to an online petition created by Animation on DVD.com and written by Keith Finch demanding the film’s release on DVD. The disc, released on 25 May 2004, featured an audio commentary track by Bakshi and the interview segment Ralph Bakshi: The Wizard of Animation. Bakshi has stated that Wizards was always intended as a trilogy. One of the sequels was pitched to Fox, who have yet to greenlight the project.
20th Century Fox released a Special Edition Blu-ray Disc of the film on 13 March 2012, to commemorate the film’s 35th anniversary. The disc includes the special features from the DVD, along with a 24-page book including rare artwork from the film and an introduction from Bakshi.
Bakshi mentioned he had plans for a sequel entitled Wizards 2 that involved the relationship between Avatar and Elinore. Bakshi said the plot would be “where [their relationship] doesn’t work out, and Weehawk gets in the way”, The sequel was never developed due to production difficulties and the other projects on which Bakshi was then focused.
In late 2004, a Wizards II graphic novel went into production, produced by Bakshi. The stories will be from the Wizards “universe” and each story will be created by a different artist. In September 2008, it was announced that Main Street Pictures would collaborate with Bakshi on a sequel to Wizards.
As of 2015, Bakshi has stated that he has a script finished and hopes to have it be his next film. In a November interview, while promoting Last Days of Coney Island, Bakshi stated that Wizards 2 is about “madness, absolute madness!”
- The film is notable for being the first fantasy film by Bakshi, a filmmaker who was previously known only for “urban films” such as Fritz the Cat, Heavy Traffic and Coonskin.
- The film grossed US$9 million theatrically with a $2 million budget, and has since become a cult classic.
Production & Filming Details
- Narrator(s): Susan Tyrrell.
- Director(s): Ralph Bakshi.
- Producer(s): Ralph Bakshi.
- Writer(s): Ralph Bakshi.
- Music: Andrew Belling.
- Cinematography: Ted C. Bemiller.
- Editor(s): Donald W. Ernst.
- Production: Bakshi Productions.
- Distributor(s): 20th Century Fox.
- Release Date: 09 February 1977.
- Running Time: 80 minutes.
- Rating: PG.
- Country: US.
- Language: English.