Wednesday, February 20, 2013

WIZARDS – The Original Avatar

Way back in February of 1977, just a few months before Star Wars came out, I remember my best friend and I went to the movies to see a feature-length cartoon called Wizards.  We knew nothing about Wizards except that it had a very cool poster: a psychedelic illustration of a futuristic soldier in a red jumpsuit riding some kind of two-legged beast.

I still love that artwork.  It looked more like an album cover than a movie poster, and put to shame all the kiddy crud I had seen in recent years.  My expectations for Wizards were very low, however, because I was accustomed to the crap animation that was all too common in the ‘70s.

Saturday morning was a Hanna-Barbera wasteland, and even Disney was in a deep slump, cranking out spineless corporate product that would have shamed Uncle Walt.  What’s more, the brilliant animation of earlier eras was still being shown on TV alongside the later dreck, so kids my age could see very clearly we were growing up in a period of sad decline. Watergate, Vietnam, Scooby-Doo — how much worse could it get?

There had been a revolution in comics thanks to the influence of the counterculture (Nixon showed up in the Spider-Man strip; and I recall even Richie Rich had a serious storyline about nuclear terrorism, in which President Ford made an appearance), but this had not yet penetrated the dusty tombs of the mainstream animation industry…and wouldn’t until the mid-80’s, with The Simpsons.

But there was Wizards.

Written, directed, and produced by cult-animation guru Ralph Bakshi (Fritz the Cat), Wizards begins with a recap of future history narrated by Susan Tyrrell over still frames of comic artwork.  This intro could have felt cheap, but Tyrrell’s sorrowful Earth-mother voice and Andrew Belling’s music score make the slide-show surprisingly emotional.

It is a tale of two Wizards: a good one named Avatar (Bob Holt, doing a bang-up impersonation of Peter Falk), and an evil one named Black Wolf (Steve Gravers). 

Though polar opposites, Avatar and Black Wolf are twin brothers, having been born to the Queen of Montagar during a celebration commemorating 3000 years of peace.  Millions of years earlier the Earth was destroyed by nuclear war, an apocalypse which spawned a Tolkien-esque menagerie of fairytale beings and hideous mutants, all of whom have learned to coexist in relative harmony.

But that is soon to change.

When their mother dies, Black Wolf tries to take over the kingdom, fighting a magical duel with Avatar, who barely defeats him. 

Banished, Black Wolf goes off to start his own evil empire, Scortch, where he begins digging up the technology of the ancient world and using it to equip his army of trolls, mutants, and assorted assassins.

One of these is Necron 99 (David Proval)—AKA the acid trooper from the movie poster.

This is where the movie really begins, with Necron 99 and two other assassins roaming the landscape killing the rulers of the various kingdoms so that Black Wolf’s forces can invade.

But Montagar is defended by Apache-like warrior elves, and one of these, Weehawk (Richard Romanus), plants an arrow in the eyeball of Necron 99’s mount.  The assassin is not stopped, however, and proceeds on foot to the presidential tower (Montagar having apparently become a democracy under Avatar’s stewardship), where he guns down the clown-faced President (James Connell) in front of his fairy daughter Elinore (Jesse Welles) and the elderly Avatar.

These scenes of violence were startling to me at the time, and actually still are, because animation is so infantilized in America.  It was incredibly refreshing to see a cartoon that was not watered down for PTA approval.  Not only violence; wizards also dares to be sexy!  The buxom character of Elinore, with her clingy fairy lingerie, has haunted me all my life.  And before anyone gets offended about sexism: it’s called Fantasy, people!  Go tell it to Victoria’s Secret!

When Necron 99 shoots the President, Avatar blasts the assassin with a magic bolt that cuts his psychic connection to Black Wolf, thus rendering him harmless.  Avatar renames him “Peace,” and they all go on the road to stop Black Wolf from taking over the world.

Along the way they encounter scary monsters, lethal machines, and maniacal fairies led by none other than Mark Hamill (as the voice of Sean, the fairy king). 

Hamill was on loan to Ralph Bakshi at the same time he was playing Luke Skywalker for George Lucas—imagine that.  If Wizards had only come out a few months later it could have been advertised as “starring Mark Hamill!”

The rest is like Lord of the Rings (which Bakshi later struggled to make on a too-tight budget) as told by Quentin Tarantino: lots of gory slaughter interspersed with funny character dialogues, particularly on the part of the bad guys.  There are also many little disturbing moments that give weight to the action: enslaved pixies, murdered innocents, elves mowed down by machine guns.  Hey, it’s an allegory about fascism, what do you expect?

Some folks take issue with the technology-is-evil message of the film, but I think there’s an interesting contradiction in that Avatar has a jukebox, and a gun is the ultimate salvation of the world.  The most dangerous weapon in Black Wolf’s arsenal is an old movie projector, so clearly it’s not technology that’s the problem, but the uses to which it is put.  Avatar may believe in peace, but he also believes in war, and the message of Wizards is one of pragmatism, not idealism:  Evil does not play by the rules, so neither can the Good.

Wow, who made this movie, the NRA?

Maybe I’m just overthinking it.