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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » Wizards (Blu-ray)
Wizards (Blu-ray)
Fox // PG // March 13, 2012 // Region A
List Price: $34.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Adam Tyner | posted March 17, 2012 | E-mail the Author
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"It was Avatar who fought alongside my father against the first mutant attack. So, now we have our messiah back again. He's going to destroy his brother for us. With what? A woman child, one elf, and a moron robot."

The world we once knew was reduced to ash. Streams of nuclear missiles not only wiped out mankind but most every trace of his existence as well. Out of those smoldering embers emerged something long-forgotten -- a world of magic...of elves, of fairies, of sorcerors. Loyalties were split among two brothers, each with unparalleled mystical powers at his command. There was the heroic Avatar, fighting for the forces of magic and nature, and he was pitted against the sinister Blackwolf and his armies of irradiated mutants. Time has not been kind to either of them in the many years since. Avatar is an ancient wizard whose days of heroism have made way for a relaxed life as a dirty old man. Blackwolf has been forced to lurk in the shadows, unearthing and reassembling the technology of a fallen society. He's hardly content to fritter away the rest of his days in a nuclear wasteland, but Blackwolf's every attempt to conquer outlying lands have met with defeat. Blackwolf's determination to mold the past into an arsenal have unearthed a primal force the likes of which haven't been seen for ages. The elves now quake with fear, and the mutants are steeled into an unstoppable army. The only salvation for the forces of good lay in the hands of the decrepit Avatar, the elven warrior Weehawk, a busty fairy princess named Elinore, and a robot who was once an assassin under Blackwolf's command. The odds are insurmountable, and everything they've come to know and love is at stake.

I wasn't really sure what to make of Wizards when I was younger, and I'll admit to still having deeply mixed feelings about the film a lifetime later. There's a lot about the movie that fascinates me, though. It's a PG animated movie with largely bright, cartoony character designs, and yet there's no shortage of Nazi imagery and intense violence. Someone might be gruesomely skewered through the gut one minute, and right around the next bend will be some playful comedy punctuated by a Saturday morning "boiiiing!" sound effect. Rather than deftly try to weave the exposition into the dialogue, Wizards instead heaps on seemingly endless infodumps over a series of still images. If I got anything in that plot summary a paragraph up wrong, that's because so much backstory is lobbed out at once that it's tough to process, and...well, Wizards isn't the most coherent movie in the first place.

I respect that Ralph Bakshi aims for more than a standard issue good-versus-evil sword-and-sorcery yarn, drawing deeply from the havoc wrought throughout World War II for part of its sociopolitical commentary. Though I can't say I was particularly drawn in by any of them, Wizards sets out to make its characters more complex than the usual bunch of archetypes. It's the only movie you're likely to see with crudely animated elf warriors, rotoscoped tanks, and live-action stock footage of Nazis on the march all in the same scene. I admire the imagination and artistry behind the character designs. I'm inexorably drawn towards movies with drastic tonal shifts like this. I respect that Bakshi's ambition was so undeterred by the million dollar-and-change budget he had to work with here. I can't help but marvel at the scale of the final battle that's an epic in every sense of the word and startlingly brutal for something meant to be a family movie. It's an entrancingly strange, surreal world that Bakshi has designed, one that's so extreme in so many different ways that it's hard to imagine who this movie is meant for, exactly. Wizards immediately found its audience, though, becoming an instant success upon its release in 1977 and cementing itself as a cult classic in the years since. I don't think I can say that I'm a part of that crowd, though. I see Wizards as largely being a misfire, but it aims so high and is so fiercely unconventional that I'm still fascinated with the movie just the same. Better suited as a rental for those who haven't yet experienced Wizards and are hesitant to shell out $25 for a movie this challenging; Recommended otherwise.

I don't have a DVD release of Wizards handy, so I can't speak to how significant an upgrade this high definition remaster is by comparison. The linework is on the soft side, though, not matching the sort of crispness and clarity seen in the Blu-ray releases of, say, The Last Unicorn or Bakshi's own Fire and Ice. Between that softness and the streamlined animation style, Wizards isn't the type of title that screams 1080p. I mean, if I were walking into the room part of the way through, I don't think I'd be able to tell at a glance that I'm looking at a newly-minted Blu-ray disc. That sort of definition is unmistakeably visible at times, though, particularly in a few of the intricately designed backgrounds and in Mike Ploog's striking fantasy stills. In more distant shots, the tiny renderings of Wizards' characters remain clear and distinct, and that's the sort of thing I'd expect to devolve into a muddy blur on DVD. The difference is there but rarely leaps out.

