Mann’s Take: A Retrospective on the Films of Ralph Bakshi

by Will Mann

In March of 2015, I headed into an event at the Byrd Theatre in my native Richmond, VA for a special event. It was a double-screening of two films from a celebrated animation director. That director was Ralph Bakshi, and the films were The Lord of the Rings and Wizards. In between the screening of the two films, Bakshi skyped in to talk to and answer questions from the audience. I myself asked a question (involving his backing out of the sequel to his film Fritz the Cat) to him, and he started off responding by saying that “Fritz the Cat 2 was a piece of garbage” in a heavy New York accent. (And, having seen Fritz the Cat 2 AKA The Nine Lives of Fritz the Cat, I can unequivocally confirm that what he’s saying is correct.) What I took away from the way he answered my question, as well as the way he interacted with the audience generally, is that this a really smart, personable guy who is proud of roots, proud of where he came from (he at one point said he was just “a kid from Brooklyn”) who nevertheless had tremendous insight into the worlds of film and animation.

While his name might not be known to many, Ralph Bakshi has widely been credited for bringing adult sensibilities to animated films at a time before The Simpsons, Beavis and Butt-head, South Park and Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim changed the animation landscape forever. When Bakshi was working on most of his films, the name most associated with animation was Walt Disney’s. Thus, making animation, which was still widely considered “just for kids,” for adults instead was a pretty subversive move. Throughout his work in the 70s and 80s, he was a constant auteur of film animation, the type of which it might be fair to say we haven’t really seen since. However, Bakshi was not without his controversies. His directorial debut (and one of his most famous/popular films), Fritz the Cat, was the source of significant controversy, as was a subsequent film, 1975’s Coonskin. Bakshi’s biggest challenge came in 1992, when he produced Cool World, a cartoon/live-action hybrid starring Brad Pitt and Kim Basinger that was billed as the “adult Roger Rabbit” despite the fact that Bakshi’s original pitch was to make a horror film, and not a comedy, with that concept. The film was met with an egregiously negative reaction from critics, and went on to gross only half of its production budget at the box office. Since the failure of Cool World, Bakshi has not directed another full-length animated film (though he has worked in television in the years since Cool World, including a short-lived HBO show called Spicy City).

He also had a profound influence on the genre of cartoons. One of his protégés, John Kricfalusi, went on to create Ren & Stimpy, thus ushering in Nickelodeon’s golden age of animation. Some of his films are kept in the archive of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (MoMA) in New York City as a testament to their quality and artfulness. And even at 77 years old, Bakshi continues to put out respected work. A Kickstarter campaign a few years ago resulted in his first project in over two decades, a short film entitled The Last Days at Coney Island.

I hope you’ll join me for this retrospective on some of the best, the worst, and the downright “meh” moments in the careers of one of the most interesting and influential animation directors of all time!

The Must-Sees

American Pop (1981)

The first time I saw it, I was left scratching my head. But over time, I have come to view American Pop as not only the best work from this director, but also one of the best, and more unique, animated films in film history. Following 4 generations of American musicians as they move from the Jazz Age to World War II to the drug-induced Sixties up to the stadium-rock of the 80s, the film follows the evolution of both this family and of American popular music. The animation is downright gorgeous, easily Baskhi’s best. It incorporates not just traditional animation, but rotoscoping, computer animation, and other elements to make it feel like a distinctly visual piece of filmmaking, and one that wouldn’t have worked in any other format. Another film might’ve suffered for the mix of live-action footage with animation (and certainly, some of Bakshi’s other work is guilty of this), but it feels right at home in this retelling of American history and culture. With a soundtrack that pays homage to almost a century of American popular music, with everything from Sam Cooke to Lynyrd Skynyrd, Bob Dylan to Pat Benatar, Jimi Hendrix to Jefferson Airplane, the music that’s incorporated throughout is a real treat. American Pop is unequivocally Bakshi’s best, and if you only saw one film out of his filmography, it’d have to be this.

Wizards (1977)

Wizards is strange. Wizards is arguably a kids’ movie, but also contains some images that kids shouldn’t really be exposed to. Wizards can be funny, it can be inventive, and it can have a surprising heart and seriousness to it. While I consider American Pop to be Bakshi’s best film, I’d argue that it’s Wizards that’s the most Bakshi-esque Bakshi film. High fantasy? Check. Bizarre animation that is still nevertheless endearing? Check. Animated women wearing skimpy clothing with prominent nipples sticking out? Check (even if I admit that it’s kinda creepy). The animation isn’t sloppy like some of his other films, but it’s still strange. The way everything in Wizards seems deliberate in contrast to some of Bakshi’s other work. Everything in this movie has a particular feel.

