Animation Legend Ralph Bakshi Looks Back at His Cult Classic “Wizards”

In his heyday animator Ralph Bakshi was considered the Anti-Disney. Today, he’s considered an icon.

With Bakshi’s most enduringly popular film, 1977’s sci-fi/fantasy “Wizards,” getting a glorious upgrade to Blu Ray for its 35th anniversary, the director is being lured off the New Mexico “mountaintop” he’s inhabited since he finally abandoned Hollywood a dozen years ago to revisit it – he’ll be making stops at places as disparate – but equally united in their praise of Bakshi’s film – as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the comic book convention WonderCon.

The film not only signaled Bakshi’s professional shift from animating controversial but celebrated underground cult films like the X-rated “Fritz the Cat” (based on R. Crumb’s creation), “Heavy Traffic” and “Coonskin” into slightly more mainstream, fantasy-based fare, it also joined “Star Wars” that same year in launching science fiction and fantasy as film genres with increasingly broad appeal, as well as adult-themed animation. After laying the template for the types of movies that are commonplace in Hollywood today, Bakshi conjured some considerable perspective on “Wizards” – as well as his career as a whole – for PopcornBiz.

Are you surprised at the staying power that this film has had over the years?

Yeah, I'm shocked. I'm bewildered. It was only a million dollar budget, which was even in this day cheap. Yes, I'm very shocked.

Was it a creative risk to go in that direction at that point, or were you eager to expand to different genres? What was in your head when this started to take form?

First of all, anything I did was dangerous, and before I did 'Wizards' I had a lot of problems with a picture called 'Coonskin' which cost me a picture called 'Hey Good Lookin'' because Warner Brothers panicked. It was about a black gang fighting a white gang in the '50's and they really got scared – so it was always a problem. On the other hand, there isn't a cartoonist in this world that doesn't love fantasy – fantasy is a staple of cartooning. I'd read 'Lord of the Rings' and I was crazy about it because how could you not be? It's a masterpiece on a very high order, and so doing anything in animation that wasn't Disney was dangerous. It didn't really matter to me. I never thought of the danger or the fact that it might not become a hit, because all I wanted to do was do a film. In those days – animation is the darling of Hollywood now – we were the freaks of the industry. No one would take us out to lunch. I sold films and no executive ever took me to lunch from a studio. I wasn't as pretty, certainly, as some of the other girls. So it was just a way to prove that the language that I was using and the autobiographical stuff that I was doing or the X rating that they were giving me had nothing to do with what I was trying to say as an adult animator. In other words, I could do a kids film better than Disney in my mind for no money at all, or as good as Disney, because it wasn't the language that was driving my animation, I felt. It wasn't that big of a reach for me to go and do this film, no different than doing X-rated 'Fritz the Cat.' There was no need for sex and violence and the language in ‘Wizards’, but the story was as important as ever to me.

This film came out around the same time as 'Star Wars' and you had the same kinds of issues with the studio, 20th Century Fox, as George Lucas did. Did you feel like together your films ultimately signaled a turning point in the way that movies were made, and the kinds of movies being made?

Here's an interesting story, maybe: 'Wizards' was called 'War Wizards' and  Lucas was doing a film called 'Star Wars,' both bought by Fox, by [an executive] who was fired before both pictures were complete, which cost me my distribution, all my theaters, which was a very bad break. Lucas's lawyer called one day and asked as a favor to drop 'War' and give it to Lucas because with ‘War’ in 'Star Wars' and 'War Wizards,' they didn't want to two titles like that out in the same year. So I said, 'Fine, I guess so.' You don't say no to George Lucas, even then – he'd done 'American Graffiti' – and I kind of liked 'Wizards.' It was kind of more definite, right to the point, so I didn't feel hurt about it. The success of 'Wizards' allowed me to do 'Rings,' and 'Rings' allowed Peter Jackson to do the live-action version and billions of dollars were made. It all started with 'Wizards,' absolutely.

If you’re able to look objectively at your work, what things do you think you did to pave the way for where the status of animation is today – “the darling of Hollywood,” as you pointed our earlier?

Well, that's not for me to say. That would be too self-serving. Basically I was furious at Disney on a very personal level because I had grown up in a certain way in Brownville, Brooklyn, and he had done pictures right through World War II and we'd had the Holocaust and millions of people dying and you can't look at any Disney film that even discusses the tremendous issues that his company with loads and power avoided. So I was very angry at him, and that's all I wanted to do: prove that my medium, animation, didn't have to be solely for commercial gain. On the other hand, I always thought that because I was a young man that young people would like my animation. But for me to say what legacy, here's something: I wish that Fox would do 'Wizards 2.' I don't understand why they don't do 'Wizards 2.' With the technology today, I could do the technology in 'Wizards 2' on an incredible level and I think I'd have another 'Ring,' another 'Star Wars.'

