Junktown by Ralph Bakshi

Ralph Bakshi is an American independent animated film producer, best known as the first to create animated features exclusively meant for mature audiences. Comic fans know him best for his 1972 film adaptation of Robert Crumb's underground strip 'Fritz the Cat'. Tolkien fans know him as the director who made the first (unfinished) attempt to adapt 'Lord of the Rings' (1978) to the big screen. Much like underground comix proved that comics could be more than just innocent children's entertainment, Bakshi did the same for animation. He chose for a gritty, unpolished, personal style, away from the dogmatic Disney aesthethic. Some pictures are set in bleak city life ('Fritz the Cat', 'Heavy Traffic', 'Coonskin'), others are epic fantasy sagas ('Lord of the Rings', 'Wizards', 'Fire and Ice'). He broke several taboos by depicting sex, drugs, graphic violence, swearing and politics in animated films. Bakshi often had to combat censors, executive producers and moral guardians. His pictures additionally had to overcome budget restrictions and other problems. His oeuvre has always polarized audiences, but Bakshi is recognized as a groundbreaking innovator. He paved the way for all independent adult animation in cinema, TV and on the Internet today. His TV animation studio, Bakshi Productions, produced 'Mighty Mouse Adventures' (1987-1988), based on Paul Terry's classic character Mighty Mouse. While he had little to do with their creative process, other than guarding his employees from executive meddling, 'Mighty Mouse Adventures' was a platform for many people who'd breathe fresh air in TV animation during the 1990s and 2000s. Early in his career, Bakshi also drew a few comic series ( 'Dum and Dee', 'Bonefoot and Fudge' and 'Junktown'), which lanked into obscurity until the publication of a 2008 biographical book. 

Early life
Ralph Bakshi was born in 1938 in Haifa, Palestine (nowadays Israel), into a Jewish family who emigrated to New York City a year later. He grew up in the seedy heart of Brownsville in Brooklyn, where poverty, crime, prostitution and racism were an everyday thing.  As a child he cut out comic book characters from papers and books and played with them. His graphic influences were Chaim Soutine, Arthur Rackham, N.C. Wyeth, Jackson Pollock, Francis Bacon, George Herriman, Al Capp, Harvey Kurtzman and naturally underground comix like Robert Crumb, Gilbert Shelton and Vaughn Bodé. He took many lessons from reading Gene Byrnes' book 'The Complete Guide to Cartooning' (1950), and even stole it from his library. In the field of animation he was more influenced by the Max and Dave Fleischer cartoons and Looney Tunes shorts of Bob Clampett, Tex Avery, Friz Freleng and Chuck Jones, because Disney films didn't play much in his neighbourhood. As a pupil at Thomas Jefferson High School, his drawing talent was encouraged by his guidance counselor. She put him in art courses, to avoid him becoming a street hoodlum. The friendly woman even helped him get accepted at the High School of Industrial Arts in Manhattan (nowadays the High School of Art and Design). He graduated in 1956. As a teenager, Bakshi also took an interest in literature about sleazy street life, such as the novels by Charles Bukowski and Hubert Selby, Jr. 

Bonefoot and Fudge by Ralph Bakshi
'Bonefoot and Fudge'.

Bakshi began his animation career at age 18 as a cel polisher with the Terrytoons animation studio in New Rochelle. There he worked on such TV series like 'Deputy Dawg' (1960-1961) and learned from veterans like Gene Deitch, Jim Tyer and Connie Rasinski. He also collaborated with Al Capp on an animated adaptation of his comic-within-a-comic 'Fearless Fosdick'. Eventually Bakshi worked himself up as head of the Terrytoons studio. He created  'The Mighty Heroes' section in the 'Mighty Mouse Playhouse' show in 1966-1967. During this era, Doug Crane also worked for Terrytoons. 

After hours, Bakshi created comic strips as an outlet to his personal problems. Some of these secret drawings were purely meant to ventilate frustrations and therefore he kept them hidden. 'Dum Dum and Dee Dee' reflected troubles between him and his wife. 'Bonefoot and Fudge' featured the mishaps of a wolf and a mouse, while 'Junktown' had anthropomorphic rocks, garbage cans, mailboxes and other street junk interreacting with one another. Both centered around people who spent too much time squibbling over trivial matters, a frustration he often felt when dealing with studio heads and executives. He tried to get 'Junktown' published in The Post, but the publisher didn't understand it. According to Toonopedia, Bakshi may have drawn a comic strip adaptation of Gene Deitch's animated character 'Tom Terrific' too.

