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"I'm Glad You Changed Your Last Name, You Son of a Bitch": Zulu Watches 'Wizards' So You Won't Have To (But Should Anyway)

The Movie That Shaped Many an Imagination and Many a Libido—As Recalled by MisterZulu

A cell setup from Ralph Bakshi's Wizards (1977). Backgrounds courtesy of Johnnie Vita,

Ira Turek and Martin Strudler. The cells were each taken from animation by—most likely—Irven Spence (the fairy

princess Elinore) and Robert Taylor (the good wizard Avatar).

Introduction:

Imagine you're a kid who lives about a half hour away from the Laguna Indian Reservation, headed there to rent some movies—a weekly treat. You go into the supermarket and head all the way to the back and to the right. It's not Blockbuster Video, but for a small town kid it comes awful close. You see many a Disney movie housed in clamshells (the ones with that fucking scary as hell Buddy Baker scored neon Mickey Mouse opening. Don't laugh, that shit gave me nightmares for years. That and the MTM Kitten.) Plenty of big box videos too, from MGM/UA, Warner Bros., Paramount. Shannon Whirry, Kimberly Kelley, and Shannon Tweed had some of their best work there, too—:D. 

But one video in particular catches your eye. The front is plain white, with some man dressed in red sitting on a two legged lizard-horse thing that to this day you have a hard time fathoming how anyone could dream up a creature like that. Any who, said Red Man is holding a gun, sitting on a saddle with the word "Peace" emblazoned in the back, illustrated by the legendary fantasy artist William Stout. 

The movie is called Wizards. Oh wow, let's rent this one, Mom. She does. You go back home and it's the third movie the family sees that day. Your mother freaks the Hell out and won't let you watch it again before you take it back. Despite its PG rating, there is a whole lot of crazy shit happening in that movie. It's not till years later after coming across it at nearest public library—again, on the Rez, since no one in your town is smart enough to read, let alone frequent a library, and even less likely to build one—that you finally process what the fuck this bonkers piece of animation is. Turns out that all those years ago, you were—by freak accident—introduced to the work of a man named Ralph Bakshi. 

And this piece of work was the first time he made a concentrated effort to make a "family picture."

Be that as it may, I'm still glad I saw it. I wound up stealing that fabled VHS from the library—where it somehow wound up when the video rental section of the supermarket was eaten up by hardware)—and later buying it on DVD. Then on Blu-Ray on its 35th anniversary. I wound up with two copies when I got one—autographed by Bakshi himself—as a reward for backing his featurette Last Days of Coney Island.

The story, when all is said and done, is a simple one, one as old as time itself: a battle between Good and Evil. What sets Wizards apart from the rest of the pack are three things. 

First off, this ain't no Disney picture, despite the fact there are a couple of one-time Disney animators working behind the scenes here—lead layout artist John Sparey and the uncredited Bob Carlson (known for his work with a certain sailor suit wearing duck and bald hard luck kid with a crazy dog). 

They aren't the only animation legends—past and present—involved with this here picture. Irv Spence was one of Grim Betty Boop Natwick's contemporaries when they all worked with Ub Iwerks making cartoons for MGM in the early thirties. He was one of Tex Avery's go-to animators during the first chunk of his tenure at Termite Terrace, and would later do the initial designs of three of the characters Avery created at the House of the Lion: Droopy, Screwball Squirrel, and George and Junior. We aren't done yet—he was one of the quintet of animators under Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera when they spent fifteen years making Tom and Jerry cartoons. Another legend, like Carlson uncredited, was Looney Tunes stalwart Virgil Ross—one of the guys who helped create a certain "wascially wabbit" and that "d-d-d-darn-fool crazy duck."

There were some east coast greats working on Wizards, too. Martin Taras was one of the old-timers Bakshi worked under and alongside with at Terrytoons during the heydays of Mighty Mouse, Heckle and Jeckle, and Gandy Goose. He was also one of the cartoonists who brought to life a certain spinach munching Sailor during the tail end of his Golden Age and helped create the Harvey Comics house-style—while working on cartoons with those characters where they were originally created by and still owned by Famous Studios, the animation division of Paramount Pictures. Hell, he created one of them himself—the moronic mallard mongoloid Baby Huey. Don't quote me on this, but the equally idiotic Katnip, the foil to Dave Tendlar's Herman Mouse, was definitely Taras' baby, too.

