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Avatar is the kindly, eccentric sorcerer-ruler of Montagar, a rainbow paradise inhabited by elves and fairies. Avatar's evil brother Blackwolf dominates Scortch, a bleak land of goblins and wraiths. When the power-hungry Blackwolf attacks Montagar, Avatar, accompanied only by a spirited young woman and a courageous elf, must enter the darkness of Scortch to save his world.
For more about Wizards and the Wizards Blu-ray release, see Wizards Blu-ray Review published by Casey Broadwater on March 14, 2012 where this Blu-ray release scored 3.0 out of 5.
Starring: Bob Holt, Jesse Welles, Mark Hamill, Richard Romanus, David Proval, Jim Connell (I)
Director: Ralph Bakshi
» See full cast & crew
Wizards Blu-ray Review
The Avatar before Avatar…
Reviewed by Casey Broadwater, March 14, 2012
Often called the "bad boy of animation," director Ralph Bakshi hit his stride in the 1970s making what you might call anti-Disney films, animated features aimed squarely at adults. Fritz the Cat, his breakthrough Robert Crumb adaptation—filled with anthropomorphized animals having sex and doing drugs—was the first animated film to be slapped with an X rating by the MPAA. ("He's X-rated and animated!" went one tagline.) Self-penned follow-up Heavy Traffic kept the sex and introduced viewers to Bakshi's own sense of blacker-than-coal satirical humor, with horny post- apocalyptic men humping piles of garbage and one character even shooting God—yes, good old uppercase G-O-D—in the head. And, of course, there was the controversial, racially-charged Coonskin, which used just about every stereotype and caricature imaginable to offend, well, just about everyone. (Bakshi attempted to confront racism head-on by toying with its most heinous imagery—blackface—but many, including, famously, the Reverend Al Sharpton, didn't get the joke.) In an unexpected career move, Bakshi then pitched 20th Century Fox a family-friendly fantasy film called War Wizards—later shortened to Wizards to avoid confusion with Star Wars—hoping to expand his success to a broader mainstream audience. The film has since become an animated cult classic, but it's far from Bakshi's best.
In Wizards, Bakshi creates a fantasy world that's one part cautionary technological tale to two parts Tolkien rip-off, the stuff of junior high notebook scribbles and adolescent fan fiction. Two million years after a nuclear holocaust wiped out most of humanity, the Earth has returned to a pre-industrial state where magic flourishes and technology is outlawed. The remnants of humanity have mutated and formed two camps. In pastoral Montagar, mankind has reverted to fairies, elves, and dwarves, who live in happy hoo-ha harmony with nature and one another. The inhabitants of Scortch, however, a boggy radioactive wasteland, have become hobgoblins and orcs, volatile and perverse.
Into this dualistic world, two twin wizards are born, one light—the laid-back Avatar (Bob Holt), perpetually smoking a stogy—and the other, Blackwolf (Steve Gravers), a black-as-sin, skeletal- looking badass who tortures small animals and wants to make Earth "a planet where mutants rule." To this nefarious end, Blackwolf digs up all manner of ancient, WWII-era technology—tanks, bombers, machine guns—and conspires to overrun Montagar with his armies of slack-jawed, easily excitable goons. To rouse his troops and scare the fairy shit right out of the Montagarians, Blackwolf utilizes his secret weapon—Nazi propaganda, projected over the battlefield into the ash- filled air. With help from a few friends—the pert-nippled, fairy sexpot Elinore (Jesse Welles), a deprogrammed robot assassin named Peace, and Elfin spy Weehawk—Avatar sets out to destroy the projector and protect the world from yet another holocaust.
As an allegory and satire, Wizards' anti-war message is exceptionally simple: technology is powerful, and it's inherently misused and abused by those in power. There's definitely a Vietnam- era counterculture vibe going on here, although the hippyish, dope-befuddled optimism of the times is replaced by a post-summer of love cynicism about the state of the world. Seen today, the film seems quaintly outdated in both style and substance, a remnant of a time when making a political statement in a cartoon could actually seem earnest and well-intentioned. (That's more of a put-down on our own times, not the film, in case you were wondering.) By this point, the whole nature versus technology narrative—so artlessly, ineloquently applied in James Cameron's Avatar—has a shopworn, yes, okay, we get it quality that won't do Wizards any favors with modern viewers. Despite Wizards being one of the first of its kind, animated films like Fern Gully: The Last Rainforest and Miyazaki's brilliant Nausicaä: Valley Of The Wind—which both owe a debt to Wizards—have told thematically similar stories with more narrative coherency. Wizards definitely has its moments of trenchant satirical savagery—priests who spank each other with planks of wood, a dark wizard that sits in the center of a glowing red swastika—but as a whole it feels unfocused, scattershot, incomplete.
