The Work of Ralph Bakshi: Animation Provocateur

By David Konow

A tribute to the career of one of the great animated film directors, Ralph Bakshi. You may not recognize his name, but you may have seen his groundbreaking films: Wizards, American Pop, Cool World, and the 1978 Lord of the Rings.

Many years back, I interviewed one of my favorite filmmakers, Ralph Bakshi. If you haven't heard of him, you're not alone. The movie he's most well known for was 1992's Cool World, which was misinterpreted by audiences as a Roger Rabbit ripoff. And of course the 1987 Lord of the Rings animated feature, which was an inspiration for Peter Jackson's films. As a lifelong fan of animation, I’ve always loved his work, and have always respected what he’s tried to achieve as an artist, which was not only to push the envelope in terms of subject matter, but to push the technical boundaries of the animated art form. According to the Bakshi, he wanted to “expand the realm of animation and what it’s possibilities were. I was also testing myself and testing the limits of the medium. That was always my goal.”

I also loved the fact that Bakshi wasn’t afraid to stir up trouble with his work, and his movies definitely caused a lot of controversy over the years. His first two features, the big screen adaptation of Fritz the Cat, and Heavy Traffic, were both X-rated when they were first released, and Coonskin, which was later given the less inflammatory title of Street Fight, confronted racism in a way that’s still provocative today.

After years of making what he’s called “mean street” movies that challenged society’s problems, Bakshi turned to fantasy with Wizards, and the animated adaptation of Lord of the Ring. He peaked with American Pop, which traced an immigrant family’s story through nearly a century of modern music. It took nearly twenty years for it to finally be released for home viewing because of the music rights, (Heavy Metal, which was released the same year, had similar issues), but it was really a wonderful treat to be able to see it again after all these years. As a kid, I saw it first run in the theaters, and wasn’t able to catch it again until it played a tiny revival house fifteen years later.

Bakshi’s journey into animation began when he won an art contest in high school, and this lead to a job at Terrytoons, the creators of Mighty Mouse, Heckle and Jeckle, and Deputy Dawg, which was Bakshi’s debut as an animator.

When I asked Bakshi why he became a cartoonist, he said “I think artists are born, not made. Basically, cartooning was the first form of art that I understood as a young child. I loved comic books, I loved comic strips. Comics were my first love, I wasn’t reading them necessarily, I just loved the way they looked. Most inherently, I wanted to draw without even realizing it. Come high school, which was just a few years later, I decided I wanted to be an artist. I wasn’t necessarily drawn to animation, I loved art, painting and drawing. I got a job after high school, those were the days when everyone did not go to college. I won the cartoon medal in high school, industrial arts. It was given by Terrytoons. They sponsored the best cartoonist at graduation. I didn’t think I was the best cartoonist but they gave me the award and they gave me a job in 1956.”

“I worked with Terrytoons for a long time, from ‘56 let’s say to ’66,” Bakshi continued. “There was a lot to learn there. Terrytoons wasn’t Disney, and everybody at Terry Tunes felt second-rate, which was ridiculous. When I showed up at Terry Tunes, all the cartoonists, the animators were in their late fifties, middle fifties, early sixties. These were the guys that started before Disney started. They were a bunch of brilliant cartoonists. They didn’t have as much money to do their films as Disney, and they were much more relaxed because they didn’t think they were going anywhere, they didn’t think they were any god damn good. I’d get into so many arguments with the guys, friendly arguments over Disney, which was a lot of bullshit. Warner Brothers was makin’ the funniest shorts in the world, the Disney shorts couldn’t compare to Warner Brothers.”

"Art is an emotional thing and animation hasn’t even scratched the surface."

“In those days, when you’d walk into an office to sell an animated feature, they’d say: ‘Kid, if your name ain’t Disney then don’t even show up!’ In those days, if you weren’t this myth that Disney had created somehow, which I don’t understand... And I love those guys, don’t get me wrong, more power to them. I’m not putting Walt Disney down, but Jesus did they have everyone conned. In other words, if your name wasn’t Disney, you couldn’t do animation. What?!? And the studios believed that! Meanwhile, Porky Pig is running around brilliant, there’s other stuff happening."

This was one of the reasons Bakshi was determined to follow his own path. “What’s important is animation has so many more places to go. I don’t see animation being secondary to live action or painting. Art is an emotional thing and animation hasn’t even scratched the surface. Adult animation’s starting to creep to the forefront now. You call it ‘adult’ only to give it a goddamn label, which is stupid at this point. Animation should just be able to be animation. Some pictures are animated and some are shot live. There should be no difference between them."

Because Terrytoons weren’t the top dogs in the business, it gave Baski a sense of freedom to experiment, be himself, and find his own way as an artist. “I made my films,” he says. “I didn’t worry whether I’d sell a lot of toys with it. I just wanted to make it seem funny to the best of my ability. So it gave me a lot of freedom as an artist. At Terrytoons, what you had was a sense of freedom, a sense of experimentation, no big brother lookin’ over your shoulder. I was also able to screw up and not get fired. You could take a chance at Terrytoons and nobody really cared. It was very casual, very informal and I learned a lot. What I also learned was animation was about energy, not necessarily about slickness. We’d all like to have great animation a la Disney, but you also don’t want to lose the heart. I learned it’s more important what you say in animation than how well you animate it.”

