Ralph Bakshi is an independent film producer and animator, best known as the first to create animated features exclusively meant for mature audiences. Comics fans know him best for his 1972 film adaptation of Robert Crumb's underground strip 'Fritz the Cat'. Tolkien fans may know him as the director who made the first (unfinished) attempt to adapt 'Lord of the Rings' 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 made numerous pictures full with sex, drugs, graphic violence and politics ('Fritz the Cat', 'Heavy Traffic', 'Coonskin', 'Hey Good Lookin', 'American Pop'), but also more chaste fantasy films ('Lord of the Rings', 'Wizards', 'Fire and Ice'). The topics were often so controversial that he had to combat censors, executive producers and moral guardians. Bakshi's films seldom have fluid or appealing animation. He chose for a grittier look with less focus on technical or aesthetical excellence. As a result they have always polarized audiences. But Bakshi never strove to be liked by everybody. He wanted to make personal films, away from the dogmatic Disney style. It has made him one of the most innovative and influential animators of all time. All adult and independent animation today, both in the cinema, on TV as well as on the Internet can be linked to his taboo breaking accomplishments.
Ralph Bakshi was born in 1938 in Haifa, Palestine (nowadays Israël), 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. His graphic influences were Chaim Soutine, Jackson Pollock, Francis Bacon, George Herriman, Al Capp, Harvey Kurtzman and naturally underground comics like Robert Crumb and Vaughn Bodé. He took many lessons from reading Gene Byrnes' 'The Complete Guide to Cartooning', and even stole the book from his library to study it. 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. He studied at the School of Industrial Art in Manhattan, where he graduated in 1956.
He began his career at the age of 18 as a cel polisher with the Terrytoons animation studio. There he worked on such TV series like 'Deputy Dawg' (1962-1963) 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 he worked himself up as head of the department. He first gained attention as the creator of the 'The Mighty Heroes' section in the 'Mighty Mouse Playhouse' show in 1966-1967 and produced the second and third season of the animated TV series 'Spider-Man' (1967-1970), based on Stan Lee and Steve Ditko's eponymous comics series. He also briefly ran the Paramount cartoon studios for six months in 1966, where he enlisted comic artists like Harvey Kurtzman, Wally Wood, Archie Goodwin, Jim Steranko and Gray Morrow to work along with him. On the side he created comic strips which were an outlet to his personal problems. '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. His comics were later collected, along with other artwork, in the book 'The Unfiltered Ralph Bakshi' (2008). The foreword was written by Quentin Tarantino.
Bakshi debuted during a particular dark age of animation, when many of the classic film studios closed down and moved into television. All TV cartoons were made on cheap budgets and exclusively aimed at children. Dissatisfied with these restrictions he eventually founded his own studio, Bakshi Productions, in Manhattan. The studio produced commercials and educational shorts, and began working on a 'Fritz the Cat' film in 1969, based on Robert Crumb's succesful underground comic of the same name. After a long production period, the film was finally released on 12 April 1972. It's often said that 'Fritz the Cat' was the first animated cartoon with mature content. This is not entirely true. The 1928 anonymous black-and-white silent animated short, 'Eveready Harton in Buried Treasure', was full with pornographic jokes. Yet it was only made for private showings, just like a 1939 Looney Tunes reel which featured Porky Pig saying "son of a bitch!" after hitting his thumb with a hammer. The comedy of Looney Tunes in general aimed more at adults than children, though was still acceptable for a young audience. Many of Max and Dave Fleischer's 'Betty Boop' cartoons as well as Tex Avery's films contained sexual innuendo. During World War II various cartoon studios made propaganda shorts ridiculing Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo. John Halas and Joy Batchelor's animated version of George Orwell's 'Animal Farm' (1954) - with contributions by Harold Whitaker and Reginald Parlett - was a political drama. The Beatles cartoon 'Yellow Submarine' (1968) by George Dunning and Heinz Edelmann featured psychedelic imagery and rock music, aiming at youngsters. During the same decade 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. But 'Fritz the Cat' was the first adult cartoon of feature length and with a relatively big budget. Its depiction of sex, drugs, politics, vulgar language and bloody violence was so frank that all previous cartoons seemed tame in comparison. Thus it became the first animated feature to receive an X-rating. Despite its scandalous nature it received good reviews and became the most succesful independent animated film of all time. A few veteran animators who once worked for iconic cartoon studio's like Terrytoons, Warner Brothers, Hanna-Barbera, Famous, Fleischer's and even Disney contributed to 'Fritz the Cat' and felt it was kind of a breath of fresh air to finally make something that wasn't exclusively child-friendly. Among the more well known names in the field were Dick Lundy, Martin Taras, Rod Scribner, Norm McCabe and Virgil Ross.
Michael O'Donoghue and Randall Enos spoofed the film in a Crumbesque comic strip published in National Lampoon, which portrayed Robert Crumb as a sell-out. In reality Crumb had little to do with the film. Even though it made him more well-known outside artistic circles he strongly distanced himself from the final product. He tried to get his name removed from the posters and drew a final 'Fritz the Cat' story which was published in People's Comics in 1972. It featured Fritz as a decadent Hollywood star, exploited by caricatures of Bakshi and his producer Steve Krantz. Near the end the cat is murdered with an icepick by a disgruntled girlfriend. Crumb never drew another comic about Fritz and hates Bakshi to this very day. While the animosity is mutual, Bakshi did admit that his adaptation of 'Fritz' was more intended as a personal film, rather than remain true to Crumb's vision. As a result Bakshi had no interest in making a sequel either. One still came out, 'The Nine Lives of Fritz the Cat' (1974), but was directed by Robert Taylor. While it was the first animated film to be shown during the Festival of Cannes it was such an incomprehensible mess that both critics and audiences hated it. This sealed the milking of the 'Fritz' franchise for good. Only later did it gain a small cult following of its own.
