An industrial school graduate who got his start in the animation business at the age of 18 cleaning dust off of painted cels, Ralph Bakshi doesn’t immediately spring to mind when thinking about the cowboy auteurs who birthed the New Hollywood movement of the late 1960s and 1970s. But within the confines of feature animation, he starts to resemble a Coppola or a Scorsese: a larger-than-life visionary who used his medium to document his own obsessions and hang-ups, and pushed his field in the direction of gritter, more adult storytelling.
Bakshi burst into the public consciousness with 1972’s Fritz the Cat, an X-rated tale of urban-dwelling anthropomorphic animals that established the viability of “cartoons” for mature audiences. Over time, he began to flirt with mainstream success, perhaps achieving his greatest notoriety by adapting roughly half of The Lord of the Rings trilogy in 1978. The failure of 1992’s Brad Pitt-starring Cool World led Bakshi to quit Hollywood, though he still continues to work: earlier this year, he took to Kickstarter to help fund his first new film in more than two decades, The Last Days of Coney Island.
In between those points of entry and exit, however, lies much of Bakshi’s most interesting work. His oeuvre paints the portrait of a quintessential artist, consumed by his passions and the unrelenting tension between the personal fidelity of his work and the need to court commercial interests. Ultimately, Bakshi’s greatest strength and his Achilles heel were one and the same – whatever the charge, he always crammed as much of himself into a project as possible.
A wildly grotesque, out-of-control portrait of urban life, Heavy Traffic (1973) could be the most determinedly unpleasant cartoon ever made. It’s also one of the most personal, and an obvious labor of love for Bakshi – the film he was born to make. In the film, a Bakshi avatar – a struggling cartoonist named Michael – wanders out of his parents’ house and around New York City, seeking money, companionship, and sex, not necessarily in that order. In this gritty, decaying landscape full of freaks and lowlifes, he hooks up with Carole, an African-American bartender whose race and demeanor upsets Michael’s bigoted father, a low-level Mafioso, who plots to murder his son and preserve his twisted sense of family honor.
Much like Fritz the Cat, the X-rating of Heavy Traffic is like a badge of honor. Its cavalier depiction of violence is unsetting, with acrobatic fistfights like something out of Looney Tunes, only queasier. One particular scene sends a self-loathing transvestite caroming around a bar; in another, a naked women is shoved off a rooftop, the “punchline” being that she’s saved by a tangle of electrical wires. The movie’s, ahem, complex relationship with good taste also extends to sex, but it’s more focused on the frustration of the virginal Michael and his inability to get laid. Not that Heavy Traffic condones the behavior it depicts – in the end, it’s a metaphorical fantasy of city living, massive warts and all – and an exercise in pure id. As Bakshi and his crew thumb their noses at society’s self-filtering mechanisms and behavioral taboos, they create something so misshapen and so wrong that it can’t help but be completely human and alive.
Bakshi takes his first plunge into genre with Wizards (1977), built around a normal swords-and-sorcery template – two warring magicians stage a climactic battle of good against evil – that’s complicated with political undertones and apocalyptic imagery evoking man’s darkest and most violent impulses. In a future where nuclear war has scarred the earth and turned most humans into a race of hideously mutated monsters, there is one enclave where the inhabitants remain unafflicted. Under the watchful eye of Avatar, a kind and generous wizard, they provide a haven for all elves, fairies, and other fantastical creatures. Meanwhile, the evil wizard Blackwolf, having eschewed natural magic in favor of technologically advanced weaponry, dispatches an assassin to kill Avatar while simultaneously planning to invade the unspoiled lands he so covets.
Wizards most resembles a psychedelic road movie as Avatar and his cohorts – buxom half-human/half fairy Elinore, elf warrior Weehawk, and Necron-99, the robot assassin that Avatar enchants and re-dubs “Peace” before it can murder him – spend a good chunk of the film on the run from Blackwolf’s minions. Bakshi augments their hijinks with battle sequences that rely heavily on rotoscoping: a compositing process that utilizes live-action footage that’s then traced over by an animator one frame at a time. The uncannily fluid visuals produced by rotoscoping would a major part of Bakshi’s signature style, but in Wizards it’s almost charmingly primitive and fits the identity of the movie as a bridge between his highly personal, urban-inflected work, and his subsequent forays into more commercial fantasy stories. And while it would be a stretch to call Wizards an unqualified narrative success, it’s an invaluable glimpse into Bakshi’s schizophrenic imagination, combining the dark fantasy of Heavy Metal magazine with the lingering psychological effects of World War II and the Holocaust (Blackwolf hypnotizes his enemies with old Nazi propaganda filmstrips he finds in the post-nuclear rubble) to make a highly conflicted, yet memorable, case for pacifism.
Such personality is absent from Fire and Ice (1983), a failed attempt at launching an epic fantasy franchise with Bakshi’s wilder impulses toned down for a younger audience. Released the same year as the debut of Mattel’s He-Man and the Masters of the Universe cartoon, Fire and Ice is a dull, punchless simulacrum that invites unfavorable comparisons to the toy-centric television series, as well as the adventures of Conan the Barbarian. The similarities to Robert E. Howard’s classic hero make sense, as Bakshi co-created the characters of Fire and Ice with Frank Frazetta, the legendary comic book artist who also illustrated iconic paperback covers for the stories of pulp authors like Howard and Edgar Rice Burroughs. This creative dream team was backed by a script from a pair of equally talented writers: Gerry Conway, co-creator of the Punisher, and Roy Thomas, the first successor to Stan Lee as editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics.
With all of the assembled talent, it’s baffling and painful to watch Fire and Ice struggle to meet the standards of merely diverting entertainment. The movie recycles several elements from Wizards, including the character name “Nekron,” who’s another evil sorcerer leading an army of sub-humans as they try to force their way into a nicer neighborhood. As Fire and Ice is a more commercial endeavor, it loses the idiosyncratic perspective of Bakshi’s earlier films while finding a way to exploit their puerile elements within the boundaries of a PG rating. Unfortunately, sex and violence do not a movie make, and the lasting impression made by Fire and Ice is one of boredom and squandered potential.
Though Bakshi will always be remembered primarily for his envelope-pushing subject matter and visual flair, he also has a case as one of the fathers of the modern movie soundtrack – Heavy Traffic was one the first films (along with American Graffiti, released the same year) to take advantage of what were, at the time, dirt-cheap licensing rates for classic pop songs. By the time he directed American Pop (1981), the practice was increasingly common – and much more expensive – yet Bakshi still had no trouble pulling together almost a century’s worth of popular hits for his multigenerational saga of a Russian Jewish immigrant family making its mark in the music business.