Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Wizards

 
Spoilers!

The 1977 animated feature WIZARDS may only be eighty minutes long, but it took me 36 years to finish watching it. Thank my father, who within the film's first 15 minutes yanked my 8-year old self by the arm as quickly as possible out of the Dolphin Theater in Palm Springs, FL. I'm sure I sulked all the way home.

Over the years I've thought back on that little window of time.  I remembered seeing the earth explode, someone saying "dammit", and a few creatures of some sort abruptly blown away by gunfire. I also remembered a forboding female voice, narrating the doom onscreen.  It was enough to incense my father, apparently. Had he not done his homework? Did he think that because the PG-rated film was a cartoon it would automatically be innocuous? Was he not aware of director Ralph Bakshi's previous films, such as the X-rated FRITZ THE CAT and HEAVY TRAFFIC?

It would be one of only two times I have ever walked out of a movie.  Both were against my will.  The second was about 15 years later, when my friends decided to bolt on the Bruce Willis actioner THE LAST BOY SCOUT (I have not revisited that one yet).  If I had been driving, I would've stayed, no matter how bad it turned out to be. While the adage "If nothing happens in the first reel, nothing will." is often true, there's always the possibility that something will make the time investment worthwhile. I cite ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE, with its undistinguished first half, and how things improve dramatically in the second.

Following the controversy surrounding the incendiary (and sometimes brilliant) COONSKIN, Bakshi turned his eye away from the urban jungle to explore the realms of wizards, elves, and faeries. Worlds inspired by the likes of Tolkien (in fact, the animator did adapt Lord of the Rings into a single movie in 1978). This new venue did not soften Bakshi's harsh point of view, his often leering take. The usual nastiness remains, right down to a not unnecessarily scantily clad heroine. He never went for Disney-style cuteness.

WIZARDS takes place millions of years in the future, after nuclear war has decimated mankind and the Earth.  When the radioactive clouds clear, only pockets of humans have survived while mutants ravage whatever resources remain. But in Montagar, a society of the aforementioned creatures lives in harmony under the benevolence of Delia, queen of the fairies, who is the mother of two wizards: Avatar, kind and creative, and Blackwolf, evil and destructive.

Blackwolf grows into a  powerful dictator/megalomaniac who desires to resurrect the philosophies of elder despots along the lines of Mussolini and Hitler. To inspire his armies, he plays old films of the fuhrer's speeches.  Avatar and friends set out to thwart the would-be exterminator.

Through the murk, Bakshi weaves many themes common to his films. At times, his odd characters explicitedly speak them:

Nature is the only real technology. Man uses invented technology to enslave mankind.

But also....

They have technology, all we have is love.

Two rabbis, portrayed as complete buffoons, appear late in WIZARDS in a drunken comic ballet of theology, complete with a parade of props that concludes with Jesus on the cross. By the film's end, it isn't faith or magic that saves the world, but a bullet from a gun.  Some strangely mixed messages, at least to this viewer.

Despite the inconsistencies, WIZARDS is a more successful film than anticipated. It has a fair amount of rotoscoping (tracing over live action) that would prove controversial throughout Bakshi's career.  I realize that the film's appeal and interest to me is largely driven by its perceived verboten-ness.  There were opportunities over the years for me to watch but I was always concerned that nothing could live up to this odd expectation I had. How could anything? Something so offensive that my dad would shield my eyes and flee?

The film is dark, prompting my wife to note more than once that the visuals were "disturbing", but also leavened with silliness, such as Avatar's voice which sounds like a stereotypically cranky old Jewish man. He also behaves like one, preferring to pull the covers over his head rather than save the world, for instance. He utters a fair amount of innuendoes, too. This sort of nonsense is amusing in the moment, but (as in other Bakshi movies) overall hurts the story and tone a bit. The director always seems like that vulgar and inappropriate (yet articulate and insightful) uncle who tries to sneak you a cigarette when your mother isn't looking. He's always been a bit like Frank Zappa in that regard.

20th Century Fox had high hopes for WIZARDS. While it did respectably at the box office it was overshadowed by another film on the Fox slate, a little film called STAR WARS, which was not predicted to do much business. WIZARDS, which often seems like Bakshi's warm up for his aforementioned following year's LORD OF THE RINGS, would become a favorite on the midnight movie circuit.

Those first 15 minutes or so came back to me in a vague memory sort of way. Once past that, I couldn't help imagining where and what I was doing during the rest of the picture that day in 1977. Whining in my father's Dodge. Retreating to my room probably by the film's hour mark. I thought on these things through the rest of the movie. Unavoidable. Did my father do the right thing? I think so. I would be battered with enough filmic imagery in a few years. I can't help but wonder if his decision was also based more on his own impatience with the movie.

There were long stretches of my life when WIZARDS did not cross my mind. But I like to think that the voice of the narrator (so perfectly rendered by actress Susan Tyrell) was always somewhere in my cortex, ominously repeating those same opening words over and over, anxious to be able to continue once I finally sat down to finish the movie.

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