"Wizards," now at three area theaters, tempers the obscenely gleeful brutality that dominated Ralph Bakshi's earliest animated features, "fritz the Cat" and "Heavy Traffic," with a tendency toward whimsicality and adorability that creates alarming sensations of a different sort.
The original low-minded, violence-prone Bakshi, with his street urchin's view of the world, has now been joined by an world, has now been joined by an almost fey Bakshi, who fills the screen with elves, fairies and other darling little creatures and seems to favor universal love and brotherhood.
This unexpected blend of sweet and sour Bakshi is not exactly tasty and would take some getting used to under the best of circumstances. As it happens, "Wizards" is such a weakly dramatized animated feature, a schlepper of a quest-saga-cum-war epic set among monster and elves in a post-nuclear civilization, that adjusting to the sytlistic quirks becomes a secondary problem.
"Wizards" can probably be regarded as on-the-job training for Bakshi's current project, a series of animated features based on Tolkien's "Ring" cycle. The elfin good guys, led by a stalwart little warrior called Weehawk (in homage to Little Beaver, perhaps?), appear to be test Hobbits. Bakshi also experiments with a variety of fanciful landscapes and mass spectacles, including some striking silhouettes drawn from such classic as the battle scenes in "Alexander Nevsky," that may prove to be astute preparation for his prestige production.
If nothing else, the "Ring" movies should profit from having a text by Tolkien rather than by Bakshi. "Wizards" is conspicously lacking in narrative momentum. Even when the graphics and draughtsmanship seem clever, they embellish the most negligible of scenarios. Unable to sustain a plausible conflict in some futuristic setting of his own, Bakshi reaches way back to make sure we'll understand his allegorical intentions: The mutant monsters are commanded by an evil wizard named Blackwolf whose major source of magic is old Nazi propaganda movies.
Bakshi's dramatic ear is so flat that the climaxes tend to fizzle out in anti-climax. The letdown is especially pronounced in the big showdown scene between Blackwolf and his sibling, the good wizard Avatar, who talks like Peter Falk. One expects a sustained display of no-holds-barred wizardry in the spirit of the Roger Corman-Richard Matheson version of "The Raven," but the duel of the milennium turns out to be no contest. Whatever wizardry Ralph Bakshi possesses is strictly limited to the technical side of this dimanimated novety.