On the commentary track to the new DVD release of his 1977 animated cult classic Wizards, writer-director Ralph Bakshi (Fritz The Cat, The Lord Of The Rings) refers to the project as a "homemade" film, a personal effort he put together with a handful of cronies. It looks it. The animation style changes radically from scene to scene, and the backgrounds are the product of several different artists working in different media. The movie is held together with lengthy rotoscoped stock-footage scenes of African warriors and WWII-era combat, with wings and glowing eyes painted onto the moving figures. The whole project has an amateur, low-budget, reckless sloppiness about it, and Bakshi's script staggers through vignettes with little sense of direction or momentum.
But Wizards remains one of the most appealingly subversive, cynical animated movies ever made. In spite of its simple, high-fantasy, good-vs.-evil plot, it exudes a refreshingly knowing, snide version of optimism—one that doesn't come tainted by naïveté. The story centers on twin wizards born on Earth millions of years after an atomic holocaust. Even at birth, they're clearly scions of good and evil: Avatar is a cherry-cheeked, blond elf, while his brother Blackwolf is a hollow-eyed, glowering mutant with raw bones for arms. When their mother dies, Avatar defeats Blackwolf in magical combat and casts him out of their fairy village. Three thousand years later, Blackwolf returns with a cadre of mutant assassins, a fascist plan for world domination, an army of lumpy demon irregulars, and a secret weapon: Nazi propaganda films (consisting of footage from Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph Of The Will) that fill his enemies with paralytic terror. Faced with the prospect of a world united under Blackwolf's swastikas, the aged, shrunken, despairing Avatar (whose character was based on Peter Falk, with a gravelly voice to match) returns to the fight reluctantly at best.
Avatar's weary irascibility and Bakshi's bloody, iconoclastic mentality account for a lot of Wizards' unique and unpolished charm. Bakshi doesn't precisely satirize the genre; he stands by its tropes, but also doesn't balk at having cute, wide-eyed pixies obliterated in waves of machine-gun fire. His version of fantasy has teeth—usually ragged, splintered, yellowing ones. Wizards is often visually ugly and random, and it centers on acts that are just as ugly and random. But then, Bakshi has long made it clear that he's no more interested in Disney innocence than he is in Disney polish. Wizards is his reminder and his warning to the world that what happened in the 1940s could happen again if democracy allows fascism a safe breeding ground. And his film is no more ugly, and no less necessary, than his message.