For his first film, writer/director Ralph Bakshi decided to do what no one else had ever tried before: Create a feature-length adult cartoon. Bakshi, an animation wunderkind who was already a 10-year veteran of the Terrytoons animation studio when he was in his early 30s, teamed up with producer Steve Krantz and raised almost $1 million for the production. The result was Fritz the Cat, a frequently hilarious, sometimes maddeningly uneven, but always provocative satire of '60s counterculture and anti-establishment sentiments that will forever bear the distinction of being the first "X-rated animated movie."
The titular character was borrowed from the work of infamous underground cartoonist R. Crumb. For reasons that vary depending on which rumor you have heard, Crumb was never happy with Bakshi's film, and at one point he sued to stop production (one version of the story has it that Bakshi went around Crumb's back in order to secure the rights to use the character). Most likely, Crumb was upset because Bakshi didn't follow his vision, but rather used the character of Fritz as a vehicle through which he could tell his own story. Bakshi also borrowed some of the Crumb's stylistic techniques (particularly the heavy use of lines), giving the characters in Fritz the Cat a look that is not apparent in any of Bakshi's other films.
Production began in mid-1969, near the height of the era conventionally thought of as "the '60s," when America was in social turmoil and the generation gap had never seemed so wide. Bakshi situates Fritz right in the middle of this social and cultural upheaval, presenting the character as a restless college student at NYU who decides to "bug out" and experience everything America has to offer him, which consists primarily of experimenting with sex, drugs, and revolution. Selfish and misguided, Fritz is an amusing central character who constantly spouts cliched counterculture platitudes more because he likes the way they sound than because he knows what they mean.
Although aimed primarily at those who experienced "the '60s" in all its raw glory, Fritz the Cat is essentially a parody of counterculture values, exposing at best hypocrisy, and at worst the danger of radical hippies and anarchic revolutionaries. The movie makes a strong statement right from the first image, which shows a construction worker urinating from the top of a skeletal high-rise right on top of a hippie's head. It doesn't get much more obvious than that.
Animation proved to be an excellent medium for telling such a story, as it allowed Bakshi to employ the kind of comical hyperbole that is usually not possible in live-action films. Bakshi tends to work in various shades of grotesquerie and rudeness; he freely courts controversy and derision in a way that is central to his art. In Fritz the Cat, he packs the screen with exaggerated imagery of bathtub orgies, psychedelic drug trips, and disturbing violence. One of Bakshi's chief strengths is his willingness to mix tones with near abandon; at one moment you're holding your sides laughing, the next you're wincing in discomfort. This more often than not works, although it sometimes contributes the general unevenness of the work, something typical of all of Bakshi's films.
The animation in Fritz the Cat, the product of some 50 artists (including Jim Davis, who would go on to considerable fame and fortune as the creator of another cartoon cat, Garfield) is rough and tumble, but completely appropriate to the film's raw aesthetic and rawer look at politics and power. Bakshi uses the convention of animated animals as stand-ins for human characters, taking it to its outer extremes by equating various species with social subcultures. Thus, African-Americans are portrayed as crows, police officers are pigs, and anarchic revolutionaries are reptiles. Bakshi's subversive employment of stereotypes would get him into trouble with his later films, especially 1975's Coonskin, as protestors constantly misinterpreted his racial jabs as racist, rather than satirical.
Of course, some 30 years after its controversial premiere, Fritz the Cat doesn't look nearly so radical. The tagline—"He's X-rated and animated!"—looks more silly than subversive. Yet, despite the somewhat meandering nature of its plot, the film's underlying messages about social hypocrisy on all levels still has a strong bite to it, and it remains one of the more creative and daring forays in feature-length animation.
Copyright © 2001 James Kendrick
Overall Rating: (3)
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