Secondly, is the gleefully mean-spirited knock/surprisingly loving homage to classic Disney, as the story of the opposing forces personified by Magic and Technology, respectively—with the latter responsible for the current state of what is post-nuclear holocaust Earth, as narrated to creepily Fairy Tale Theatre-esque perfection by a regretfully uncredited Susan Tyrell and illustrated by Ghost Rider co-creator Michael Ploog. While such a horrible thing did manage to wake up the true ancestors of man—Elves and Fairies—it rendered the planet's former residents hideous, radioactively disfigured mutants. At the heart of all this madness, we are regaled with the tale of the Fairy Queen of Montigar who gave birth to twin sons, born wizards with one representing Good and the other Evil. After the wizened monarch passes away, the good son seeks out his brother, enraged at finding out his brother is taking their mother's death as an opportunity to stage a coup. The two begin battling until the Evil One finally throws in the towel, vowing revenge and leaving to rule the land of mutants called Scortch, while the Goodie remains in Montigar. 

To top that off, the bad guys become...well, Nazis. Somewhat half-assed Nazis. 

And last of all is that the Good Guys are...well, kind of incompetent. Not purposely, mind you, it's just their nature. For one, there is the elf warrior Weehawk (voiced by, of all people, Richard Romanus from Mean Streets. Even crazier, it fits the character). He rides Pell Nell to the stronghold of the king of Montigar to warn him of impending danger...only for said danger—the crimson colored cyborg on the cover—to beat him there and fill the clown mask wearing monarch full of lead. In front of his over the hill advisor/on-call and aforementioned good wizard/remorseful drunk Avatar (Bob Holt. Hoot Kloot, Inch High—Private Eye, Grape Ape, 80's animated version of the Incredible Hulk Bob Holt!) and his curvy, half naked fairy princess daughter Elinore (Jessie Wells, who would have had a more significant place in the annals of voice over giants if she had stuck with it a little longer. She chose to raise her kids, so her reasons for leaving were noble. That being said, there's probably an alternate universe where she, not Arleen Sorkin, wound up originating the role of Harley Quinn. Look me in the face and tell me she wouldn't have hit it out of the park). 

Instead of destroying the assassin, named Necron 99, Avatar manages to reprogram him into a slurring, simple—but no less dangerous—post apocalyptic Johnny 5 ironically renamed Peace (the underrated David Proval, who stole just as many scenes here as he did on Mean Streets, as the ill-tempered pizzeria honcho who nearly became Robert Barrone's father in law on Everybody Loves Raymond, and a brief, but no less enjoyable turn as the mobster pal of a Vietnam vet who winds up with one hell of an unhappy ending in the Anna Nicole Smith skin flick To the Limit).

With the sole exception of Avatar's evil brother Blackwolf (Steven Gravers, with most of his appearances handled by the aforementioned Ross and the only serious character in the film...up until its denouement) and the creatures of Hell he manages to conjure up, the baddies aren't much smarter... or competent. It's safe to say that without their "secret weapon," they may very well be a whole lot stupider. The Forces of Evil look like Looney Tunes characters created by the madcap and morbid maestros of EC Comics, every bit as imposing and lethal as they are undeniably, and often unwittingly, hilarious. 

Bakshi himself voices a large chunk of them, including a pair of sentries who are the centerpiece of the funniest scene—intentionally so—in the movie and one of the funniest pieces of animation committed to film, animated by Bakshi's fellow Terrytoon alumnus Robert (Bonkers, Rock Odyssey, Heidi's Song, Nine Lives of Fritz the Cat) Taylor. A conversation of whether or not one of them is a millstone around the other's neck when it comes to being rewarded for their work comes to a sucker-punch of a punchline when the latter is inadvertently shot to death by the oblivious former, who takes out his rage over the death of his "friend" on those "disease ridden vermin" a.k.a. fairies. Even after seeing the film as often as I have, I still laugh my ass off every time I hear "YOU KILLED FRITZ!!" Whatever of the opposing forces Taylor didn't animate fell into the capable hands of a young Art Vitello (Tiny Toon Adventures, Taz-Mania, and Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends) and future Looney Tunes, Simpsons and King of the Hill animator and character layout artist Brenda Banks.