The same could be said for the animation, which shows the limitations of Bakshi's budget and production schedule. When 20th Century Fox turned down the director's request for an additional $50,000 to complete the film's battle sequences, Bakshi was forced to rotoscope live-action footage, borrowed from Sergei Eisenstein's Alexander Nevsky and other public domain sources. The effect is sloppy but also impressionistic, giving the film's "march to war" scenes a creaky, unsettlingly militaristic quality. This carries over to the use of live-action Nazi propaganda, set in the sky as a background while the goblins work themselves into a frenzied bloodlust below. Although Wizards certainly lacks polish—characters sometimes appear semi-transparent, color fluctuates between frames, and the animated movements are a bit on the clunky side—it does have a kind of handmade aesthetic that separates it from the glossier work that Disney and others were doing at the time.
I think it's safe to say no one would ever confuse Wizards for a Disney production, not just because of the sub-par quality of the animation, but also because there's subject matter here that seems blatantly non-family friendly. There's nothing X-rated, of course, but there is a bit of swearing and plenty of sexual innuendo. And not all of it is subtle. Elinore the Ferry Queen is hyper-sexualized, with melon-sized breasts and hat-peg nipples that look like they they're about to poke holes through her top at any moment. (Call me a perv for noticing, but the folds of her bikini bottom often look conspicuously like "camel toe.") Plus, there's the whole Nazi angle—generally not the kind of thing you'd see in a kid's flick. Still, even the innuendo seems innocent, and it's all part of the film's cult classic appeal. Fans take note: Apparently, Bakshi is in talks for Wizards II—there's also a comic book in the works—but I'm sure the project getting the green light is at least partially dependant on how well this Blu-ray release performs.
Wizards Blu-ray, Video Quality
Warner Brothers released Bakshi's animated version of Lord of the Rings on Blu-ray in 2010, and if you've seen that film, you'll have some idea of what to expect from 20th Century Fox's treatment of Wizards. The fact is, Bakshi's films just don't have the fan base to financially support a meticulous frame-by-frame restoration, so unlike Disney films from the same era—which are miraculously revived in high definition—they're really going to show their age. This is certainly true for Wizards' 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer, based on a source print that's, nicked, scratched, and frequently salted and peppered with white and black specks. Aside from the print damage, though, which could've been fixed with enough time and money, most of the picture's visual peculiarities— what might unkindly be called defects—are actually problems with the original animation. The brightness of static images flickers on occasion, colors fluctuate within their cells, and foreground objects go unintentionally semi-transparent, allowing the backgrounds to be seen right through them. Some of the composite shots, mixing Nazi propaganda and animated characters, are also incredibly grainy and harsh. (There's an argument for Disney using DNR to clean up its films that goes something like this: Animation is essentially a pen, paint, and paper medium that's not inherently "filmic," so a true representation of the animator's craft would be to remove all grain from the image. But that's a discussion for another time.) Still, this Blu-ray, in all other respects, is an appreciable jump from the picture quality of the standard definition DVD. Outlines look sharper, edges are cleaner, and color is surprisingly vivid. Black levels are solid as well, and contrast looks tight. Since it's unlikely that Wizards will ever get a complete restorative overhaul, I'd say this release is definitely worth the upgrade.
Note: For those of you who imported the U.K. release of the film last year, put out by Eureka Entertainment, it looks to me like this U.S. version features the exact same transfer.
Wizards Blu-ray, Audio Quality
The only marked difference between this U.S. disc and the U.K. release from last year is that this one features a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track, whereas the the British edition only arrived with a lossless stereo mix. Not that the difference is substantive. The soundfield has been opened up in only superficial ways. The music, for instance, is panned quietly into the rears, and occasionally the sound designers for this release have added a bit of reverb in the surround channels, giving some depth to effects that are otherwise located entirely up front. If you were expecting all-new whiz-bang cross-channel directionality, you may be disappointed. This is still very much a front-and-center kind of mix. But there's nothing wrong with that—it's not like the original theatrical release had a multi-channel presentation—and this track succeeds in offering a relatively clean, clear presentation of the film's audio. Some of the dialogue sounds slightly muffled and far away, and a few of the effects have a flat, lifeless quality, but there's really not much to complain about here. Obviously, considering when the film was made, bass response is noticeably lacking and the high-end sounds a little brittle and brash, but it is what is. Otherwise, Andrew Belling's synthesizer score sounds better than ever, and when Blackwolf rolls his armies into Montagar, the porn-y sounding proto-funk music kicks in nicely. The disc also includes an English and Spanish Dolby Digital mono tracks, along with optional English SDH, Spanish, and French subtitles.
Also note that the U.S. release lacks the score-only audio track that was included on the British edition.
Wizards Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
Wizards Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
Wizards hasn't withstood the test of time as well as Ralph Bakshi's earlier, edgier films— neither has its follow-up, an animated version of Lord of the Rings—but the movie still has plenty of fans, who love it for its odd-ball characters, dark humor, and visual make do with the budget we've been given peculiarities. Despite the age-related print damage, the film looks and sounds great on Blu-ray, and it comes with a decent selection of special features. The digibook packaging is sweet too. Recommended for animation fans!
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Wizards Blu-ray, News and Updates
• Wizards Blu-ray - January 10, 2012
Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment will release a 35th Anniversary Edition of Wizards this March. Directed by Ralph Bakshi (Fire and Ice), this animated adventure centers on kindly sorcerer Avatar as he tries to save a post-apocalyptic Earth from his evil ...
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