Krantz Films & Bakshi Productions
In 1966 Steve Krantz established the animation studio Krantz Films, producing various animated TV series, among them Ralph Bakshi's 'Rocket Robin Hood' (1966-1969). One artist who animated on this latter show was Monty Wedd. Krantz also produced the second and third season of the animated TV series 'Spider-Man' (1967-1970), based on Stan Lee and Steve Ditko's comic series. In 1966, Bakshi briefly ran the Paramount cartoon studios for six months, where he enlisted comic artists like Harvey Kurtzman, Wallace Wood, Archie Goodwin, Jim SterankoDoug Crane and Gray Morrow

In 1968 Bakshi founded his own animation studion in Manhattan, produced by Steve Krantz. They originally made animated shorts for advertising and educational purposes. Still, Bakshi felt frustrated. The 1960s and early 1970s were a dark age for animation. Many of the classic Hollywood animation studios closed down and moved into television. The few theatrical cartoons that reached the big screen were hampered by budget cuts. On the small screen, the situation was even worse. Cheaply produced animated series were purely marketed to children. Bakshi was tired of seeing the same old animation clichés. He wanted to make something different, intended for adult viewers. 

Fritz the Cat
Now that he had his own cartoon studio, Bakshi originally thought about an animated feature about his personal background. The picture would be strictly marketed towards adults. However, producer Steve Krantz suggested adapting something with name recognition. Bakshi was familiar with the underground comix movement and Robert Crumb's fame within that scene. He approached Crumb to discuss a film version of his best-known series 'Fritz the Cat'. The comics revolved around a lewd cat who was only interested in sex and taking drugs. These were the mature themes Bakshi wanted to explore in animation. Unfortunately Crumb was reluctant and eventually backed down. His only creative suggestion was that Bakshi should voice Fritz himself. But in the end, Bakshi only voiced one character: the dopey-sounding pig policeman. Without Crumb's name on the contract, the project seemed stranded. But his wife Dana eventually signed the document in his name. Sources differ whether she did it behind his back - because they needed the money - or whether Crumb merely let her do it, so he could escape personal responsibility. Either way, he always maintained he was too young and gullible at the time to simply refuse Bakshi's proposal.

During production of 'Fritz the Cat', Bakshi had difficulty assembling a crew. Some job applicants merely wanted to draw dirty scenes, but lacked skill. Others morally objected to animating graphic violence and sex scenes. They were rejected, fired or quit on their own terms. Eventually Bakshi managed to hire an impressive list of veteran Hollywood animators from studios like Terrytoons, Warner Brothers, Hanna-Barbera, Famous Studios, Fleischer Brothers and even Walt Disney. Among the more well known names in the field were Fred Abranz, Cliff Augustine, Ted Bonnicksen, John Gentilella, Manny Gould, Volus Jones, Dick Lundy, Norm McCabe, Manuel Perez, Larry Riley, Virgil Ross, Rod Scribner, Irv Spence, Nick Tafuri, Martin B. Taras and Jim Tyer. To them the project was both a challenge and a breath of fresh air. Selling the general concept to financers and producers, however, was a challenge in itself. Most simply couldn't understand how an animated cartoon could be anything but children's entertainment. In the end, a small distribution company was found, Cinemation, who were willing to take risks. Extra investments were made by a record company and Playboy publisher Hugh Hefner. After a long production period, 'Fritz the Cat' was finally released on 12 April 1972. Made for only 850.000 dollars, it earned almost 90 million (!) dollars. No other independent animated film had ever had such success. Critics gave it good reviews. Regular viewers were thrilled, surprised or shocked by its audacity. Some audiences couldn't handle adult topics in a medium that was always family friendly. The scandal and novelty of being the first "cartoon for adults" attracted many people.

