As a lifelong fan of both hand-drawn animation & flippant transgression, I’ve long been curious about Ralph Bakshi’s art. However, there’s a strong whiff of edgelordism wafting from his work that’s becoming less & less enticing as a I grow older, making me wonder if I could have only ever become a true Bakshi devotee if I had caught his films on late-night cable when I was still a teenage shithead. Maybe that’s why I thought the fantasy film Wizards would be the best introduction to Bakshi in his prime, as it’s the most mainstream he was willing to go as an artist (at least before his professional nadir with the notorious flop Cool World, which I have seen before, unfortunately). Even Bakshi himself pitches Wizards as a “family picture” meant to prove that he can make good art without stirring up moral outrage as a crass provocateur. Judging only by that metric, the film is a failure. It’s just absolutely swarmed with buxom nudists, battlefield gore, and Nazi iconography, making its PG rating an absolute joke even by 1970s standards. It’s at least a gorgeously animated provocation, though, surely inspiring many margin doodles in metalhead stoners’ notebooks to come.
Wizards is set on a distant-future Earth after we’ve all nuked each other to near extinction, then mutated into grotesque beasts in the radioactive remains of our former world. The movie ascribes to a very simplistic Cute = Good, Ugly = Evil philosophy, contrasting the grotesque humanoid leftovers of humanity with adorable elves & fairies who return to our realm as an sign of Nature reclaiming the planet. This contrast is extended to a clash between magic (Good) & technology (Evil), with both sides represented by respective twin wizards who are destined to battle in the post-Apocalyptic wasteland. The Good Wizard loves Peace and is frustratingly reluctant to fight his wicked brother despite the ongoing destruction of their shared planet (and the promise of “a second Holocaust”). The Evil Wizard loves War and hypes up his mutant humanoid frog army with vintage Nazi propaganda, wielding a “dream machine” film projector as if it were a weapon of mass destruction. The resulting D&D campaign illustration is neither as obnoxiously crass as Heavy Metal nor as deliriously fun as Gandahar, falling somewhere between the two as a wonderfully animated mediocrity (although it was likely a direct influence on both).
There’s something adorable about Bakshi believing this is a family-friendly variation on his work, the same way it’s adorable that Richard Kelly believed he made a toned-down mainstream thriller in The Box. The gleeful gun violence, slack-jawed ogling at erect fairy nipples, and edgelord deployment of Nazi propaganda is all exceedingly queasy, stubbornly faithful to the confrontationally grotesque vision of Bakshi’s earlier films like Coonskin & Fritz the Cat. You could never shrug his work off as lazy provocations, though, at least not in terms of their technical artistry. Every hideous mutant, bodacious fairy babe, and Nazi war crime is wonderfully detailed in their illustration, often paired with gorgeous greenscreen backdrops of smoke & rolling clouds. Even when the budget wears thin and devolves into narrated slideshows & rotoscoped battlefield extras, Bakshi makes it appear as if it were all an intentional inclusion in his multimedia psychedelic tapestry. I didn’t fall in love with this animated prog rock album cover the way I did with René Laloux’s Gandahar, but it also didn’t quash my curiosity over Bakshi’s pricklier cult classics. He obviously deserves a closer look, even if only for the form and not the content.