The plot involves two brothers, Avatar (Bob Holt) and Blackwolf (Steve Gravers), who each lead a respective tribe on an Earth two million years in the future, after a human-induced nuclear holocaust devastated the planet, and fairies, dwarves, and elves have returned. (See! Told you it was weird.) Avatar leads the land of Montagar, while Blackwolf leads the land of Scorch. Blackwolf finds old Nazi propaganda and uses it to brainwash his populace into fighting Avatar and the citizens of Montagar. (See! Told you it was weird.) After an assassination of a President of Montagar (?), Avatar, the President’s beautiful daughter Elinore (Jesse Welles), an elf warrior named Weehawk (Richard Romanus), and a reprogrammed assassin robot renamed Peace (David Proval) begin their journey to the land of Scorch to destroy Blackwolf once and for all.

Despite the strangeness of the plot, the premise of Wizards is little more than a playground for Bakshi to play around with visuals and animation. Images, like the strange bipedal horse-bird thing Peace rides, or the scene with the two soldiers, or the bizarre prayer the high priests give, are etched into my mind despite only seeing this movie a few times. I think that’s because, more than being a film, Wizards is an experience. It might be one of the rare films that seems more than the sum of its parts. I have seen very few movies that have stuck with me with way Wizards has, and whether you’re a kid or a kid-at-heart, even if it’s not Bakshi’s absolute best, it’s definitely worth checking out.

The Lord of the Rings (1978)

First of all, the answer is no, of course not. It is not better than Peter Jackson’s epic film trilogy. But if you look closely, you can see Bakshi’s unique touch on J.R.R. Tolkien’s storyline. I won’t summarize the story (because if you don’t know it at this point, what the hell is wrong with you!?!) only to say that it covers the first two installments in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers. Even then, it’s basically a glorified Sparknotes that simplifies the richness of Tolkien’s original text. But even with that in mind, I like some of the creative ideas Bakshi applies to this timeless story. For example, I like Aragorn’s look in this film, he looks like a Native American warrior and that seems to be in keeping with his character. My favorite departure involves the character of Galadriel, who, rather than becoming a green demon-lady the way she does in Jackson’s film, dismisses Frodo’s offer of the One Ring with sarcasm. Not all the changes work (Samwise Gamgee is portrayed as mentally disabled, which isn’t in keeping with the character in the slightest), but there’s enough here to make it stand on its own as a distinct and successful adaptation of the most influential fantasy text of the 20th century. Heck, don’t take my word for it, even the Nostalgia Critic agrees with me:

The Decent

Fritz the Cat (1972)

Fritz the Cat is probably Bakshi’s most famous film. It ranked among the highest grossing movies of 1972, a year responsible for movies like The Godfather, Cabaret, and The Poseidon Adventure. In this film, Bakshi adapts the subversive underground comic strip of the same name written, drawn and created by the legendary comic book artist R. Crumb. In the film, the titular character of Felix (Skip Hinnant) is an oversexed, over-stimulated cat living in the big city. The film follows his misadventures with sex, drugs, hippies, and the counter-culture of the time.

The movie is an important one in film history, as it was the first animated film to get an X rating from the MPAA, setting the stage for other raunchy, adult-themed animated films like South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut, Team America: World Police, and this summer’s Sausage Party. It was indeed a controversial movie, with much protest and condemnation surrounding its release. Even Fritz’s creator R. Crumb asked that his name not be credited during the movie, because he didn’t feel the film was an accurate portrayal of his character. He eventually killed off Fritz in the original comics as partially a response to the attention the film brought to the character. But at the same time, the film was invented to compete at the Cannes Film Festival. And honestly, it’s worth checking out. It’s such an unusual film, but occasionally how unusual it is can be downright endearing. In particular, Fritz’s asides to the audience about his frustrations with modern life ring of part Woody Allen, part Kevin Smith.