In reality, 'Fritz the Cat's status as the "first" 'adults only' cartoon is debatable. In the late 1920s, 'Eveready Harton in Buried Treasure' (1928) was a silent, black-and-white animated short filled with sex jokes, intended to be shown at private parties. According to Disney animator Ward Kimball, it was made by the Raoul BarréMax Fleischer and Paul Terry studios in a rare collaboration. Another mature animated short, made by Bob Clampett in 1938, featured Porky Pig saying "son of a bitch!" after hitting his thumb with a hammer. But this picture was also intended for private enjoyment and never released to the general public. During the Golden Age of Animation (1928-1960), there had been animated series intended for adult viewers as much as children, like the  Looney Tunes cartoons at Warner Brothers. Max and Dave Fleischer's 'Betty Boop' cartoons, as well as Tex Avery's films both contained sexual innuendo. The 'Night on Bald Mountain' sequence in Disney's 'Fantasia' (1940) also features a few nude breasts. During World War II, various cartoon studios made propaganda shorts ridiculing Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo, all more intended for adult audiences than children. John Halas and Joy Batchelor's animated version of George Orwell's 'Animal Farm' (1954) - with contributions by Harold Whitaker, Brian WhiteBill Mevin and Reginald Parlett - was a political drama. The 1960s brought more adult animation in the picture. The Beatles animated feature 'Yellow Submarine' (1968) by George Dunning, with designs by Heinz Edelmann, featured psychedelic imagery and rock music, aiming at youngsters. Various low-budget underground cartoons like Ward Kimball's 'Escalation' (1968), Marv Newland's 'Bambi Meets Godzilla' (1969) and Whitney Lee Savage's 'Mickey Mouse in Vietnam' (1969) were brutal in their depiction of politics and violence. In Terry Gilliam's cartoons for the surreal TV sketch show 'Monty Python's Flying Circus' (1969-1974) occasional nudity and graphic violence could be seen. 

But 'Fritz the Cat' was the first feature-length 'adults only' cartoon. It had a higher budget than most other independent cartoons, allowing for more sophisticated animation. It also received what no other animated cartoon had ever achieved: an X-rating, something normally reserved for porn. Bakshi worked hard to give the film an anarchic, streetwise atmosphere. The soundtrack makes use of jazz and rock songs. Various scenes depict nudity, sex, drugs, politics, vulgar language and bloody, even fatal violence. It was so frank that all previous 'adult' cartoons seemed tame in comparison. The subversiveness easily made it a cult movie. Outside its shock value, 'Fritz the Cat' was also an innovative piece of cinema. Real photographs of New York City were traced with a Rapidograph pen and drawn onto cells. In some scenes, live-action footage and photos are combined with the animation. Bakshi also included real-life conversations he recorded in bars and his father's synagogue on the soundtrack. 'Fritz the Cat' was also a veritable counterculture picture. It offers vicious satire of racism, hippies, revolutionaries, higher education, religion and the police. 

Fritz the CatWizzards by Bakshi
Film posters for 'Fritz the Cat' and 'Wizards'. 

Reaction of Crumb to Bakshi's 'Fritz the Cat'
Thanks to Robert Crumb's counterculture fame, 'Fritz the Cat' brought many art students, cartoonists and youngsters to film theaters. Yet fans were divided whether Bakshi actually captured the feel and intent of the original comics. Some defended the picture as a well-executed adaptation. Others felt it sometimes strayed too far from Crumb's vision, going out for shallow shock and sleazy sex jokes. Some viewers made the incorrect assumption that Crumb had been actively involved in its production, even directing it. In the satirical magazine National Lampoon, Michael O'Donoghue and Randall Enos spoofed 'Fritz the Cat' in a parody comic, portraying Crumb as a shameless sell-out. And Crumb's second wife, Aline Kominsky, recalled that her mother once asked her husband on the phone "whether he still made animated movies, like 'Felix the Cat'?". She also included this anecdote in their collective comic book 'Dirty Laundry Comix 2' (January 1978). 

