Ralph Bakshi Essay - Critical Essays

Bakshi, Ralph


Ralph Bakshi 1938–

Palestinian-born American film director, animator, and screenwriter.

Bakshi is said to have revolutionized the concept of the animated film with features specifically designed for adult audiences. Most of his works are graphically bold, sometimes violent and obscene, commentaries on contemporary society.

Bakshi's first, perhaps most notable, film was Fritz the Cat (1972). Based on an underground comic strip by Robert Crumb, Fritz the Cat either shocked, delighted, or bored its viewers and stirred controversy because of its strong sexual content. Bakshi combined live action and animation in his second film, Heavy Traffic. The film is a semiautobiographical account of a young Brooklyn cartoonist and his struggle to maintain his sense of morality amid the violence that surrounds him. Bakshi utilized basic film noir techniques of shadowing and coarse graphics in Heavy Traffic to depict the unsavory side of New York City.

Turning away from urban America, Bakshi switched to fantasy in Wizards and The Lord of the Rings. In both films, he achieved a sense of realism by first filming real actors and later sketching over the film. American Pop, in Bakshi's words, "is about trying to make it in America." In this film, documenting an immigrant family's pursuit of the American dream, Bakshi successfully integrated popular music into his development of plot and theme. For some critics, Bakshi came of age as a filmmaker with American Pop.

Although his work has often been called stereotypically offensive and violent, even racist, Bakshi is recognized by many critics as an important innovator. He is, as Andrew Sarris wrote, "a conscious antithesis to Walt Disney."

Vincent Canby

Understatement is not the method of "Fritz The Cat," which utilizes just about every four-letter word you've ever heard in any playground, and depicts Fritz's various sexual triumphs with what might be described as indelicate frenzy. However, the film is not to be confused with those soberly obscene comic books that used to feature Toots and Casper, Dick Tracy and Tillie The Toiler. It is often exuberantly vulgar, but rather less obscene than your ordinary, run-of-the-mill, R-rated Hollywood melodrama, probably because Fritz himself is essentially an innocent of the early Jack Lemmon mold. He's the kind of cat who can be rendered instantaneously impotent with guilt when a Harlem madam laughs at him and says something like: "Honey, you ain't black enough!" (pp. 1, 3)

I suspect there is something in "Fritz The Cat" to offend just about everyone over the age of 17—blacks, whites, Jews, gentiles, Catholics, radicals, conservatives. Ironically, people under 17, who won't be allowed to see the X-rated film, are probably most familiar with cartoonist [Robert] Crumb, whose work I've somehow missed. Thus I've no idea how faithful Mr. Bakshi, who wrote and directed the film …, [has] been to Mr. Crumb's original creations. Compared to something like "The Yellow Submarine," the visual style of "Fritz The Cat" is almost drab, or, to put it another way, it's spectacular Terrytoon. It doesn't exactly advance the fine art of animation, which is...

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Stanley Kauffmann

The last third of Fritz the Cat, the first cartoon feature to be rated X, may be superb. I'll never know. Two-thirds was twice as much as I could stand. I wish I had been kinder to myself and left after the credits.

I mean to describe the very opening exactly as we see it. Three hardhats are eating lunch atop some New York steel construction. Then one of them stands, turns his back, and pees—a thick yellow stream, which falls all through the credits. Credits over, the thick stream reaches the street level, hits a young hippie on the head, and flattens him. And we're off to liberated Cartoonland.

All the characters are "played" by animals: policemen are pigs, black people are crows, students are cats, and so on. Greenwich Village and Harlem are the locales of the part I saw. Fritz is an NYU student who wants to swing (in the '60s), goes to a pot-sex orgy, a black bar, a black club. There is one fleetingly amusing sequence in a synagogue, with bloodhounds as old Jews; the rest is unbearably self-conscious "liberated" stuff without wit or point. The construction is moronic, the drawing dull, the dialogue corny, and the voices like the radio acting of the '30s on a bad night. I was going to mention the names of the people responsible for this mess, but I hope the reader has no interest.

Stanley Kauffmann, in his review of "Fritz the Cat" (reprinted by permission of Brandt & Brandt Literary Agents, Inc.; copyright © 1972 by Stanley Kauffmann), in The New Republic, Vol. 166, No. 21, May 20, 1972, p. 34.

Robert Hatch

It troubles me that I am almost totally unresponsive to Fritz the Cat, an animated cartoon feature, directed by Ralph Bakshi from the strip created by Robert Crumb for Head Comics. Fritz, a cat both in comic-book terms and in the current jargon, is super hip to every breeze that blew upon the country's questing youth of a few years ago, and the picture holds up his instant causes and borrowed principles to good-natured destruction. Thus Fritz, master lecher, organizes group sex in a bathtub, which exploit is raided by the prurient fuzz, and Fritz, the free-souled undergraduate, burns his lecture notes and with them one of the larger buildings on New York University's Greenwich Village campus….

