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.”