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Ralph Bakshi, 'Fritz The Cat's Outlaw Animator: Films, Stories And Facts

Entertainment | January 5, 2020

The poster art for Bakshi's first feature, 'Fritz the Cat.' Source: wrongsideoftheart.com

With daring animated films Fritz The Cat (1972), Heavy Traffic (1973), Wizards (1977), Lord Of The Rings (1978), and Fire And Ice (1983), director Ralph Bakshi made groundbreaking cartoon movies that continue to command a cult following. Coming out of the '60s, Bakshi was an experienced professional animator who combined the grubby aesthetic of underground comix, innovative new techniques such as rotoscoping. Thanks to Bakshi's sometimes sophisticated, sometimes bawdy animated creations, animators have had the freedom to pursue their craft outside the strictures of children's programming. Next time you're enjoying South Park, Rick And Morty, Family Guy or The Simpsons, say a little thank-you to Ralph Bakshi -- and maybe even Fritz the Cat.

A Brooklyn Guy

Ralph Bakshi in Cool World. Source: (imdb)

Bakshi was born in Haifa, Israel on October 29, 1938, but when he was one year old he moved with his family to a diverse neighborhood in Brooklyn. His Brooklyn upbringing has been a major force in his art, evident in his films' sense of humor, character dialogue, and general love of the chaos of urban life. He grew up listening to music, including swing and jazz, which taught him improvisation and to listen to his instincts. He did not attend art school but was instead self-taught and was influenced by the Ashcan school and the Abstract Expressionists. He has made his living in comic strips, advertising, cartoons, and animated films.

An Unconventional Artist's Journey Begins

Mighty Mouse for Terrytoons, where he got his start. Source: (resetera)

Bakshi began his animated career at Terrytoons in New Rochelle, New York, working on Mighty Mouse, eventually producing his first animated feature, Fritz the Cat, the first of his urban films. Fritz the Cat, based on characters created by underground comix artist R. Crumb, was a scandalous picture when released in 1972 -- earning an X rating for the adult dialogue and humor. Bakshi reveled in the distinction -- the poster for Fritz The Cat boasted "We're not rated X for nothin', baby!"

Bakshi's animation is different in both content and style; his philosophy is to focus on the content of the work he produces rather than on the individual art and movement of each element, which has led to the creation of work on a lower budget. His animation was also noteworthy for its political and social issues and he created the work that he deemed to be significant. For example, Heavy Traffic contained sequences about pollution and in Coonskin, he dealt with drugs in the inner city and the treatment of the African American community.

Bakshi Used Whatever Techniques He Could Find

Scene from Fritz the Cat. Source: (imdb)

In addition to a greater focus on content than other animation studios, he has worked in a different media on his work: rotoscoping. The technique involves filming live action shots and drawing over them. Heavy Traffic, for instance, relies on using live action shots of the Lower East Side. Additionally, this technique allows a greater degree of realism than was present in the animation being produced by other studios. He has also used collage in his animation, mixing different styles together for the individual scenes, depending on what was emotionally appropriate for the scene.

He Moves Into Fantasy

Wizards was his first fantasy film. Source: (pigeonpress)

In 1977, after his “urban films,” he created Wizards, his first fantasy film, a post-apocalyptic film in which most people have become mutants after nuclear war, allowing elves, dwarves, and fairies to live on in a utopia. In 1978, he created the animated Lord of the Rings, which he originally intended to be a trilogy. After it was cut down to two films, he was unable to get funding for the second film. He then moved on to American Pop, which follows four generations of a family of Russian Jewish immigrant musicians. He acquired an impressive soundtrack, including songs by Janis Joplin, Lou Reed, The Doors, and George Gershwin. In 1983, Bakshi teamed up with master illustrator Frank Frazetta and Marvel Comics scribes Roy Thomas and Gerry Conway to make the fantasy film Fire and Ice.