After being badgered by Weehawk and enticed by Elinore ("Why don't you sit there for a while and let me think about it," Avatar tells her while she rests on her haunches with her chest thrust out on the foot of his bed; "Okay!" is the Princess's reply)—who goes throughout the whole movie looking like she's really cold under her skimpy slingshot bikini—to try and stop his brother from succeeding where Hitler failed.  Avatar and his crackpot company soon head out on what could very well be a suicide mission. The odds of them even making it to Blackwolf's stronghold, let alone putting up a decent fight, are far from good. The three come close to dying several times—accosted by Peace's former comrades while in the domain of the Mountain Fairies, where the winged seraphims' cloyingly cute emissary (Mark Hamill. Yeah, that MARK HAMILL) winds up eating lead in the crossfire.  After being captured by the vengeful fairies, a spell gone wrong winds up with Elinore nearly being eaten head first by a gargoyle. I like to think if the film had a harsher rating, the creature would have managed to tear that flimsy bikini off. 

But that's just me.

Weehawk and Peace forge an unlikely bond when the airheaded android saves the sawed off swordsman from being killed by a giant, mustard gas spewing mutant spider, in a scene equal parts horrifying and amusing as rendered by Irv Spence, proving to the elf that Avatar succeeded in putting a spark of goodness within the automaton who assassinated his king. Things are far from sunny for the rest of the party. Despite interference from his brother and a trigger happy member of the mob gleefully watching as Elinore becomes some creature's dinner, Avatar manages to convince the king of the Mountain Fairies to let him and Elinore finish their quest, though things have never looked bleaker. After being transported to a snow covered mountain range, they certainly become so--as Avatar realizes that he and the Princess have been going around in circles. 

Things haven't been going well for the armies representing the forces of Good in the meantime as well. We are introduced to a company of elves awaiting Blackwolf's forces, expecting to trounce the mutants once more. But said malicious magician has an ace up his sleeve: an enchanted film projector, which he uses to accost the opposition with imagery of the Third Reich—whose ruins his people raided—in all its glory. Confused and horrified by what they see, the entire company, from the boy soldier Peewhittle to the squadron's Wilford Brimley-esque captain, are slaughtered wholesale. 

I'll give this to my mom. She had no problem with Elinore's nipples—probably in too much shock—and she cringed at the Nazi imagery, but this scene was too much for her and turned the flick off. When she went to my grandmother's to help her make biscochitos, we turned it back on and saw the rest before she got back. :)

The baddies, however, are not above "shooting themselves in the foot." After sending two of their own into a church to ask the priests within to care for the prisoners—who drag their feet with one of the loopiest religious rituals you will ever freaking see—the rest of the army outside grow weary—the one at the missile launcher groaning that it's about time when he's given the signal to take drastic action—and blow the chapel sky high. With the bored and annoyed mutant infantrymen, one of them smugly telling his pal to sit back and watch as the problem they attempted to palm off on the religious leaders is "handled"—by shooting the prisoners dead—still inside.

Yeah, these guys are that stupid.

Things begin to look up for Avatar and Elinore when Weehawk and Peace manage to get to them before they freeze to death. As their journey continues, they come across an army of elves in the desert, who have managed to kneecap a convoy from the land of Scortch, steal their weaponry and are now loaded for bear. The usage of guns on the elfs' part doesn't set well with the wizard and a scuffle between Avatar and the elf army leader erupts, who implores his people to leave the old sorcerer be—he's earned it by spending a lifetime curing the populace of the world like a pint sized Jesus and aiding those in need...though he ends it with a smart assed remark about how the mighty Avatar plans to destroy his brother with "one elf, a woman child, and a moron robot." Bob Taylor's drawing style is all over the scene, showing that even an artist known for his kooky animation could be serious when he needed to be. 

Rock Odyssey, before Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera shang-hi-ed it from him, is further proof of that. 