Unsurprisingly, Crumb hated Bakshi's film adaptation. In many interviews he vocally distanced himself from it. He disliked the look, the atmosphere and felt its political messages went against his own convictions. The furious artist tried to get his name removed from the credits and the posters. Bakshi defended himself that he tried to respect Crumb's comics as much as possible. Several dialogues and scenes are taken word by word from classic 'Fritz' stories, like 'Fritz Bugs Out', 'Fritz the No-Good' and a few untitled tales. He even toned down some controversial scenes, like Fritz' rapism. But since Crumb never visited the studio, or informed himself about the production process, Bakshi had to make his own artistic choices. He also admitted that he didn't particularly mind, since he wanted to be taken seriously as a cinematic "auteur": "At that point I was making Ralph Bakshi's 'Fritz the Cat', rather than Crumb's." Bakshi also claimed that Crumb earned more money from box office income than he ever did, even though it was only five percent.

Disgusted with the exploitation of his breakthrough character, Crumb drew a new 'Fritz' story, 'Fritz the Cat Superstar', which appeared in People's Comics (Golden Gate Publishing, September 1972). In this comic the cat has become a decadent Hollywood star, a mere pawn in the hands of sleazy executives "Ralphie and Stevie". On the final page he is murdered with an icepick by a disgruntled girlfriend. In a severe case of creator backlash, Crumb never drew another 'Fritz the Cat' story again. 

Despite his efforts, an animated sequel still came out: 'The Nine Lives of Fritz the Cat' (1974). Crumb tried to sue, but contractually a sequel was part of the clause, so he was forced to drop his case. As he commented in the 1987 documentary 'The Confessions of Robert Crumb': "You can't win...' Though, contrary to popular thought, Bakshi had nothing to do with 'The Nine Lives of Fritz the Cat' either. He was uninterested in sequels, as he didn't want to repeat himself. Producer Steve Krantz simply put another director, Robert Taylor, in charge. 'The Nine Lives of Fritz the Cat' is an anthology film, loosely based on a few unadapted 'Fritz' stories, but mostly taking colossal liberties with Crumb's original character. In one storyline, for instance, Henry Kissinger is U.S. President and fights a war against the Black Panther Party, who now have their own independent country. Critics and audiences hated 'The Nine Lives of Fritz the Cat' in equal measure, which sealed the milking of 'Fritz the Cat' for good. Only years later did 'The Nine Lives of Fritz the Cat' develop a small cult following of its own. Some fans enjoy its wild and unpredictable narratives.  

Heavy Traffic
Still from 'Heavy Traffic'.

Heavy Traffic 
After 'Fritz the Cat', Bakshi could finally direct the picture he always wanted. He was fed up with most animation being built around an anthropomorphic animal, whose wacky tales then form the plot. So he went for a more autobiographical route, comparable to a live-action 'auteur' drama. 'Heavy Traffic' (1973), is set in New York and follows a young wannabe animator, who still lives with his parents. His Italian-American father is an adulterous drunk who always fights with his Jewish wife. More than one modern viewer has noticed that the dad shows an interesting resemblance to Matt Groening's Homer Simpson, created 15 years later. Apart from parental fights, Michael's neighborhood is ravaged by junks, mobsters, transvestites, prostitutes and black, Jewish and Italian-American hoodlums. His African-American girlfriend Carol is a frequent victim of racism. But he tries to survive and find a way out... Much like its predecessor, 'Heavy Traffic' received an X-rating and mixed reviews, but still did well at the box office. Fans liked the personal touch and it achieved cult status. Ironically, Bakshi only earned 10% of what producer Steve Krantz made. He therefore deliberately distanced himself from Krantz and sold his next script, 'Coonskin', to a different producer: Albert S. Ruddy, best known for 'The Godfather' (1972). Krantz suspended Bakshi and afterwards forced him to finish 'Heavy Traffic'. After a month of arguments, Bakshi agreed and was allowed to leave his contract afterwards. 

For his next animated feature, 'Coonskin' (1975), Bakshi made an updated version of Joel Chandler Harris' book 'Uncle Remus' and the 1946 Walt Disney adaptation of that same story, 'Song of the South'. In the original, a black slave, Uncle Remus, tells children stories about a trickster rabbit, Br'er Rabbit, and his enemies, Br'er Fox and Br'er Bear. The Disney movie blends live-action with animation to portray an idyllic dream world. In 'Coonskin', Bakshi uses the same techniques to make a blaxploitation movie, set in dreary, present-day Harlem, New York City. Br'er Rabbit, Fox and Bear are now three African-American friends. They are confronted with poverty, racism and exploitation, both by racist whites and opportunistic blacks. Outraged and disgusted, the trio decides to fight back. 'Coonskin' was also more ambitious in its scope. The film is a satire of every possible stereotype about African-Americans, particularly the ones manufactured in Hollywood. The story is intercut with metaphorical allegories about the status of blacks in "the land of the free". Thanks to the profits of his previous movies, Bakshi could cast three celebrity actors, Scatman Crothers (the narrator), soul singer Barry White (Br'er Bear) and - in an uncredited role - Al Lewis (The Godfather). Philip Michael Thomas, the actor who played Br'er Rabbit, would later gain fame as detective Ricardo Tubbs in the TV series 'Miami Vice'. 