Ralph Bakshi Might Have Made 'Blade Runner'

From American Pop. Source: (imdb)

He had several films that fell through, including an adaptation of Crane’s Maggie: Girl of the Streets, and Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. He also turned down offers to direct Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes as well as Phillip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Ridley Scott directed the adaptation, which would become Blade Runner

When Bakshi reread Catcher in the Rye, he recognized parallels between Holden Caulfield’s life and his own, and contacted Salinger to express an interest in adapting the novel, but Salinger politely declined, stating that it was a story only fit for the medium in which it had been produced.

Bakshi's Waterloo: 'Cool World'

Kim Basinger's character with Brad Pitt in 'Cool World.' Source: IMDB

Ralph Bakshi came from the underground and flourished, but success eventually catches up with the talented. In 1986, Bakshi and his protege John Kricfalusi (of Ren and Stimpy fame) directed the music video for the Rolling Stones' "Harlem Shuffle." Bakshi's big Hollywood moment was the 1992 film Cool World, a mixture of animation and live action that starred Kim Basinger, Brad Pitt, and Gabriel Byrne. The movie was a frustrating experience for Bakshi, and reviews were unkind. 

"Over the years I may have acted certain ways about Cool World," Bakshi told Cartoon Brew. "But I think, in retrospect and after getting older, the thing that really happened, which I wasn’t prepared for and is not unusual, is that it wasn’t a Bakshi production. It was a Paramount picture, the first one I ever did. Even at Terrytoons, I was a creative director who pretty much had the run of things. ... So I couldn’t get the exact casting I wanted, and I got very frustrated by not being able to do what I always took for granted, by getting the freedom I had gotten. So it was a pretty bad experience for me. ... As a mature adult, I realize that my reaction to the film had to do with not understanding why no one was listening to the director."

Over time, Cool World's reputation has improved. Though it was not the success Paramount wanted, it's still a Bakshi film, and Bakshi fans continue to enjoy it. Moreover, the movie contains many homages to classic animators, visual references that were perhaps lost on mainstream audiences at the time of release but that appealed to hardcore animation fans.

Post-retirement Work

One of his paintings, titled "He and She". Source: (pinterest)

Ralph Bakshi has not directed a feature film since Cool World, but he's worked on various shorts and other projects.

Bakshi had been planning a series, Junktown for Nickleodeon, drawing on the cartoon style of the ‘20s and ‘30s and utilizing the music of that era, but because of a controversy at CBS, Junktown didn’t make it. He did, however, adapt Dr. Seuss’ The Butter Battle Book for TNT, which was approved by Theodore Geisel, who had not liked previous adaptations of his work.

He has continued to emphasize the content of his work; he created The Last Days of Coney Island to deal with the changes in America. He began to seek funding in 2006, but it remained unfunded. As one Hollywood person told Baskhi, it would have to be rated PG and so Bakshi began a Kickstarter campaign on February 1, 2013 and by March 3, it was fully funded. It was released on Vimeo on his birthday in 2015. Less than a year later, he released it for free on YouTube

He has had other work on television, though He has been exhibiting his oil and acrylic paintings since 1982 in galleries from Los Angeles to New York City.

In 2008, Bakshi started creating sculptural paintings.

Ralph Bakshi Movies Are Still Screened And Celebrated

Bakshi's movies have endured with fans, even though they weren't always widely appreciated. Asked about the longevity in 2017, Bakshi told Cartoon Brew:

There was a beautiful vinyl soundtrack recently released for Wizards, and the film is screening in Portland. They’re screening Heavy Traffic in New York next month, and Fritz the Cat is screening in Los Angeles soon. My pictures have not stopped playing, and these are low-budget films. My mouth drops open. Now, I have all these kids who have just discovered my films calling me, and they all think I’m dead! [laughs]

Tags: Animation | Fritz The Cat | R. Crumb | Ralph Bakshi | The Lord Of The Rings

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Cyn Felthousen-Post

Writer

Cyn loves history, music, Irish dancing, college football and nature. Social media is also her thing, keeping up with trends and celebrities with positive news. She can be found outside walking or hiking with her son when she's not working. Carpe diem is her fave quote, get out there and seize the day!