Sure, sharpness and clarity aren't where I feel like they ought to be, and I wouldn't be surprised if I were to hear that this HD master had been struck eight years ago, but I didn't find Wizards difficult to watch by any means because of that. Black levels and color saturation are both robust, reflecting some of Bakshi's notes in his audio commentary. I appreciate that the image is pure and untainted, with nothing in the way of edge enhancement or clunky noise reduction heaped on, and the encode has been given enough headroom that there aren't any hiccups in the compression either. There's not a lot of polishing on any level, really, and there are plenty of scratches and specks, not to mention the cel dust and uneven painting from the original production. Dazzling high definition eye it's not so much, but I'm still in awe that Wizards is getting a premium Blu-ray release from a major studio, period, so its rougher edges are easily overlooked. Bakshi completists know what they're getting into anyway.

Wizards and its extras span both layers of this BD-50 disc. The image is lightly letterboxed to an aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and has been encoded with AVC. Sorry for not being able to post any screencaps this time around.

I know I was sort of waffling about the high-def visuals up there, but I can be more a little more confidently enthused about the aural end of things. Wizards features a 24-bit, six-channel DTS-HD Master Audio remix as well as a lossy monaural track. It's too bad that the mono audio didn't get the lossless treatment, but as remixes go, this one's pretty respectful. The surrounds are used largely to reinforce the music and such scattered effects as gunfire and energy blasts. There aren't any gimmicky split-surrounds or awkward pans to get in the way. I found myself completely caught off-guard by how substantial the LFE channel could be. Fidelity, clarity, and detail are all stronger than anticipated as well. There are some flickers of distortion in the dialogue but nothing I couldn't handle. Hiss is reasonably restrained, and no clicks, pops, or dropouts ever have a chance to intrude. The highlight for me by far is the brilliant Minimoog-driven score by Andrew Belling, and it's kind of a shame that the isolated score/effects track from Eureka's BD from across the pond didn't find its way over to this release. As far as what is offered here goes, though, I'm pretty impressed.

Wizards also sports a Spanish dub in Dolby Digital mono (192kbps) , along with subtitles in English (SDH), French, and Spanish.

  • Ralph Bakshi: The Wizard of Animation (34 min.; SD): This interview with Wizards' writer, director, producer, and...well, the list keeps going on from there begins by charting his career as in illustrator: first in comics and then as an animator at Terrytoons. There's an onslaught of really terrific stories along the way, and Bakshi manages to maintain a clear narrative throughout it all, establishing how the lessons he learned helped him start his own studio and eventually get Wizards off the ground. Bakshi delves into why he felt so compelled to make a PG fantasy in the wake of his more overtly adult work, and among the many other highlights are the deviating styles used throughout the film, how IBM was paid to lend a hand in the rotoscoping used in some of the key battle sequences, numerous budgetary struggles, and distribution headaches even with the film being such an immediate success. Bakshi also speaks with great admiration about many of the animators who worked alongside him on Wizards, pointing out some of his key collaborators and telling a terrific story about each of them one-by-one. I enjoyed this conversation with Bakshi immensely and wasn't ready for it to end. And as luck would have it...

  • Audio Commentary: Another carryover from the 2004 DVD is this audio commentary with Ralph Bakshi. There's not too much overlap with the half-hour interview, delving -- among many other things -- into the score, sound design, the many hats Bakshi wore throughout the gruelingly low-budget production, and the fantasy stills drawn by legendary Marvel monster artist Mike Ploog. Again, there are too many highlights to fully list, but I particularly enjoyed hearing about Mark Hamill doing some voicework for Wizards while Star Wars was still underway, Bakshi's animators practically going catatonic during Frank Frazetta's visits to the studio, and Bakshi saying that he wouldn't turn to rotoscoping if he were doing it all over again. A very worthy listen.

  • Promotional Material (4 min.; SD): Wizards also unearths a pair of theatrical trailers and one TV spot.

  • Still Gallery: The last of the extras is an extensive gallery of artwork.

Wizards comes packaged in a 24 page digibook. The text is largely a greatest-hits from Bakshi's commentary and interview on the disc, and it's heavily illustrated with some truly gorgeous conceptual art.

The Final Word
Wizards is a flawed but intriguing first foray into fantasy by Ralph Bakshi. The combination of its inventive character designs, rough-hewn animation, smirking sense of humor, jarring shifts in tone, the collision of swords-and-sorcery adventure with modern technology and war, and barbed social commentary leaves Wizards unlike much of anything else out there. I think my honest answer is that I'm fascinated by Wizards even though I don't enjoy it in the usual sense, but for adventurous animation fans, this is a movie that's still well-worth discovering if you haven't already. Wizards is certainly not an obvious choice for a release on Blu-ray, and I'm very glad to see that Fox not only is releasing it themselves but is putting it out as a premium digibook. This is such a polarizing movie that more cautious viewers understandably may want to opt for a rental instead, but an effort like this deserves to be rewarded with a Recommended rating.
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