Still from Heavy Traffic
'Fritz the Cat' gained Bakshi a certain notoriety, and paved the way for more independent animation films. His next picture was 'Heavy Traffic' (1973), an autobiographical look at sleazy city life in New York among blacks, Jews, Italians, prostitutes, mobsters and transvestites. The story centered around a young cartoonist of Jewish descent, in whom one could recognize a self-portrait of the creator. It did well at the box office and received excellent reviews, making him the first cartoon director since Disney to have two financially succesful features in a row. It enabled him to star celebrities like Scatman Crothers and Barry White in his next project, 'Coonskin' (1975). 'Coonskin' was a controversial satire of every possible stereotype about African-Americans, particularly the ones manufactured in Hollywood. It used some plot elements from Joel Chandler's 'Uncle Remus' stories, particularly Walt Disney's equally controversial (but for different reasons) film adaptation 'Song of the South' (1946). Once again it stars Brother Rabbit, Brother Bear and Brother Fox in a world that blends animation with live-action, like the Disney version. Yet Bakshi's version is a blaxploitation film set in the present day, subverting the idyllic dreamworld of Uncle Remus' happy slave life. Confronted with prejudice and exploitation both by whites as well as blacks, the trio fights back. The story is intercut with metaphorical allegories about the status of blacks in "the land of the free". At the time it was picketed by protesters who assumed it was racist, which not only hurt its box office profits but also its reputation. It took decades before it recovered from this bad publicity. 'Coonskin' gained a cult following particularly among black viewers who felt it was an accurate depiction of what it means to be black in the United States. Rappers sampled its dialogue and both Spike Lee as well as Quentin Tarantino have come forward to defend it 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 decade Bakshi took a different turn and made two fantasy films which were more family friendly. The first was 'Wizards' (1977), the other an ambitious adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's novel cyclus 'The Lord of the Rings' (1978). 'Wizards' told the tale of two wizards in a post-apocalyptic future who combat one another with magic vs. industrial technology and Nazi propaganda. The film featured artistic contributions from Ian Miller and Mike Ploog. Unfortunately it had the bad luck of premiering around the same time 'Star Wars' came out. Soon film theaters played George Lucas' SF saga rather than provide screens for 'Wizards', which prevented it from making its money back. 'Lord of the Rings' on the other hand received mixed reviews for only adapting the first of the three books. While disappointing fans of his raunchier and more personal work, both pictures did become cult classics afterwards. The 1980s saw Bakshi making two animated films which expressed his love for music: 'American Pop' (1981) and 'Hey Good Lookin' ' (1982). 'American Pop' had a good critical reception and financial profit, while 'Hey Good Lookin' ' flopped but became a cult film later. 'Fire and Ice' (1983) marked a return to fantasy and drew its inspiration from Robert E. Howard's sword and sorcery novel 'Conan the Barbarian'. Bakshi managed to hire 'Conan' illustrator Frank Frazetta to co-design the main characters, while comics 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 a cult status. In 1985 Bakshi's studio directed the animated segments of the 'Harlem Shuffle' (1985) video by the Rolling Stones.
In 1987 Bakshi returned to television by supervising 'Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures' (1987-1988) on CBS, based on Paul Terry's eponymous 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. Unfortunately the series was cancelled in 1988 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 adaptation of his work he ever saw on screen.
His final film was 'Cool World' (1993). 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 and pointless story about a cartoonist (Gabriel Byrne) chased by a detective (Brad Pitt), because of his relationship with a cartoon girl from a parallel cartoon universe. The comic strips seen in the film were drawn by Spain Rodriguez. The studio tried to sell 'Cool World' as some sort of '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 inspire an an official comic book adaptation, though, 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. 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 Nick Cuti, Jaime Diaz, Tim Gula, Cheese Hasselberger, Mike Kazaleh, John Kricfalusi, Mike Ploog, Jim Davis, Andrew Stanton, Martin B. Taras and Bruce Timm.
Many of Bakshi's projects remain divisive to this day. His animation is seldom pitch perfect. "Off model" mistakes, continuity errors or less slick or fluid actions are quite common. Some imagery and designs look downright ugly. The storylines can occasionally leave a messy, unfocused and at times incomprehensible impression. Yet he shouldn't always be accounted for this personally. Bakshi was often plagued by budget problems and time restrictions. In order to properly finish his films 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 didn't just make an actual live-action film instead? Although his name is somewhat associated with rotoscoping today, he ironically never liked the way it looked. In some cases censors and executive producers meddled with his scripts. As a result, few of his films came out the way he envisioned them. Bad publicity also gained some of his work an unjust reputation. Most of his films received polarizing reviews upon their first release. Yet they still rank as the more interesting pieces of animation during a particular dark era of the medium. 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, personal vision. Beauty and technical excellence weren't as important as atmosphere and attitude. By remaining true to himself Bakshi's films have stood the test of time as cult classics. He paved the way for many adult animated pictures like Charles Swenson's 'Down and Dirty Duck' (1974), Picha's 'Tarzoon, La Honte de la Jungle' (1975) and Gerald Potterton's 'Heavy Metal' (1981). Likewise TV series like 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', Seth MacFarlane's 'Family Guy' and 'American Dad' also owe a debt to him. 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 say."