Unfortunately, 'Coonskin' 's provocative title led to many people assuming it was a racist film. Many misinterpreted its satirical use of black stereotypes, like the dancing "coon", the Mammy and black preachers, boxers, basketball players, doowop choirs, prostitutes, pimps and big-lipped "jive" talking Uncle Tom characters. Protest groups picketed it, some at the instigation of African-American reverend Al Sharpton, who hadn't even seen the film. Bakshi once observed how some of Sharpton's picketers watched the film and turned against Sharpton, since they liked the picture. Many were surprised that almost all of the animators who worked on 'Coonskin' were in fact black, safe for Bakshi. But at the time, all the controversy not only hurt the film's box office profits, but also its reputation. For more than a decade it sank into obscurity, since no theater or channel dared to screen it. In the late 1980s, 'Coonskin' was released on video under a different title, 'Streetfight'. It finally picked up a cult following, also among celebrity fans like directors Spike Lee and Quentin Tarantino. Various rappers sampled its dialogue, like in the songs 'Crime Scene' (2011) by Dominic Owen and 'Hooked' (2013) by Sir Own. In the 2000s, 'Coonskin' received a proper DVD release under its original title and was recognized as a masterpiece. Many Bakshi fans still consider 'Heavy Traffic' and 'Coonskin' to be the director's best work. 

Still from 'Coonskin'.

Near the end of the 1970s, Bakshi took a different turn. He directed two fantasy films which had a more family friendly tone: 'Wizards' (1977) and 'Lord of the Rings' (1978). 'Wizards' is set in a post-apocalytic future, where two wizards combat each other. One uses traditional magic, the other modern technology and Nazi propaganda film footage. 'Wizards' featured graphic contributions by cartoonists Ian Miller and Mike Ploog. Unfortunately, the film had the bad luck of premiering around the same time as 'Star Wars'. Soon film theaters played George Lucas' SF saga rather than provide screens for 'Wizards', which prevented it from making its money back. It nevertheless reached cult status later. 

Lord of the Rings
Bakshi's other fantasy film was 'Lord of the Rings' (1978), an ambitious adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's novel cyclus 'The Lord of the Rings' 1978). In the mid-1960s, Czech animation legend Jiri Trnka, illustrator Adolf Born and cartoon director Gene Deitch had tried to make an animated version, but never came further than one reel. Producer William L. Snyder merely wanted them to make a cartoon adaptation so he could keep the film rights, as stipulated in his contract. Bakshi managed to make a 'Lord of the Rings' animated feature, but only got as far as the first of the three books. Another criticism was that the majority of the movie was rotoscoped. The picture therefore received mixed reviews. Still, for more than 20 years, Bakshi's work was the only available film version of 'Lord of the Rings' and therefore easily became a cult movie. The picture was also parodied in Mad Magazine issue #210 (October 1979) by Frank Jacobs and Mort Drucker as a musical, under the title 'The Ring and I'. When Peter Jackson made his live-action version in 2001-2003, he managed to adapt all three novels of the trilogy. Because of this, Jackson's version has overshadowed Bakshi's version in the eyes of most Tolkien fans. 

Since 'Wizards' and 'Lord of the Rings' were fantasy films with a more family friendly tone, they disappointed fans of Bakshi's raunchier and more personal work. Nevertheless, the films paved the way for several other sword & sorcery animated features in the early 1980s, including Gerald Potterton's 'Heavy Metal' (1981), Don Bluth's 'The Secret of Nimh' (1982), Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass' 'The Last Unicorn' (1982) and Hayao Miyazaki's 'Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind' (1984). Even the Disney Studios made an attempt at a more mature fantasy adventure picture, 'The Black Cauldron' (1985). 