Bakshi’s big feature breakthrough was Fritz the Cat, based on the underground Robert Crumb comic. “I was of the age when the underground comics hit,” Bakshi explained. “That was my generation, my period...you knew what was happening in the streets. Robert Crumb’s book was a book I read and in those days you always needed a property. Crumb’s book sold 25,000 copies at that time, but if you had a property in your hands, something you could waive in their face, it helps you in a meeting. I’d also had Heavy Traffic written at the time. I loved Fritz, and just like any film director who buys a property, there it was for me to buy and make as a film. Disney would buy fairy tales, he’d buy Pinocchio or Winnie the Pooh. It was traditional in animation to buy a property.”

Both movies were rated X, and part of the reason Bakshi felt he got the MPAA’s scarlet letter was because he was viewed as the anti-Disney.

Both movies were rated X, and part of the reason Bakshi felt he got the MPAA’s scarlet letter was because he was viewed as the anti-Disney. “Walt Disney is very American. He cares about kids and he cares about values. Now here comes some son of a bitch, anti-Disney pornographer to the ratings board with an an adult animated film, and how are we gonna stop this bastard? Everything Disney worked for, Ralph Bakshi’s slapping him in his face.”

At the MPAA screening, the minute a character uttered the word “fuck,” one of the censors announced, “That’s an X!!! That’s it!!! Stop the film!!! That’s an X right there!!!” Bakshi recalls, “I went crazy in the room, they had to throw me out. ‘That’s not an X! That’s an R man!!! R!!! But that’s what happened, the first curse word that got through the screen, I got an X. They were gonna X me before I stepped through the door with the movie.”

Still, both films were financially successful, and the X ratings probably only helped at the box office. Where Bakshi ran into further trouble was with Coonskin, which was barely released because the distributors got cold feet. It’s still a provocative film to this day, and I can recall some very uncomfortable silences in the audience when I saw it at a revival screening years ago. Like South Park, Coonskin is irreverent, making fun of a lot of racial stereotypes, but the movie doesn’t tell you where it’s okay to laugh. Ultimately you realize it’s a litmus test about racism, and in creating the film, Bakshi was questioning his political correctness as well.

“I have a tremendously large black following because I would tell them the truth and I’d kid around with them,” Bakshi says. “And what is Spike Lee doing differently than the early films that I did? I could animate any one of Spike Lee’s films. I am discussing racism and I am discussing racists. I am discussing revolution and I am discussing the fact that there are a lot of black revolutionaries that took money from different organizations and never put it back into the ghetto. I was discussing the mafia, I was discussing racist white cops. There was a whole range of discussion. I was doing political cartoons. If I’m doing a bitch about a racist, that doesn’t mean I’m a racist. That’s the other thing they tried to get me (with). They couldn’t get (me) for the ratings, so they came at me with that bullshit.

“I grew up in Brownsville Brooklyn with all these racists around me,” Bakshi continues. “I’d sit with my friends, I’d watch the peace marches down South, they’re letting dogs go on black guys. I’m watching it and I’m angry, but I don’t know if I’m angry enough, you know what I’m saying? With that movie, I was looking into my own racism. I was checking out and showing black people how we feel at times. In other words, I was exploring the roots of racism in myself. It was, in a way, also exploring or exorcising my demons. I came out of that picture very culturally correct. I faced the fact that I wasn’t a racist but I also faced the fact that at times, I let the black people down by not screaming enough. All my films were, in those days, explorations, as any artist should, to find out what the truth is.”

Where Bakshi also came under fire was for rotoscoping animation, a technique where live actors are filmed as a guide. The animators trace over the live action, which makes the animation seem more life like, but Bakshi was criticized for it because some considered it cheating.

“You needed live action to assist the (animators) which by the way,” Bakshi says. “This was no big secret to the guys at Disney who never admitted it. All of the realistic characters in all of their films, starting with Snow White, was all live action shots to aid the animators, they just never told anyone, so the poor animators all over the world kept thinking that they were second rate compared to the Disney animators. How did the Disney animators get so good? They had live action references. And then it was used against me as some form of (cheating). Night on Bald Mountain from Fantasia was a live actor. Might of been Boris Karloff himself. Snow White was live with the prince, Sleeping Beauty was shot entirely live. Max Fleischer might have really invented it. I think his Ko Ko the Clown was live action, I’m not sure.”

Baskhi was able to combine live action and animation to great effect in Wizards, which came out right before Star Wars in 1977. Wizards is a major geek favorite today, and after years of making what he called “mean street” films, Bakshi was ready for a change. “I love science fiction,” he says. “You had to love science fiction to grow up in the fifties. Science fiction and fantasy is part of any cartoonist’s life, it’s not alien to them, and I wanted to do a fantasy. I wanted to do something else. Wizards was a great love of mine, I just didn’t want to continue in the streets. Why would I want to keep making the same picture over and over again? It was nothing more than that. That’s another reason why animation works on so many levels.”

