A review requested by Gavin, with thanks to supporting Alternate Ending as a donor through Patreon.

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There are two different sides to groundbreaking animation director Ralph Bakshi, and I confess that I don't particularly care for either one of them. The more important one is the descendant of the underground comics scene, who made his feature debut (after years and years of steadily churning out anonymous, all-audiences stuff with Terrytoons) with 1972's notorious Fritz the Cat, the first adults-only animated feature made in the United States. This Bakshi is a scuzzy poet of the streets of New York, rendered in harsh, angrily-penciled lines as a place of filth and depravity, for which it receives all of the director's overheated love and his scorn in equal measure. Most of his films belong to this tradition, which is the best fit for his characteristic animation aesthetic of crude, ugly characters moving in sluggish jerks across roughly-scrawled backgrounds: Bakshi's drawings look like a bleary-eyed drunk on the morning after, crossed with a somebody who's still reeling from the collapse of the '60s counterculture that he hated but belonged to anyway, and so furiously keeps exhuming that counterculture's art style to see if he can't get it this time. And given that all of his New York stories are roughly about the psychic fallout of the counterculture's failure, this fits it perfectly.

As it happens, though, Bakshi's most widely-seen films are probably the less-characteristic trio of fantasy films he made in the midst of his decade of hatefucking New York: 1977's Wizards, 1978's The Lord of the Rings, and 1983's Fire and Ice. The second of these is, I would say with only the briefest moment of hesitation, probably the Bakshi film that the most people are familiar with, and I think it's probably a photo-finish between Wizards and Fritz the Cat for second place (setting aside 1992's godawful Cool World as being a different sort of thing). This is kind of unfortunate, because, while again, I have no meaningful affection for Bakshi's work, his squalid urban tales at least extract a kind of loathing respect from me, while I find his fantasy movies to be generally dreadful (though Fire and Ice is a hell of a lot better than the other two).

All of which is preamble to getting a nice, close look at Wizards, which is at any rate the most damned peculiar of the fantasy films, and probably the most damned peculiar feature of Bakshi's career (still setting aside Cool World). There are two Bakshis, I have declared, and that holds true: the guttural sarcasm of the urban films and the stone-faced gravity of the latter fantasy films have almost nothing in common tonally and only a bit stylistically. But Wizards lies on the border between the two, attempting to pull in the grand narrative sweep of high fantasy while populating it with the kind of characters and attitudes of Bakshi's grungier early work. Even by the standards of a perverse career, there's something especially perverse about seeing him try to keep this all tied together in some kind of internally consistent object; the result is possibly the director's most intriguing and surprising movie, even as I'd rank it dead last of his eight fully-animated features in terms of quality or even just plain enjoyment.

For let us be blunt, intriguing or not, Wizards is a real mess. Just getting to the scenario is messy: we first see a live-action shot crawling over desolate, sun-bleached dirt up to a book with the very elaborate title An Illuminating History Bearing on the Everlasting Struggle for World Supremacy Fought Between the Powers of Technology and Magic. I am 90% sure that Bakshi meant "illuminated", but we'll ignore that. A narrator (Susan Tyrell, who asked to receive no credit) repeats that phrase, and then we get into the preamble to the prologue to the meat of the story: once upon a time, five terrorists set off a nuclear bomb, the result of which was a nuclear winter that lasted for two million years. After that point, the bulk of what was left of humankind existed in pockets of irradiated wasteland, breeding generation after generation of mutants. In the lands that had cleared out, the fairies and elves that had gone underground when humanity came to the fore reasserted themselves and began to rebuild. 3000 years after this happened, Queen Delia of the fairies gave birth to twin boys, one pure and blessed and good, one corrupted and evil. These two boys were fated to become the most powerful wizards in the land, poised against each other for the fate of the planet. All of this is recited by Tyrell in a dreamy, stoned-sounding tone of voice that has absolutely no sense of urgency, and has been illustrated with detailed brown-tinted drawings that are rather too rounded and cartoony for the hideousness they ostensibly foretell. But tone is going to be a problem for Wizards, so best to get it started early, I guess.

After another 3000 years, the evil brother Blackwolf (Steve Gravers) has become an ashen-faced warlock with skeletal arms, and he is ready to launch his attack on the good land of Montagar from his castle in the wasteland of Scortch. This fails because his soldiers are such addled-minded assholes - comes from being evil, no discipline at all - and so he has taken to using ninja-looking robots to do the most important jobs. This includes assassinating the president of Montagar (James Connell), his fairy daughter, Elinore (Jesse Welles), and the other wizard brother, Avatar (Bob Holt), who these days is a little orange-haired dwarf with a beard as long as he is and a green wizard's hat that almost completely covers his eyes. He also speaks like Peter Falk. The robot only manages to kill the president before Avatar stops it; he's able to reprogram it, naming it Peace (David Proval), and using it to lead him to Blackwolf's territory, with Elinore and an elf warrior named Weehawk (Richard Romanus), who has just returned from an inconclusive but deadly skirmish with the Scortchian armies.