Work in the 1980s
The 1980s saw Bakshi making two animated films which expressed his love for music: 'American Pop' (1981) and 'Hey Good Lookin' ' (1982). 'American Pop' is partially a history of popular music, intercut with rotoscoped concert footage. One of the background and character designers was comic veteran Russ Heath. 'American Pop' had a good critical reception and financial profit, although once again its reliance on rotoscoped animation was criticized. 'Hey Good Lookin'' was based on Bakshi's teenage years during the 1950s. Having been in production since the mid-1970s, it was stylistically closer to his earlier films. But this stop-and-start approach gave the completed picture a messy, slowly paced feel and 'Hey Good Lookin'' flopped. It only picked up a cult following later. Quentin Tarantino even deemed it a better movie than 'Heavy Traffic'. 

With 'Fire and Ice' (1983), Bakshi returned to fantasy. In the wake of the box office success of 'Conan the Barbarian' (1982) starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, 'Fire and Ice' featured a collaboration with 'Conan' book illustrator Frank Frazetta to co-design the main characters. Comic writers Gerry Conway and Roy Thomas, from the Marvel adaptations of 'Conan', penned the screenplay. James Gurney and Thomas Kinkade painted backgrounds. The picture once again never rose above cult status. In 1985, Bakshi's studio directed the animated segments of the 'Harlem Shuffle' (1985) music video by the Rolling Stones.

Return to television
In 1987, Bakshi returned to television by supervising 'Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures' (1987-1988) on CBS, based on Paul Terry's cartoon character. The series gained good reviews, particularly thanks to one of his directors, John Kricfalusi, who tried to make the animation look more expressive and different than most other TV cartoon shows at the time. Bakshi made sure that his animators had complete creative freedom and shielded them from the censors and producers. Unfortunately, the series was cancelled after a year, because religious activist Donald Wildmon objected to a scene in which the mouse apparently sniffed cocaine. In reality it was just a flower. In 1989, Bakshi Productions animated Dr. Seuss' 'The Butter Battle Book' for which the famous children's author also wrote the screenplay. Seuss paid Bakshi a huge compliment by claiming it was the best screen adaptation of his work he ever saw.

Cool World
Bakshi's final film was 'Cool World' (1992). Originally intended as a story about a cartoon character and a real person who have sex and whose child was a mutated freak, the studio scrapped the entire idea. Instead they made a much tamer story about a cartoonist (Gabriel Byrne) chased by a detective (Brad Pitt), because of his relationship with an animated girl from a parallel cartoon universe. The comic strips in the film were drawn by Spain Rodriguez, while Mark O'Hare was a storyboard artist. The studio tried to sell 'Cool World' as a 'Who Framed Roger Rabbit' clone and heavily implied in their tagline that there would be a sex scene. Since it failed to deliver on both premises, the picture became a colossal flop. It did spawn an official comic book adaptation, released by DC Comics to coincide with the film's premier. The 'Cool World' comics were scripted by Michael Eury, drawn by Stephen DeStefano, Chuck Fiala and Bill Wray, while Bakshi designed the covers. They only lasted four issues.

Later career
In 1994, Bakshi directed his first and only live-action film, the forgettable 'Cool and the Crazy'. A similar fate met 'Spicy City' (1997), an adult animated TV series set in a dystopian future. Since then he only made one animated short, 'Last Days of Coney Island' (2015), a neo-noir film set in New York City. It was released exclusively online on the video site Vimeo. He founded the Bakshi School of Animation and Cartooning in 2003, and has focused largely on painting since. Among the people who were once employed at Bakshi's productions are Jerry BriceNick Cuti, Jim DavisJaime Diaz, Tim GulaCheese Hasselberger, Mike Kazaleh, John Kricfalusi, Don MorganMark O'HareMike Ploog, Andrew Stanton, Martin B. Taras and Bruce Timm.

'Cool World' comics, DC Comics, 1992.

Ralph Bakshi won a National Cartoonists Society Division Award (1978), a Golden Gryphon (1980) at the Giffoni Film Festival for 'Lord of the Rings', an Annie Award for Distinguished Contribution to the Art of Animation (1988), a Winsor McCay Award (1988), a Maverick Tribute Award (2003) and an Inkpot Award (2008). 

