Though there were a few examples in earlier decades, the 1970s is the decade when animation grew up. Movies like Watership Down, The Last Unicorn, and Castle of Cagliostro brought animation out of the realm of kid’s stuff and into the world of PG (and R) rated movies. Spurred on by the popularity of adult underground comics by people like Robert Crumb and the importation of Japanese anime, more and more adult animated movies began appearing in theaters until it’s zenith with Heavy Metal in 1980. But before that director/ animator Ralph Bakshi made quite a few adult animated movies, starting off with Fritz the Cat and following it up with several urban adult animated movies (even earning an X rating on a couple). By 1977, he wanted to make an adult animated fantasy film and developed War Wizards at Fox.
The story tells of a post apocalyptic future in which the Earth was destroyed by nuclear war and covered in radiation for thousands of years. What was left of mankind either became mutants or evolved into elves, dwarves, and fairies. Into this was born two children- Avatar, a good elf; and Blackwolf, an evil mutant. Blackwolf was banished to Scortch, a poisoned wasteland where he gathered other mutants to him and studied black magic, eventually raising an army of demons from hell to join him and his minions.
Still, his evil army could not defeat the elves and fairies, until he discovered a secret weapon. Technology (which had been banned for thousands of years, because it had destroyed the Earth) and in particular an old film projector, which he infused with his magic to call upon the images of an evil from the far distant past to help him defeat the legions of good.
Avatar sets out on a quest with an elf prince, a fairy princess, and a robot to stop Blackwolf from defeating the forces of good permanently.
The movie starts out with narration by an uncredited Susan Tyrell (Andy Warhol’s Bad, The Forbidden Zone, Flesh + Blood) who later lamented that she wished she had not been uncredited. Mark Hamill also does the voice of a fairy (and Bakshi actually changed the name of the movie from War Wizards to just Wizards at George Lucas’ suggestion because he let Hamill off filming Star Wars for a few days to do the voice acting), and Bakshi himself does several voices.
Somewhere in the midst of making it, he ran out of money, and Fox would not give him more. He then started pouring his own money into the project, and in order to keep the costs down he used rotoscoping (in which an animator uses photos or film cels and paints over them). He painted over several scenes from old movies such as Zulu and The Battle of the Bulge to get the dynamoc battle scenes he wanted, and combined that with more conventional animation. The effect is pretty original looking, and mildly creepy at times (with the armies of hell descending on the good guys in rotoscoped semi-realism).
The backgrounds are beautiful, and several scenes (especially at the beginning of the movie) are still shots of paintings, which make the movie feel like you are watching a living comic book in places. He used two different background artists (including Marvel Comics’ Mike Ploog) to create the feel of the gloomy and dark radiation-filled land of Scortch and the bright, magical land of Montagar.
The movie makes a lot of veiled commentary on things like war, technology, propaganda, and religion (which Bakshi apparently considers silly and unhelpful in any way), and is a very strange mix of mildly sleazy and creepy adult scenes and more whimsical and absurd (even goofy) kid-friendly themes and parts (Bakshi actually considered this his first “family picture”).
I really enjoy the offbeat jazzy and mildly psychedelic background music which gives it an otherworldly feel (70’s movies are filled with Moog synths, which make them sound uniquely ’70s, and this one is no exception).
It has been released on both dvd and blu ray with Bakshi commentary, and is definitely worth seeking out for fans of animation, fantasy, or weird ’70s movies.