Article: Ralph Bakshi 101

Michelle gives a brief rundown of Ralph Bakshi's career in her latest 101 piece.

Ralph Bakshi has always been a champion of independent animation and countercultural ideals. Bakshi grew up in a predominately black neighborhood which gave him an interesting viewpoint on life and also gave his work a grittier edge to it. His animation is usually subversive, ironic, sexual and absolutely filled to the brim with vivacious life and beauty. Unfortunately, he has fallen out of the spotlight in recent years, but any lover of animation should strive to become familiar with his filmography.

Fritz the Cat (1972):
Fritz the Cat was Bakshi’s first full length animated feature film. He teamed up with R. Crumb, the infamous “underground comix” artist/writer/reprobate from Zap Comix. R. Crumb’s work is filthy, perverted, hedonistic and beloved by many comic book fans and was a perfect fit for Bakshi’s similar sensibilities. Fritz the Cat has the dubious honor of being the first X-rated animated film ever but it also ended up being the most successful independently made cartoon as well.

The film follows the adventures of an anthropomorphic cat named Fritz--his main goals in life are to play guitar, get high and have sex with as many sexy animal ladies as possible. There is a whole lot of group sex and general debauchery shown through the entire film and it is a direct satire of the “free love” movement that was going on in the country at the time. It was shocking for audiences to see adorable kitties and bunnies fornicating with each other, taking drugs and having dirty conversations. Animation prior to that was definitely for children and Fritz the Cat stirred up a lot of controversy.

Bakshi and Crumb was a great style match—Bakshi’s lush and organic animation meshed perfectly with Crumb’s bold, cross-hatched drawing style. The character design is interesting because there is a dichotomy between the adorable nature of animated animals and the crass and grimy atmosphere they inhabit. The authority figures are depicted as pigs, but the film shows just as much disdain for the nihilistic attitude of the youth at the time. As it was made in the early seventies, a lot of the content can be considered politically incorrect, but it is refreshing to see such frank honesty about American underground culture. It’s an intriguing piece of history captured in animation.

Wizards (1977):
Ralph Bakshi drew on his love for fantasy with his acclaimed post-apocalyptic feature Wizards. The entire production was plagued by budget constraints by 20th Century Fox, but Bakshi turned it into a labor of love and finished much of the animation on his own. It’s less shocking and sexual than Fritz the Cat but much deeper and introspective. The character design and animation is reminiscent of art from Heavy Metal magazine or Dungeons and Dragons, and the painted backgrounds are beautiful and lush. However, the money issues do rear their ugly heads on occasion—it’s especially apparent in the first third of the film which is nothing more than a narrated slideshow.

Wizards takes place on an earth that has been decimated by a nuclear war. Millions of years have passed and fairies, elves, and dwarves have evolved from the humans that were left after the destruction. Horrible mutants have evolved as well and they terrorize the creatures trying to live in peace. Eventually, two opposing forces arise (a good wizard and an evil wizard) and they challenge each other for control of what is left of the planet. It can definitely be said that this is an anti-war film but it also seems to have an anti-technology theme running through it as well.

There is a point, later in the film, where one of the wizards discovers old Nazi propaganda films and uses them to bolster his own war effort. It’s jarring to see the live-action film clips juxtaposed over the soft animation of the film—it’s very effective in getting the point across that history repeats itself. The battle scenes are well done and Bakshi utilizes a lot of “rotoscoping”, a technique where the animator traces over live footage frame by frame. It produces a very fluid and lifelike effect but seemed to be a fleeting style.  Rotoscoping isn’t used very often in modern animation, having been eschewed for hyper-realistic CGI. Bakshi used it in a lot of his work, most notably in Fire and Ice and American Pop.  

Cool World (1992):
Mixing live-action and animation hasn’t been done often—Song of the South and Who Framed Roger Rabbit are the two most famous examples. Bakshi decided to try his hand at the concept and Cool World was born. Cool World had some heavy-hitting actors for the main protagonists with Brad Pitt and Kim Basinger playing both live-action and animated roles. Brad Pitt turns in an adequate performance but Kim Basinger is just plain terrible. She hams it up with a horrible Marilyn Monroe impression the entire film and it really brings the whole thing down.

It is really unfortunate, because all of the cartoon portions of the movie are awesome and insanely creative. The story focuses on an incarcerated cartoonist named Jack (Gabriel Byrne) who draws a comic book called Cool World. He writes about a vampy stripper named Holli Would (Kim Basinger) and invents, or so he thinks, an entire universe. He gets sucked into his comic book world and that is where real life and animation start to collide. Honestly, the story is pretty bad for the most part, and the sub-par acting doesn’t help matters. Thankfully, Bakshi’s animation is so wild and crazy that it almost makes the movie watchable.

Every single frame has so much random stuff going on in the background—it would take someone several viewings just to catch all of it. The character designs are great and the animation is very smooth and fluid. Bakshi’s creations have this squishy and bouncy quality to them that is hilarious to watch. I really wish that the movie had been better written to match the bizarre concept art gallivanting around the screen. It was said that Bakshi had a script he originally wrote but the studio trashed it and hired someone else to take over the writing. As per usual, not giving the creator full control of a project ended with the final product being subpar. 

This is just a sampling of Ralph Bakshi’s films to get someone unfamiliar with his work started.  He has many other great films to check out: Heavy Traffic, Lord of the Rings, American Pop and Fire and Ice.  Anyone who is into animation should definitely check out any one of these movies.

-Michelle Kisner