But at the same time, it’s not perfect. While there are funny moments to Fritz the Cat, and there are possibly even more downright bizarre stuff in Fritz the Cat that, if I could sum it all up in a word, it’d be the word “dated.” Because a lot of it is in reference to the drug culture of the 1960s and 70s, it appears not to stand the test of time as well as his other films do. Fritz’s “free-love” perspective might have resonated for a generation just a few years removed from Woodstock, but for a millennial like me, it can ring of excess at best and misogyny at worst. Its racial humor in particular comes off as pretty offensive. Moreover, it feels like a lot of this film is weird just for the sake of being weird, non-sequitur, or just for the opportunity for Bakshi and company to thumb their noses at the establishment.

Fritz the Cat is a bit of a mixed bag. Not Bakshi’s best, but worth a view if you’re interested in seeing one of his most iconic and influential productions. Plus, it inspired an amazing Itchy and Scratchy episode on The Simpsons:

Fire and Ice (1983)

Combine the beautiful animation aesthetic of American Pop and the high fantasy premise of Wizards or The Lord of the Rings, and you’re destined to have a winner, right? Well, yes and no. Fire and Ice, Bakshi’s 1983 high fantasy film collaboration with acclaimed fantasy illustrator (and his longtime friend) Frank Frazetta, features animation that is second only to American Pop as Bakshi’s best. The film once again features Rotoscoped animation that make the characters appear far more realistic than other styles of animation.

Despite the beautiful animation, it’s the plot that really cannot resonate. It seems to have been inspired by the revival of interest in sword-and-sorcery properties like Conan the Barbarian close to the time period when it was made. But I would argue that the plot of the film seems to have a lot in common with the plot of Wizards, right down to the gorgeous princess (once again shown in skimpy, nipple-revealing clothing), the dark wizard ruling a dark realm, and the quest to stop him. If you’ve even picked up a fantasy novel in your life before, you know what the plot is and how it’s all going to end within the first 15 minutes. I know Bakshi and Frazetta both are well-accustomed to the tropes of the high fantasy genre, but making a film that utilizes so many of them was probably not a good idea. I know people say the movie Avatar doesn’t feature a very creative premise, calling it Dances with Wolves meets FernGully and whatnot, but trust me: the plot of Fire and Ice makes the plot of Avatar seem downright inventive.

Just like Fritz the Cat, Fire and Ice is decidedly “meh.” It’s worth checking it out, but you’re likely to remember it for the breathtaking animation and not the run-of-the-mill fantasy premise.

Coonskin (1975)

Easily Bakshi’s most controversial film, Coonskin was the source of significant contention when it first premiered 40 years ago. The film was claimed by many to be racist, and was condemned by the African-American civil rights group the Congress for Racial Equality and figures such as the Rev. Al Sharpton. However, the NAACP supported the film’s release, defending the film’s satire “difficult” but necessary. It has gained more of a cult following over the years that now includes people like the late Richard Pryor, Spike Lee, Quentin Tarantino, and the members of the Wu Tang Clan among its fervent fans and defenders. (The Wu Tang Clan even tried to work with Bakshi on a sequel about 10 years ago, but it never came to fruition.)

So, what are my thoughts on this divisive movie? Well, let’s start with the good. The film itself is sort of a mix of Blaxploitation and Disney’s infamous cartoon/live-action hybrid film Song of the South. Coonskin also mixes live-action and animation, and while I thought I’d hate it at first, eventually it sort of grew on me, much like how it did with American Pop. I also appreciate just what a crazy, avant-garde experimental movie this is. Some of the live-action shots in the movie could just as easily be in a Goddard or other French New Wave film. Other live-action shots and scenes are downright David Lynchian. The film is a mix of artsy, quirky and weird. It’s macabre at points, funny at others, and downright strange a lot of the time. I appreciate that this project was one where Bakshi just kind of let loose, didn’t feel constrained and wanted to push the boundaries of what the medium could accomplish.

When the satire works, it works well. I think my favorite scenes in this movie are when a personification of the United States, referred to as Miss America, tries to seduce a black character only to keep on toying with or inflicting violence on him. That serves as a great metaphor for the racial situation in the country when Bakshi made this film, and it is a testament to the timelessness of the film’s message that it could also serve as one today. There is also a scene of white people, portrayed by live-action actors, talk to the black characters, portrayed as awful animated caricatures. I think this scene also serves to hone in on Bakshi’s message, and is very effective.

