Director: Ralph Bakshi
Starring: Bob Holt, Steve Gravers, Jesse Welles, Richard Romanus, David Proval
Rating: PG (UK)
Genre: Post-apocalyptic sci-fi/fantasy animation (USA)
’Avatar’ vs ‘Blackwolf’
Loaded terms indeed and here they are names of the main two characters/sides in the story but let’s start somewhere in the future of humanity’s timeline. The film begins with:
‘An illuminating history bearing on the everlasting struggle for world supremacy fought between the powers of technology and magic.’
The world was subject to 1000 atomic bombs which caused 2 million years of radioactive pollution, much of the land was devastated and called ‘bad lands’ and humans mutated. When some of the skies and land cleared those who had fallen asleep, the elves, fairies and dwarves, awoke. Queen Delia of the Fairies was at a public celebration, the ‘Feast of the Plenty’ marking 3000 years of peace when she sensed something more awry than usual… Later she had twins (we don’t know if they were her biological sons or ‘given’ to her), one who spent a lot of time showing enchanting visions to her/‘mother’, he was Avatar. The other ignored her, tortured animals and was power hungry, he was Blackwolf. Delia finally died and the brothers fought, Blackwolf to succeed the queen mother and Avatar for her honour and the loss. Avatar beat Blackwolf, who was banished to the bad lands where he spent thousands of years accumulating knowledge, power and followers. Both are wizards but whereas Avatar uses magic, Blackwolf uses both magic and technology and as science&technology were banned after the nuclear war so he’s desperate to get his hands on any ancient tech and memorabilia he can to rise up against his twin and win. His ancient history is our World War II, particularly Nazi footage.
Bear in mind that Avatar is an Indian term pertaining to what Western people would think of as demi-gods, human or part human forms/representatives of deities; in popular scripture the most commonly known and celebrated avatars are that of the ‘god’ Vishnu with Krishna being the most famous. Many Hindus came to accept Jesus the [a] Christ (abit like ‘Interview with the vampire’ – 1976 – should be ‘Interview with A vampire’) as an avatar when he went from being referred to linguistically as ‘Son of Man’ to ‘Son of God’ (colonialism in India helped with the acceptance/conversion) because they know/remember that ‘Christ’ is a title not a name. Krist-na/Christ is a deviation from krystal/crystal aka crystalline energy (that glow/halo) and any one with enough power/ability/endurance could attain it, you didn’t have to be directly related to the divine but once you attained it you would obviously have a closer link to ‘oneness’/divinity and hence become a christ/illuminated/enlightened one – closer to god and easier to call a child/descendant/form of god. Interestingly enough Avatar is referred to as a/the Messiah in this film and the power of three is maintained given the good lands are a tri-state area with three rulers/monarchs. Blackwolf is a very native American sounding name and would generally depict either honour/nobility or tainted honour (depending on the use of ‘Black’).
Avatar sets off with a band other interesting characters; Elinore daughter of one of the state’s president who is assassinated and hence becomes queen and Avatar’s love interest, Weehawk an elf who lost his colleague/friend and… Necron 99 who worked for Blackwolf destroying believers of magic, killed the president and Weehawk’s co-spy partner. An unlikely band of heroes? Well Necro[n] 99  is defeated by Avatar and renamed/inverted into ‘Peace’ as he joins their side in the name of love but really the threat of torture. They journey to attempt to gain allegiance from their neighbours.
Psychological Warfare – Trickery, Illusions, Bad Dreams, Hypnotism, Brainwashing, Projections, Possession
A big part of war, history and culture is propaganda, it’s one of the most notable forms of psychological warfare but more direct psychological weapons or mental/health side effects from physical weapons don’t get so much attention. Here we’re shown Blackwolf desecrating the Swastika as his idol Hitler (and other Nazis, KKK etc) did with his actions on top of it and via using it as a symbol. He uses film footage to inspire his troops and intimidate his foes, no one had seen imagery of such things (tanks, explosions etc although Blackwolf’s soldiers are already equipped with guns) and the pictures in and of themselves are enough to defeat many of the people of the good lands who had previously been used to unmotivated and lethargic people of the bad lands.