[One understands] that Fritz the Cat is bent on depreciating youthful follies, while not overlooking the worse than foolish responses of the alarmed and puzzled establishmentarian elders. In principle, I should applaud such iconoclasm, and in principle I do. It is the execution I deplore.

My spirits began to droop when the two cops sent to spoil the fun in the bathtub turned out to be pigs (Disney's little pigs grown up and turned gross), who spoke in the "da (gulp)" accents popularly associated with mental deficiency. They fell still further when I discovered that the blacks were to be presented as crows (though the finery of these birds did trick me into some racist snickers). It isn't the bad taste I object to...

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Lee Beaupre

Bakshi's idea of wit [in "Fritz the Cat"] is to resurrect an 8-year-old Terry Southernism like "prevert," have Fritz "kill a john" by shooting at a toilet, resolve the Israeli situation by having the Zionists "return the cities of New York and Los Angeles to the United States" and paraphrase an old Elaine May-Mike Nichols routine with a bossy lady making "a big bourgeois deal out of everything."

As for the film's animation, it is a long way from what "Yellow Submarine" had let us to anticipate in future cartooning. Some of the backgrounds have a pleasing graphic quality—perhaps because they were watercolored adaptations of photographs of New York and thus relied very little on Bakshi's "imagination"—but his constant zooming and tilting hardly augments the attractiveness of these images. And when real invention is required for a sequence depicting the post-explosion apocalypse, Bakshi feebly resorts to a sepia-toned live-action shot of a desert gale.

In juxtaposition to the stylized reality of these backgrounds, the foreground figures are as cutely sentimentalized as in any Saturday morning TV cartoon—hardly surprising in that Bakshi apprenticed in just this kind of hack work. By marrying pretension with bad habits, Bakshi has made his film look like Heckle and Jeckle on a mescalin trip.

Still, "Fritz the Cat" is "only" a movie, and its intellectual, moral and esthetic bankruptcy would normally...

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Vincent Canby

Ralph Bakshi's mostly animated feature, "Heavy Traffic," is American graffiti of a very high and unusual order, a tale of a young New York City pilgrim named Michael, half-Italian, half-Jewish, ever innocent, and his progress through a metaphor that is nowhere near as dreary as it sounds: the pinball machine called Life. It is a liberating, arrogant sort of movie, crude, tough, vulgar, full of insult and wit and an awareness of the impermanence of all things….

Bakshi's "Heavy Traffic" is rated X, not because it's pornographic in any way but because it employs the small gestures and words of obscenity to make its rude statement about the quality of what might be dangerously described as the New York City Experience.

The opening of the film sets its moods as the screen goes from a live-action Michael, playing his pinball machine, to the animated world that lies just beyond reality. Michael, a would-be "underground" cartoonist, asks "What makes you happy? Where do you hide? Who do you trust?" And the voice carries over as two ancient jazz musicians in terrible repair meet while foraging through a garbage can….

With a poet's freedom (including the freedom from the fear he might be making an ass of himself), Bakshi conducts his misery-house tour of the quintessential modern metropolis, a New York City inhabited entirely by undesirables, junkies, whores, crooked cops, crooked union leaders, Mafia soldiers, craven dads, mad moms. The only two innocents are Michael and Carole, the pretty, no-nonsense black bartender who is also beloved by Shorty, the legless bouncer at her bar.

Bakshi's first feature, "Fritz The Cat," was criticized by purists for the liberties he took with a favorite underground comic strip. Now he has created his own world in "Heavy Traffic," which at its best moments is as nutty and bleak and beautiful as some scenes out of early Henry Miller, with whom...

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Andrew Sarris

The moral issue with "Heavy Traffic" is somewhat … complicated in that Ralph Bakshi's animated cartoon seems less concerned with beguiling its audience … than of bestirring it…. By any standard, Bakshi's achievement is spectactularly uneven. But then he is just about the only X-rated cartoonist around, and thus there is really not too much basis for comparison. As with "Fritz the Cat," the uniqueness of the genre puts the captious critic in the uncomfortable position of hunting down an endangered species. Bakshi's artistic alibi seems to be that he is a conscious antithesis to Walt Disney. He has even accelerated Disney's unfortunate evolution from pure animation to a melange of animation and live-action, but...

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Stanley Kauffmann

I walked out of Ralph Bakshi's first cartoon feature Fritz the Cat because it was vulgar and dull. I didn't walk out of his second, Heavy Traffic, which is vulgar but often interesting.