The company is shortened down to two when Elinore, hoping to comfort the despondent Peace, winds up falling under Blackwolf's power and seemingly betraying her friends by jumping into a tank meant for the mechanical man--after hurling her sword through his torso, killing him. It is now that we realize that Avatar saw the Princess as more than a friend—he had fallen in love with her—and her desertion causes him to fall into a crippling depression. His sadness deepens to the point where he finally has a nervous breakdown in front of a mutant squad; unfortunately, it happens while he and Weehawk are trying to infiltrate Scortch unnoticed. At the risk of sounding cruel, it's morbidly funny. And rightfully sad. But 'Hawk uses it to his advantage, as they become distracted enough for the elfin warrior to kill them, with his bare hands. Avatar regains his composure enough to send the elf away, telling him that he will do everything he can to end his brother's madness, even at the cost of his own life and hoping he'll be reunited with his love on the "other side."

As he does so, Weehawk comes across a broken Elinore as he escapes Scortch, and the elf begins beating her for her betrayal.  It is not until after the evil wizard's unwilling bride begs the elf to show the fairy mercy, as she has grown sick of the bloodshed and needless stupidity of war itself around her, taking her and the decaying warlock's newborn son with her that he relents.  As Elinore tells him of how Blackwolf had tried to regain control of his minion and wound up trapping her mind instead, Weehawk decides to return to Avatar's side to let him know as well.

It is now that the brothers finally confront one another for the last time, with the bone-armed Blackwolf telling his bumbling sibling to give up his world, feeling that there is no possible way for him to be defeated. Avatar manages to get a chuckle out of the post-apocalyptic Fuhrer by telling him that their mother taught him one final "magic trick" when he was out in the forest torturing small animals but tells him one final thing before whipping a out a German Luger from out of his sleeve and shooting the unprepared and disbelieving Blackwolf twice, once in the stomach and again in the face, killing him:

"I'm glad you changed your last name, you son-of-a-Bitch!"

Without the evil mage's presence, the projector loses its power, allowing the armies of Montigar to turn the tide against their mutant opponents, and his stronghold crumbles to the ground as Weehawk, Elinore and an elated Avatar escape the wreckage. The film ends with Elinore leaving Montigar in Weehawk's hands while she and Avatar head off to start a kingdom of their own...among other things. :D

This movie. is. a. FUCKING. TRIP! And enjoyable as hell. There is a bizarre charm to it all—especially on the Montigar side of things as Irv Spence animated a good 60% of the movie on his own, with Bob Carlson and Virgil Ross contributing off the books with a scene here and there after hours of their then current day jobs—respectively Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown, and The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Movie. One can definitely tell when Marty Taras, Bob Taylor, Brenda Banks, and Art Vitello took the reigns animation-wise, as each of those artists had a style that was uniquely theirs. Speaking of which, the style of the film changes to suit the mood of the movie at certain points, with Ploog, Johnnie Vita, Ira Turek and Martin Strudler's Montigar and fantasy artist Ian Miller's Scortch polar opposites—much like the film's protagonist and antagonist. Concurrently, the use of rotoscope to render the forces of Evil was a nice touch that further helped to set the villains apart from the heroes. It was also necessary to finish the film itself, as 20th Century Fox kept cutting the movie's budget, believing it, and another little movie called Star Wars, would be a failure, and Bakshi using it to his advantage as the studio lost more and more say-so in the film's actual content. Like George Lucas, Bakshi wound up with full ownership of Wizards before it was even completed.

To Fox's chagrin—like Star WarsWizards was a hit with audiences when it was released in 1977, making nine million dollars on a million and a half budget. The only reason it is only known to the layman as the first animated feature film to be released by Fox is because it was yanked out of theaters to make room for the science fiction fantasy classic that was made alongside it. The lack of faith in both films was a mistake that haunts the company to this very day; it also caused the studio's board of directors to fire the head of the studio itself, Alan Ladd Jr. Fortunately, both Fox and Ladd learned from their mistakes; when the script for Alien was being shopped around in the late 70s, Fox ripped it from under the nose of its original producer, Roger Corman, and handed it to a then largely unknown British production designer Ridley Scott; when he formed his own company, Ladd gave as much leeway as humanly possible to Scott when he was making Blade Runner. 

Granted, this hour and a half long piece of What the Fuck-ery is not for everyone, but it should be seen at least once. And, like it or not, it has gone on to influence, inspire, and give the younger male contingent of its audiences their first boners for generations and will continue to do so for many a generation to come. 

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