Interestingly enough the footage is shown as projections in the sky and in the mind striking fear and zombie likeness in targets. The use of sky projection reminded me of something some people have been saying for a long time and which was recently proved by a clever young lady Cleo Loi of the ARC Centre of Excellence for All-sky Astrophysics (CAASTRO) and the School of Physics at the University of Sydney that the Earth’s magnetosphere contains plasma ‘tubes’ which she calls a cinema. We’ve seen for quite some time now the ability to produce holograms via sprayed chemicals in localised air for national games/events but this take the potential further.
What can’t or won’t be explained is called as ‘magic’.
Yes there is some!
Mostly in the form of a pair of tin can soldiers who could easily be dubbed ‘Dumb and Dumber’; we’re introduced to them when one thinks the other is dead and blames the vile, evil, cowardly fairies but then that one wakes and arises only to knocked unconscious again by his fellow nincompoop who continues to blame the fairies… These two provide social commentary in their own exemplary way for the audience, in another scene one is about ready to defect saying everything has the right to live but is told that they now have an ultimate weapon so he automatically becomes loyal again dispelling his need for ‘praying on his deathbed’/converting in his hour of need. The place of religion in society and war isn’t spared either; Blackwolf’s soldiers can’t be bothered to look after prisoners of war so they decide religion can be used to placate them – give them minimum sustenance for the soul instead of food, water and warmth and the priests are just… Funny in the way they cover as many bases as possible and the soldier’s reaction is just as ironic ‘if you can’t beat ‘em join ‘em, if you can’t join ‘em blast the buggers’ mentality. All very fair-weather.
Unconditional love comes under scrutiny a tad too and as someone who has never been an advocate of it I could appreciate that, additionally as a fan of satire I don’t mind the above use of dark humour (I have limits although found this ok) but it might be off-putting (and I can understand why) to others.
Avatar is portrayed as a hip, short old dude with big feet, 70’s lingo, a laid back air, gravelly voice and more beard than body in classic wizardly garb. Elinore rather than an elegantly and naturally nudist or acceptably scantily clad faerie/member of the fair folk is more of a sultry, kinkily dressed fairy queen (perhaps an ode to the days of Bakshi’s x-rated cartoon ‘Fritz the Cat’ 1972 and ‘Heavy Traffic’ 1973), Weehawk as yes you guessed it native American seeming and equipped with earring and horse, and Necron 99/Peace as a red suit of armour/knight. Blackwolf is a tall, fierce looking man with his arms lacking flesh and blood, long hair and dark robes. All in all the characters are distinctive and the background medieval and industrial in conflict.
The look of the animation is outdated and not particularly retro-chic or appealing but interesting nevertheless. Still images are used over moving backgrounds combined with simple colour schemes in poignant parts whereas WWII film and photography are used in tandem and at other times rotoscoped (traced) into the drawing. Everything else is very casually drawn without much shading so other than the footage and rotoscoping it looks flat and unrealistic, also the bodies are disproportionate but in this weird cartoon it’s watchable.
This sound is abit hit and miss too but the voice actors were well cast, for example parts of the film are beautifully narrated by Susan Tyrell whose tender and deeply feminine vocals enhance the storytelling and set the scenes. That said I thought I could hear her voice in for bit part characters which I didn’t like because it ruined the flow and changed the perspective too quickly from narration to character dialogue.
The musical score is quirky to say the least, jazz plays when Avatar speaks and he has a voice that if used to sing you just know would suit old school rhythm and blues and maybe even talking-singing (a ‘sing song voice’ not melodious but noir/classic detective) and then there’s the use of funk/soul when armies are marching instead of epic/driven classical we’ve become used to. It maintains the somewhat ‘what have you been smoking man’ vibe of the film replete with bits of electronica, organ and regular (lovely) orchestra in between.
On a sidenote some of the animation (particularly the look of Necro 99/Peace and) and musical effects reminded me of the later ‘He-Man/Masters of the Universe’ (1980’s) cartoons.
Apparently George Lucas was interested in the film while it was being made as he was making Star Wars at the same time, and apparently asked Bakshi if he’d change the name from War Wizards to Wizards to avoid confusion, and he agreed to due to Lucas allowing Mark Hamill time off to voice the King of the Mountain Fairies.