Legacy and influence
Ralph Bakshi has always been a polarizing director. Plagued by budget problems, time restrictions and executive meddling, few of his films came out the way he envisioned them. As a result, some of his storylines can leave a messy, unfocused and at times incomprehensible impression. In order to properly finish them, he often had to resort to adding photographs, live-action footage or rotoscoping. He did this so frequently that viewers have regularly wondered why he just didn't make an actual live-action film instead. Despite his association with rotoscoping, Bakshi only used it out of necessity. He disliked the technique, but it at least allowed him to finish his pictures. Overall, Bakshi was unconcerned with visual perfection. He despised the Disney aesthetique that high production values and slick appeal are necessary to make a good animated film. In his observation, hundreds of animators have let themselves be unnecessarily discouraged by this unwritten "law". In Bakshi's films, occasional off-model mistakes, continuity errors, bad synching and less fluid animation are quite common. Some designs and imagery would be considered ugly in the eyes of viewers used to Disney standards. But to him, atmosphere and attitude were always far more important. 

Bakshi also suffered from undeserved bad publicity. For decades his name was synonymous with "animated porn", mostly with people who never looked past the nudity. The success of 'Fritz the Cat' paved the way for many adult animated pictures with low-brow sexual content, like David Grant's 'Snow White and the Seven Perverts' (1973), Gibba's 'Il Nano e la Strega' ('King Dick, 1973), Charles Swenson's 'Down and Dirty Duck' (1974), Picha's 'Tarzoon, La Honte de la Jungle' (1975), Don Jurwich's 'Once Upon a Girl...' (1976) and Gerald Potterton's 'Heavy Metal' (1981). At a certain point every cartoon with nudity or adult themes was attributed to him, even if he had nothing to do with it. Since so many of these pictures were forgettable trash to make teenage boys snicker, his reputation suffered even further. Many people to whom animation was nothing but a children's medium regarded him as a sleazy pervert who wanted to corrupt young kids with "depraved sex cartoons". As a result, he found it increasingly difficult to find funding and distributors for his new projects. Even when he made normal children's TV films and series, there were still people who protested, purely based on his "adults only" reputation. 

As time went by, Bakshi's fanbase grew. His movies were rediscovered and reappreciated as one of the few original and artistically interesting works during the Dark Age of Animation (1960-1988).  In an era when most other cartoons lacked originality or vision, Bakshi at least offered an alternative. He moved away from the idea that everything had to mimick Disney. Rather than tell child friendly stories about funny animals, he made pictures about mature themes. Instead of making escapist fairy tales, he presented worlds set in the harsh reality of everyday life. Contrary to most cartoon studios he didn't make a slick, uniform, bland factory product, but works with a strong, edgy, personal vision. By not compromising or pandering to mass audiences, he was praised as a maverick film maker, operating outside the Hollywood system. Several of his movies have therefore stood the test of time as cult classics. 

Likewise, Bakshi's historical stature has grown too. He was a pioneer in adult animation. From the late 1980s, early 1990s on, several animated TV shows with more mature themes became possible thanks to his influence: Matt Groening's 'The Simpsons' and 'Futurama', John Kricfalusi's 'Ren and Stimpy', Mike Judge's 'Beavis & Butt-head' and 'King of the Hill', Everett Peck's 'Duckman', Trey Parker and Matt Stone's 'South Park' and Seth MacFarlane's 'Family Guy' and 'American Dad'. In 'The Simpsons' episode 'The Day the Violence Died' (1996), his work was even spoofed in a segment named 'Itchy & Scratchy Meet Fritz the Cat.'  On the Internet, many online cartoon series have also delved into mature themes. As Bakshi once said: "Baby, I'm the most ripped-off cartoonist in the history of the world, and that's all I'm going to say."

Books about Ralph Bakshi
Artwork from Bakshi's animated cartoons and comics can be read in the highly recommended book 'Unfiltered: The Complete Ralph Bakshi' (Universe, 2008) by Chris McDonnell and Jon M. Gibson, which has a foreword by Quentin Tarantino. 

Ralph Bakshi
Ralph Bakshi. 


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