It mixes animation with some live action as it tells the story of a young New York cartoonist who, while playing a pinball machine (ah, there, Saroyan), wanders off into a (cartoon) fantasy involving a stunning black bar hostess. Subsequently, in live film, he meets her and they "find" each other in Union Square.

There are ghetto derelicts, drag queens, hookers, mafiosi, and other delectations of the New York scene [in Heavy Traffic]; the ambience is grubbiness. Nothing is hinted...

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Harriet Polt

Heavy Traffic is about New York, about violence, perhaps most of all about ugliness. Shorty, a frog-faced legless man, the Godfather slurping spaghetti through enormous lips, the skinny Jewish mamma, the fat prostitutes—all are ugly and either stupid or evil, or both. Even the two good-looking characters, Michael and his sexy black girlfriend Carol, finally turn violent, perhaps corrupted by all the ugliness around them. Ralph Bakshi, the film's writer and director, depicts women with particular loathing, even more than he did in Fritz. Those breasts that keep popping out of blouses are not sexy but disgusting, in much the same way that Kenneth Anger's Marilyn Monroe and the other women in Hollywood...

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John Simon

With Coonskin, Ralph Bakshi convinces me that the sum total of his talent was exhausted in Fritz the Cat, and that even there the chief interest lay in novelty rather than ultimate worth….

As in the equally bad Heavy Traffic, Bakshi is once again mixing live action and cartoon footage, alternating, juxtaposing, and superimposing them by turns. This is stylistically deleterious, rather like mixing Bach and the Rolling Stones. Each genre may have its own validity, but each sets up different responses, different degrees of involvement: the cartoon sequences try to make the fantastic real, which is fair enough; but the obtrusion of live action makes the real people look out of...

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Arthur Cooper

Mr. Walt Disney

Elysian Fields

Dear Walt,

Well, old buddy, things have come to a pretty pass. A young animator named Ralph Bakshi—you might remember, he made the first two X-rated feature-length cartoons, "Fritz the Cat" and "Heavy Traffic"—anyway, he's now made "Coonskin." It's got an R rating, which must stand for Ripoff because what he's done is turn your Uncle Remus stories inside out.

The movie is about these three black characters who leave the South and come to Harlem where they try to take over the rackets. Along the way they have to knock off a corrupt detective named Mannigan who looks like a women's-lib caricature of Telly Savalas....

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Penelope Gilliatt

"Coonskin," written and directed by Ralph Bakshi (of "Fritz the Cat" and "Heavy Traffic"), is at its most eloquent when it does things quietly, which is to say that a work whose whole immensely talented premise is its exuberance slows down to its best when it is temperate….

"Coonskin" is a full-length feature film in which things move smoothly from animation to photography or—most interesting visually—to a mixture of the two. It is made in lewd honor of Manhattan and other melting pots, in which, Bakshi suggests, the ethnic and sexual mixing has actually long since passed the molten stage to become as cool as the sort of jazz this film so much likes….

"Coonskin" is a very...

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Stanley Kauffmann

Coonskin has met with protests from some who assert that it's racist. I'm not going to comment on the justice of the protests…. But if there are going to be protests, then they ought to be by everyone, because the whole human race, as exemplified in this country at this time, is what is being skewered by this scintillating, vicious, outrageous and outraged film. (p. 165)

Coonskin, on any vulgarity meter, may be the worst of [Bakshi's films]—for instance, the very first words are "Fuck you," and there are such scenes as one in which a character gets tugged along by his infinitely elastic phallus—but it's hard to think of this good film as having any other tone than the one...

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John Simon

Ralph Bakshi's new animated feature, Wizards, tries to be a fresh departure but looks more like a late arrival. Even though we are in a fairytale future, there is still much uninteresting contemporary street lingo, the plotting is still weak, the idea still hackneyed. The quality of the drawing is not bad, though lacking in intense originality, and the simplistic tale of good, sloppy pacifism winning out over wicked, hyperefficient militarism is not couched in terms that could be considered arresting.

As usual with Bakshi, there is an inadequate musical score …, and, again as usual, only worse here, the dragging in of poorly integrated live action. The only one ever to get away with this...

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Alexander Stuart

Sadly short on magic, Wizards is an interesting, unsuccessful try by animator Ralph Bakshi…. With a rather naïve, very late-1960s story about two wizards, one good, one bad, and their tussle for the kind of world each wants, the film is a stylistic mishmash that relies on far too many animation shortcuts to tell its tale.

Decidedly too much of the story is communicated through lengthy sequences of still sketches with narration over the top. These parts of the movie are the kind of thing Disney animators might produce just for themselves to get an impression of the feel of the thing they're working on—not the type of work you expect to end up in a finished feature film.


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Vincent Canby

"The Lord of the Rings" is both numbing and impressive.