Their main goal is to destroy Blackwolf's new secret weapon, which he has begun using to inspire more obedience in his legions: a film projector, through which he shows them newsreel footage of Nazi rallies. Let us not bother with the pettiness of wondering what the hell kind of film stock has survived both a global nuclear war and 2,006,000 years of history following that war. Let us merely consider the fact that Bakshi has included, in his animated fantasy film, a rather lengthy sequence cutting between newsreels of Hitler and Himmler, and the fairy tale bestiary getting worked up into a hooting lather of  violent excitement from watching this footage. Now, why would Bakshi do this? Oh, it's obvious enough: Wizards is a film about peace and love overcoming authoritarianism, and World War II loomed heavily in recent history, so it makes for a convenient touchstone. Plus, apparently he had it in mind that this was ultimately a metaphor for the founding of the state of Israel, and if you go into the film specifically looking for that, you can see it. Still, there's something astoundingly tasteless here, and the film's banal, boilerplate platitudes about morality triumphing over immorality aren't nearly tough and thoughtful enough to justify this kind of thing.

Point in fact, the whole movie has a kind of droning stoner's mentality. It's the only one of Bakshi's films that does, oddly, despite the looming shadows of the counterculture in so much of his work. There's a lot of "isn't deep, man?" philosophising, and a great deal of anachronistic humor that feels like only a '70s pothead could possibly appreciate it, both for its extremely '70s-ish vibe and the way it all seems to take place in slow motion.

Beyond all of this, there is the question of the film's animation. In a lot of ways, this is the test-run for things that he'd do again immediately with The Lord of the Rings: tinting over live-action footage (raided from a number of WWII and medieval war movies, most noticeably Eisenstein's Alexander Nevsky), using posterization effects to make said live-action footage look at least slightly like animation, rotoscoping silhouettes over live-action footage to make it look like shadowy armies against dramatic, abstract backgrounds. And of course, there's also hand-drawn cel animation, done in a hurry and on an extremely tight budget, with all the usual characteristics of Bakshi's equally time-pressed, cash-strapped animation: characters move jerkily and constantly, but without purpose. This is not like the irritating twitchiness of Don Bluth films, where it comes from wanting plenty of elaborate business to amplify the dialogue; often, the movement of characters seems to have nothing to do with the writing at all. It seems to just be there for the pleasure of twisting the characters into rubbery, cartoon shapes. Avatar is particularly prone to this, gyrating constantly in and out what I might call "gags" if there seemed to be any indication they were meant to be funny. But Weehawk's extreme facial expressions, and their instability, is a noticeable example as well.

The character design is a bit less sketchy and languid than in Bakshi's earlier films; these read as cartoon characters more than the sort of underground comic designs typical of his previous work. With one exception, which is Elinore: she's some third thing entirely, more like a Heavy Metal or Frank Frazetta character, albeit with the simplified blocks of color of a cartoon character. This is a nice of saying: she exists as a delivery system for tits. And thighs, though much less so. Her clothing consists of basically just three diamond-shaped straps, one covering her genitals, and one... "covering" her breasts is going too far. One might as well say that packing tape "covers" a box. The cloth has approximately the structural function that ropes tied to a stake do in keeping a tent secured in place. And if you're wondering if we literally always see her nipples pressing alertly against the cloth, then you must not be familiar Ralph Bakshi. If you'd did, you wouldn't have to wonder - you'd know damn good and well that we do.

The juvenile sexuality on display here isn't even overripe and fun, like it is in Fire and Ice; its just tacky. And in a film that Bakshi seemed to genuinely think was going to appeal to family audiences, too. Like much of the film - the sloppy, scrawling animation, the snotty "fuck you" sense of humor in the barely-there jokes - what is at least galavanising and shocking in the context of his earlier films seems more like an out-of-control tic here, ruining any sense we get of this fantasy world as a serious place; despite some striking backgrounds, it all feels held together with staples, a loose and insincere setting for a painfully earnest moral fable. It's certainly striking, maybe even more striking than most Bakshi films; but like nearly all of them, I simply don't enjoy it, and in this case, rather than not enjoying it because I find its subversive attitude trite, it's because I think what looks like "subversion" is in a lot of places mere carelessness.