Some of the conceptual artists that you worked with on “Wizards” like Ian Miller and Mike Ploog also went on to become icons in the world of fantasy illustration, as did your movie poster artist Bill Stout. What was it like being at the nexus at that moment in time, when fantasy illustration was at an all time high?

First of all, before I came to Hollywood I was an animator in New York. I worked for Paramount Pictures. I grew up with some brilliant artists. I grew up with Wally Wood, Joe Kubert, [Roy] Krenkel and [Frank] Frazetta. I grew up with this cream of the fantasy arts artists that were drawing for pocketbook covers in New York and they were my friends. Fantasy art to me wasn't a new thing. 'Lord of the Rings’ was an underground classic that was being handed from artist to artist to read – I read it that way. We were all secretly reading it and couldn't believe it. So fantasy art started way back then – in the comics, 'Conan' and all the science fiction covers, all those guys were drawing for that, EC Comics at Fantasy. I was in high school and art school at that point, so I was a huge fan of fantasy, and by the time I got to hire guys for 'Wizards' I knew who they were: Mike Ploog, a brilliant fantasy artist who worked for Will Eisner – I knew who he was; this guy in England, Ian Miller, was doing unbelievable calendars, gigantic fantasy drawings. Now, they weren't in the mainstream yet. I was bringing fantasy art to animation, as opposed to fairy tale. There's a difference. Of course, I end up doing a picture with Frank Frazetta. 'Fire and Ice.' How great is that, working with Frank for a year? I had the greatest time in the world working with those guys. I was lucky enough to work with the greatest artists in the world. The animators that I worked came off of the shorts. They were all old school – the guys that did 'Tom and Jerry,' and 'Daffy Duck' at Warner Brothers, they all worked for me. They were all 60 and 70 when I hired them. I loved those guys. I didn't give them much and look what they did. The guys who hated me were the young kids, because I was destroying the Disney images. It was really an odd, f**king freaky thing with the young guys in animation who thought I should go away. But the older guys were just as tired of the kid stuff as I was, so they're the ones that supported me.

What's going on with the 'Fire and Ice' remake Robert Rodriguez announced?

Robert Rodriguez calls me one day and says that he wants to remake 'Fire and Ice' as a live-action picture. So I said ‘Sure!’ He wants to remake it and so I gave him the rights, and if he makes it I'll make a few bucks which is great. I guess it's after 'Avatar.' and that he sees it the same way: Frazetta backgrounds and everything. So I said, 'Fine.' I don't want any part of it – I'd rather spend my time doing 'Wizards.' So I wish him all the luck in the world, but there's nothing I have to do with that film other than say, 'Look, you're the right guy to do it because you love it. So, go do it.' I made that deal and if he sells the film I'll make a lot of bucks, which is nice all of these years sitting here in the mountains, looking at Mexico.

Tell me about meeting the fans over the years, whether it's someone like a Quentin Tarantino to an 11-year-old kid who's had his imagination sparked by 'Wizards'? What's the payback for you when you have those encounters?

Total – Total payback. I'm shocked. I'm honored. I'm very stunned. It's a surprise to me. Everyone says the same thing in slightly different ways, but like, 'I was a kid when I saw "Wizards" and the thing that amazed me was that it had ideas in it. It didn't make me feel stupid. The film had ideas that I could think about.' Everyone that I met said that about 'Wizards,' that they got the ideas I was trying to sell. It made them think and they never forgot it. It made me feel great because when I left Hollywood I thought that I had totally failed. Let me be very clear: before the explosion came on the Internet and everything and the DVDs, I left kind of broke and tired. You have to understand that I kind sunk away into the shadows. I didn't leave on a high note. So it made me feel like an artist, which is all I ever was anyhow. It made me feel like it was worth it, that I had given up money for people's heads. Everyone said it changed their lives. I'm not lying to you – It's embarrassing, but everyone that emails me says somehow it changed their lives. I don't understand that, the impact. My wife says to me, 'The impact that you had, Ralph, is unbelievable.'  Now I believe it, because I thought that they were just wide-eyed fans, but now it's been 35 years of this. And 'Heavy Traffic' and 'Coonskin.' You wouldn't believe the black philosophers and rappers and people who write me about 'Coonskin' – Forget about it! So, yeah, from a guy who felt that he had lost, I felt that I have won now and I feel like an artist and that's all I ever wanted to be: an artist. So I guess I made it!


The 35th anniversary edition of "Wizards" arrives on Blu-ray today

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