But where I can appreciate the artfulness Bakshi utilized in crafting this film, the final product doesn’t seem terribly compelling. Unlike the equally-weird Fritz the Cat, there are no characters out of the three lead characters of Brother Rabbit (Philip Michael Thomas), Brother Bear (the incomparable Barry White, with a voice like the way you’d imagine God talking) or Preacher Fox (Charles Gordone) to get attached to. And while some of the satire regarding race is compelling, other aspects fall flat and could be strewn as offensive. For all the scenes I complemented above, there are some scenes that just flat-out do not work at all. (There’s a confession scene from a female black character at the beginning of the film that’s mostly just monologue accompanied by really lazy, unmoving animation.) And while the film could potentially be seen as empowering for the African-American community, that could definitely not be said about the depiction of the film’s gay and trans characters, who are little more than stereotypes and caricatures. And I’m not even sure what the purpose of the film’s live-action frame narrative was, beyond the obvious poking fun at Song of the South, or why it was even needed.

There’s a lot to admire in Coonskin. It’s full of homage to Blaxploitation, scenes that reflect Bakshi attempting to push the envelope or trying to do something artful, and satire of race relations in America that still resonates today. And while this movie feels important, I don’t know if that feeling reflects what’s actually shown on the screen. Its plot and characters aren’t particularly compelling, the execution is occasionally muddled, and for every scene that works there’s another that falls flat. Still, I would recommend Coonskin, if for nothing else than to see Bakshi at his most artful, experimental and inventive, even if the final result is decidedly mixed.

The Skippables

Hey Good Lookin’ (1982)

Hey Good Lookin’ is kind of a wreck. The animation isn’t particularly good-looking (see what I did there?), which makes the whole thing seem like a jumbled, incoherent mess. The film beings with a trashcan talking to a pile of garbage, and that gives you a sense of what’s to follow. Apparently, Bakshi wasn’t given the funding to complete his ambitious plan for what the film should’ve been. So, what we’re given are flat backgrounds and even flatter animation. Story-wise, it seems like a personal project, but not one that has aged well. The film primarily focuses on Vinnie (Richard Romanus), a mix between the Fonz and Danny Zuko, as he navigates the world of 1950s New York. While it’s a nice callback to that place and era, it doesn’t engage the way Bakshi’s other work does. A lot of this can be blamed on the character of Crazy (David Proval), who runs the gamut between annoying sidekick to being Bugs Bunny on crack. There is rampant sexism and misogyny in this film. And the film’s frame narrative is so nonsensical, with a “twist” that makes so little damn sense it makes you wonder if it was just tacked on at the end for grins and giggles. So, what saves it from being the worst thing he’s ever put out? Surprisingly enough, the music. The soundtrack is mostly original songs written and performed by Ric Sandler, and they are all great and really fun to listen to. It’s the music more than anything else that gives the film its distinctive 50s feel. The music is so good, it truly lifts the entire film up. Because of that, Hey Good Lookin’ is not his worst, but it’s also definitely not his best.

Heavy Traffic (1973)

Ugh. Occasionally, a filmmaker will come out with a film that embodies all their worst tendencies. For Ralph Bakshi, that film is Heavy Traffic. The animation is downright ugly. The film is overtly sexual in a way that, rather than stimulates, muddles and seems at times icky or creepy. The cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Scarborough Fair” performed by Sérgio Mendes and Brasil ’66 that plays throughout the movie becomes obnoxious after a while, which is a shame because music is usually something Bakshi does really well, as demonstrated by both American Pop and Hey Good Lookin’. Finally, the final nail in the coffin is that the resolution to the story is filmed IN LIVE ACTION! And while this mix of live-action and animation worked in Coonskin, for the ending of this film, the use of live action is a jarring, confusing conclusion to a jarring, confusing movie. This, like Hey Good Lookin’, seems like a more personal film for Bakshi (the main character is an animator, after all). But perhaps it was too personal, too insular to resonate with anyone that wasn’t Bakshi himself. Bottom line: this movie sucks. I can’t even praise how weird it is (like I did with Fritz the Cat), how experimental it is (like I did with Coonskin), how beautifully animated it is (like I did with Fire and Ice) or its music (like I did with Hey Good Lookin’). It’s a waste of time and talent, and is very easily the film that I have seen out of Bakshi’s entire filmography that you can go the most without seeing.

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