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Ralph Bakshi: Cartoon Wizard

Ralph Bakshi is the reason adults can watch cartoons.

Ralph Bakshi didn’t invent animation for grown ups, but he did turn it into an art form. Historically, animation always had its X-rated side. Ralph Bakshi is the cat who made it mainstream. Okay, if we’re being literal, it was Fritz the Cat, Bakshi’s controversial adaptation of R. Crumb’s underground comic, that became the first animated feature to earn that rating. Porn chic meets anthropomorphism, Fritz the Cat presents the story of a cartoon feline’s feverish quest to get laid on a tour of 1970’s urban counterculture. Like other works of the era that blurred the line between arthouse cinema and midnight movies, Fritz the Cat is still shocking to watch even today. Its depictions of rape, drug use, racism, misogyny and violence are only enhanced by the depiction of the characters are animated animals; the social satire outweighs the quaint depiction, like George Orwell’s Animal Farm on an acid trip.

Fritz the Cat 2
Fritz the Cat
Fritz the Cat 3

Not bad for a guy who’d been doing those cheesy Spider-Man cartoons just a few years earlier. Although somewhat confined to Crumb’s original character designs, the film introduced Bakshi’s signature animation style. No matter how outlandish the drawings or depictions, the gritty realities of the real world always push their way into the figures. The animals move like people. The people act like animals. His follow up projects after Fritz the Cat continued his exploration of the urban American landscape. With Coonskin, Bakshi even managed to outdo himself in terms of taboo subject matter. A satire of blaxploitation cinema, the film used a hybrid approach of live action and animation that tried to undermine racist tropes by utilizing them. If a white filmmaker’s reimagining of Disney’s self-banned The Song of the South in the Harlem of Superfly and Shaft sounds like a political shitstorm today, it was just as controversial in an era not known for tolerance and wokeness. The debate about whether it’s a subversive masterpiece or subliminally intentional racist filth remains… unresolved.

Of course, there are sex bomb fairies!

Ironically, Bakshi’s trademark visuals took an even more realist turn as he turned to the fantasy genre. With Wizards, Bakshi created an anti-fascist parable about the dangers of nuclear war and propaganda set in a post-apocalyptic Earth where elves, fairies, orcs and magic reign supreme. The protagonist, Avatar, is a bumbling everyman who also happens to be the good wizard twin to an evil brother seeking to conquer the earth. Intended as a family film – in spirit and message, it’s not dissimilar to another fusion of sci-fi and fantasy starring Mark Hamill that Fox released in 1977 – Bakshi’s puckish perversity can’t help but seep through. Of course, there’s a sex bomb fairy! Yet the film’s real breakthrough may have been one of necessity: when Bakshi lost funding to animate the climactic battle scenes, he turned to rotoscoping, drawing over live action footage. He would make more extensive use of this in his adaptation of The Lord of the Rings and his boobs n’ barbarians saga Fire & Ice. While none of these films is an outright masterpiece, they have their admirers. Bakshi has teased a Wizards sequel within the last decade. Peter Jackson credits the cartoon, not the books, as the reason he wanted to make Tolkien’s trilogy.

Wizards Elinore

The real debate about Bakshi’s career is whether he brought adult sensibilities to a children’s medium or a childish perspective to adult-oriented cinema. It’s pretty easy to make the case for both. It’s easy to see the influence of his work on everything from The Simpsons to Bojack Horseman. Indeed, one of Bakshi’s biggest failures, the studio co-opted production of Cool World, spawned from the success of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? a work that clearly owed a debt to Bakshi’s gritty storytelling and sexualized character depictions.

Even a Bakshi disaster has cult defenders.

Perhaps the answer to this Bakshi mystery lies in his most personal film, American Pop. The movie, which tells the story of an immigrant family based on his own through the history of rock n’ roll, doesn’t really fit into any of the other categories of his work. It’s urban, but not transgressive. Its fantastical, but grounded in a true story. No matter how real it gets, there’s always a psychedelic candy coat of paint on the surface of the cel.

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