Hitler vs Holocaust
Comparison to Hitler is a main feature of the film, it would seem to follow then that the holocaust would also be a major factor however it’s only mentioned sparsely and referenced as the name of Hitler’s(Blackwolf’s) actions/the war in general rather than to actions carried out to the Jewish people; uprooting some, torturing/killing many, keeping some of professional status (the Allies recruited too) though imprisonment wasn’t limited to Jewish people and some would argue it was the sacrifice of the people for extremist Judaism aka Zionism (not moderate Jews) even though it seemed Hitler was against all of that heritage in general. In our mindset generations later when we hear the word ‘holocaust’ we think of the suffering of the Jewish people and of Hitler and his supporters as evil and the Allies as good/heroes. That everything the Allies did was retribution; the ongoing bombing leaving bodies looking like barbeque parts stuck/intermingled with each other and the land akin to the likes of Pompeii, the mass raping of girls/women/old women, repeatedly, in front of their loved ones, with objects/weapons, necrophilia, claiming to help females by guiding them into ‘safe’ zones like churches then barring them in and raping them, by what we think of as the usual treatment of ‘boat people’ nowadays i.e. sinking ships of refugees/asylum seekers or letting them sink, slaughtering of wild/pet/farm/and zoo animals etc etc etc. An eye for an eye or more like war as the venting of frustration and stress in an ongoing cycle of revenge, since retribution doesn’t satisfy many who’d have to deal with emotional/physical trauma sooner than if they continue vengeance and negate accountability onto the madness of the situation as long as possible first for which they can then be medicated or left as homeless veterans and potentially treated as criminals on homeland soil once they return by their former superiors if not glorified/medalled and then luckily enough left to get on with ‘normal life’ in the aftermath. I say ongoing cycle of revenge because grudges/inherited memory come back to haunt and not always obviously/directly – we tend to think linearly instead of or in addition to ‘they suffered terribly, no one should go through that’ (damned straight such things should never of happened) but who had a significant hand in Black slavery and the horrors that entailed. Similarly another religious/ethnic group in ‘that area of the world’ that has been/is being displaced and suffering now also had a hand in that, no racial group is innocent or guilty as a whole or by default, we have a long history of hurting each other ‘foreign’ or not and with consumerism it’s a lot easier for people regardless of race/creed/colour to live off the backs of others since it comes down to the basic classism that all groups suffer from – rich and poor. Just doing what we can to survive and if possible make the best of it comes with high risk/consequence but that’s moving away from the theme of this film.
Returning to Hitler and Nazi-ism in their ode to Aryanism we’re shown Blackwolf’s desire/obsession with lineage and the perfect human though given the circumstances he’s using a woman as a breeding machine to ensure his longevity through a human (not mutant) son who can live in the good lands.
At some points I wondered if Avatar and the people of the good lands try and help change the band lands and their residents or if they reached out for help, we’re told that Avatar spent a lot of time clearing radiation but not what the historic relations between the two overall sides were; whether there was an element of ‘keeping the good lands to ourselves and you lot stay over there’ or a case of resentment and jealousy on the part of the mutants, it’s unexplained. I found one insult Avatar used against his brother and their ‘mother’ eyebrow raising given their so-called opposite positions and his reputed affection for her.
I think the animation and fairytale style beginning would deter some people and hence miss out on what is quite a powerful and unique film. Also the way it identifies Blackwolf/Hitler and his followers/soldiers/supporters as mutants, demons, people gone wrong, dark, dangerous creatures and Avatar/Allies/Jews as the light, Earth’s older races, ancestors of man, Earth’s rightful residents and inheritors, saviours and natural/tribal peoples (although funnily enough ‘Blackwolf’ is more a tribal sounding name than ‘Avatar’ which is divinity based). I won’t explain the ending obviously but let’s just say I found it too light hearted and convenient. I think of the uselessness of war unless somehow you know it’ll be the final one and every last one of the ‘enemy’ killed – which doesn’t contradict the storyline here but I think those who manage to survive that are not pained or unscarred are without conscience and/or have selective memory. It would take me a very long time to be able to celebrate with a light heart or feel at peace, I’d be misery personified and weep; for my friends, loved ones, those I wanted to protect, those I managed to protect but still suffered, all those I missed and those I didn’t know but still thought of and existed, my enemies and for everything that happened.
Its saving grace is the comedy and weirdness which makes what would have been a so-so predictable film into something more.
‘As long as the world is under the influence of a correct social order it will never fall to devastation. However when the social order requires a lack of logic and mindless minions to survive the devastation appears as a world of its own.’ – Darkside Blues (1994 anime)