Yet it would be difficult to recommend this movie to anyone not wholly absorbed by the uses of motion-picture animation or to anyone not familiar with Tolkien's home-made mythology, which borrows liberally from various Norse myths, the Eddas, the Nibelungs and maybe even Beatrix Potter. In the way of grand opera sung in Urdu, "The Lord of the Rings" is likely to be total confusion to someone who doesn't speak the language….

The major fault of the screenplay by Chris Conkling and Peter S. Beagle is that the film attempts to cover too much ground too quickly, packing in more incomprehensible exposition in the first 15 minutes...

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Tom Allen

The Lord of the Rings has been made almost exclusively for Tolkien devotees. In adapting the long, unwieldy saga, the filmmakers have settled for The Song of Bernadette axiom: "To those who believe, no explanation is necessary; to those who do not believe, no explanation is possible." When I saw the film, the audience cheered each introduction of the books' stars as if it were the opening night of Gone with the Wind. They were celebrating their own fond literary memories, not the characters materializing on screen. Yet their reaction seems to have been anticipated in the special care given such favorites as the Uriah Heepish Gollum, the Sancho Panchoesque Samwise, and the highly theatrical Gandalf...

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William Wolf

Ralph Bakshi, the mad genius of animation, has outdone himself. To meet the heady challenge of bringing J.R.R. Tolkien's fantasy world to the screen, he took the revolutionary, expensive step of first shooting [The Lord of the Rings] with actors. Then his vast staff of animators used the footage as models for the drawings. The result is amazing, particularly in the battlefield clashes.

And yet … I suppose much depends on how you react to Tolkien's Middle Earth world of hobbits, elves, orcs, men, or on how much entertainment and/or significance you find in this turbulent saga of good versus evil. Although some 20 million copies of Tolkien's trilogy have been sold, on screen the material seems...

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Cheryl Forbes

If you read the critics, you might not suspect that J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, the first true epic to come along since Milton revitalized Homer's and Virgil's genre, was a monumental work. That its followers, as with Abraham's seed, are as numerous as the sands. That there are people who meet each week to play Middle-earth games. That maps, calendars, pictures, puzzles, and deluxe editions of the trilogy sell in the millions year after year. I suspect that the critics and the audiences of Ralph Bakshi's animated version of The Lord of the Rings … will be just as far apart.

With few exceptions, the critics find it a bad film. The audiences don't…. Bakshi, the director,...

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James Craig Holte

American Pop is not a Hester Street nor a Mean Streets, films which deliberately develop ethnic themes and settings as their central focus. On the contrary, it is a film which incorporates ethnic material in a subplot, but the subplot of the melting pot and the call of the American Dream is so essential to the history of American popular music that the subject actually provides the narrative core for the entire film…. American Pop is more than music; it is about nothing less than the Great American Dream. All of Bakshi's films in fact, with the exception of his two voyages into fantasy, Wizards and The Lord of the Rings, are about the American Dream in one form or...

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Mike Greco

American Pop is the product of a mature Bakshi. The anger, frustration, and intensity of Traffic and Coonskin are more controlled and focused. Bakshi's vision of America, while still ambivalent, reflects the changes that have occurred in both the filmmaker and his society in the last decade. Bakshi equates his personal and fantasy life with the recent American experience, synthesizing the two in this dramatic history of four generations of an immigrant family trying to make it in America. He understands both the creative and destructive power of the American Dream as only someone who has believed in it and has been disillusioned can. American Pop is in the tradition of The Great...

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Vincent Canby

["American Pop"] is a Pop vision of American life since the turn of the century, seen in the stories of four generations of one family of would-be American musicmakers. Though the film is animated, it makes free use also of old newsreels, still photographs and pencil sketches, as well as work in the manner of dozens of recognizable artists from George Grosz and Reginald Hopper to Andy Warhol, with passing references to Edward Hopper, Rockwell Kent and Norman Rockwell, among others….

"American Pop" looks like no other animated film ever made, except for Mr. Bakshi's earlier works, nor does it sound like any other. It's rough and violent and occasionally very moving, as well as cruelly funny. It...

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Colin L. Westerbeck, Jr.

Because his style does have to be styleless—flat, simple, unelaborated for the most part—Bakshi has stuck to naturalistic stories with human characters and bildungsroman plots. If you use today's abbreviated animation techniques on animals, you get something about as affecting as Crusader Rabbit. The animals constantly remind the viewer that this is a cartoon he's watching, and as a consequence he remains aware of the art work. With human characters, the viewer more readily sees a cartoon the way he does a live-action movie, as if it were real life. This makes him oblivious to the cartoonishness of it. It also keeps him from asking himself why this movie should have been made as a cartoon in...

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