Then came Lord of the Rings, which was in all likelihood may still be the longest animated feature ever made at 131 minutes. “My first cut was three hours,” Bakshi says. “I got carried away but that’s easy when you got guys riding horses! You just have them take a coupla more turns around the block (laughs)!”

Bakshi was averaging one movie a year, “Lightning fast, too fast,” he says. “I didn’t have any money. The budgets were low because there was no money. Fritz the Cat cost $750,000, Heavy Traffic was about $850,000, Wizards was $1.1 million, Lord of the Rings was $8 million, and American Pop was $4 million. Those were the ranges.”

Bakshi peaked with American Pop, an epic story of an immigrant coming to America, and how his family all tried to make it as musicians. After many generations pass, one finally succeeds, and the music of the decades tell the history of America.

“With American Pop, I wanted to tell a bigger story than I’d been telling, something more universally American. Being an immigrant’s son, which I am, and sitting in Hollywood in a major animation studio which I owned, I also wanted to show that anything is possible in this country if you stick at it. I was trying to explore what we are as Americans. I lived through those movements. The forties, the fifties and the sixties were my time.”

At first, American Pop opened slowly in the big cities, which was a common release pattern then for a major movie, then you were supposed to go into the suburbs, then finally the second run theaters and drive-ins. Back in the ‘70’s when a movie like The Godfather opened, you had to travel into the city to see it first run before it played everywhere else.

“We opened it very smartly,” Bakshi says. “We opened it in major cities only, in one or two theaters which is the right way to open an art film and let the word of mouth spread. Packed houses around the clock, I mean you couldn’t get in any of the theaters. Now, Columbia goes the other way. They said, ‘Oh my God, this picture’s a monster. Let’s release it in a thousand theaters.’ I said, ‘Wait a minute...you haven’t prepared the theaters, you haven’t prepared the advertising. Let the word of mouth grow, you’ll get there.’ ‘Ralph, you don’t know anything about business, sit down.’ Two weeks after it’s initial opening to packed houses in the major cities, they released it to the suburbs, my mother’s house, the garage and basement, everywhere they could. The picture died. Packed houses around the clock in every theater it opened! Rave reviews! Vincent Canby called it a masterpiece, the best reviews I ever got in my life. And it was going to be a smash, but they played it wrong. They got greedy.”

Then there were the music rights, which held up the movie from having a second life on home video for nearly twenty years. Bakshi recalls, “The picture’s finished, I’m sitting on all this music, which all the musicians gladly gave me, which I thought was remarkable. We’re sitting at a major meeting at Columbia and one of the lawyers stands up and says: ‘You know, for an extra $1,200 a song, we can have the music forever past the theatrical release.’ Someone else says, ‘What are we gonna pay that kind of money for?” That was an extra $30,000 in the film. I get up and say, ‘Well maybe they’ll want to play it on the moon one day...’ ‘Sit down Ralph! This is no time for jokes!’ And they passed. This was before the video explosion and they passed. They didn’t pay the extra money.

“Now comes the video explosion and three years later the guys call me in a panic. They want to release the film on video but the songs went from $1,200 to $25,000 a piece! So they said: ‘Ralph buddy! (laughs) Ralph baby! Let’s go have lunch! We gotta throw all this music out of the picture, re-record it and get this picture off to video.’ Luckily I had the right to final cut and I didn’t want to throw the music out. What’s American Pop without pop music? They went back and forth and every couple of years they’d call me and I wouldn’t let them replace the music.”

As Bakshi would later lament, “That’s how it’s been in my life. These problems, no other director in the world would have. I was very lucky to have made the films with what the major studio attitude was about animation. That should give you a feeling what I was up against. If there was a live action picture called American Pop in those days starring Harrison Ford or Paul Newman, don’t you think they would of put the extra $1,200 a song into it? Of course they would. But they didn’t want to bother with animation.”

While Bakshi hasn’t made a new movie since the ‘90’s, he launched a successful Kickstarter earlier this year to fund a short film project called The Last Days of Coney Island, which is expected to be completed in the next few months. His spirit and attitude also live on through other animation provocateurs like Seth McFarlane, Trey Parker, and Matt Stone. It’s remarkable that they can get away with murder every night on television, while Bakshi had to struggle for his vision, but it shows you how far animation has come since then, and we have Bakshi to thank for breaking new ground in this regard.

“My problem was I had a big mouth,” he reflects. “If I was more quiet and shucking and jiving, people would have left me alone. I’m usually fighting back, which is a mistake. These were the kind of battles I fought. But I’ve been very, very lucky. I feel I’ve been vindicated. But you know, I never went for the largest audiences in the world. I was never the kind of director that says unless the whole world loves it, you’re a failure. I went for very personal audiences in those days. I don’t know how I talked them into making the films to begin with.”