Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Importance of Ralph Bakshi

It is easy to forget that there are real artists who take enormous risks to create quality animation.  That is mainly because in good animation feels real, it envelops you in the world of the characters and you forget that someone created this.  Over the next few days I will be chronicling some important figures in animation who have contributed enormously to the art form.

One of the names most familiar to fans of American animation is that of Ralph Bakshi.  He may not be as well known today, but Bakshi is the one who really pushed the idea that animation can do anything. He was a pioneer in adult animation and took some risks on some incredibly controversial films.  He also really perfected independence and quality outside of the studio system.  Bakshi was ahead of his time and was a voice that the animation industry really needed in the doldrums of its dark age.

Terrytoons (1957-1967)
This influential animator got his start at one of the least creative studios in the Golden Age of Animation.  That is not a slam on Paul Terry's studio, it was not trying to change the industry it was trying to make a buck off of serviceable cartoons.  Bakshi worked his way up from polishing cells to directing Sad Cat shorts.  At Terrytoons Bakshi pitched a series to CBS, The Mighty Heroes.  The Mighty Heroes stood out as having better humor and quality than most of the assembly line cartoons of the 1960s.  Bakshi even became head of Terrytoons for eight months before it was shut down.  Bakshi find work on the TV series Rocket Robin Hood and Spider-Man.

Fritz the Cat (1972)
Bakshi's breakthrough and most important achievement was Fritz the Cat, an adaptation of Robert Crumb's comics.  The production had an incredibly tight budget, but it was worth it.  The movie, which was marketed towards an exploitation audience, became the most successful animated independent film of all time.  The movie received an X-rating, although as Mark Hamill says on the film, "there are worse things on Family Guy."  There is plenty of controversy surrounding the film and many in the animation industry did not respect Bakshi for his "filth."  But a cartoon that was just for adults was huge step forward for an industry that was only cranking out uninspired and unartistic distractions for children.  The adult animated features that followed have not received nearly as much success, but this did create the adult animation industry and was a risk that animation needed to take.

More Adult Feature Films (1973-1982)
The next movies made were for similar adult audiences.  They did not reach the same levels of success and had varying levels of critical reception, but it shows Bakshi's dedication, experimentation and artistic voice.  Heavy Traffic, a tale of inner city New York, was released in 1973 with an X rating was a huge critical success.  The movie was based on Bakshi's own experiences.  Coonskin was a gritty take on Uncle Remus' that was a statement about racism.  The movie was very controversial and misunderstood by many in its intentions, but it remains Bakshi's favorite film.  Hey Good Lookin' had a troubled production and was not released until 1982 although production began in 1973.  His final animated feature for adults was 1981's American Pop, which he utilized the process of rotoscoping to create.

Fantasy Adventures (1977-1983)
Bakshi really branched out by creating three fantasy films.  Bakshi wanted to make a family feature that could carry the same impact as his adult movies.  He utilized rotoscoping to animate these movies.  The first was an original futuristic fantasy Wizards (1977).  This was followed by Lord of the Rings (1978), the very first adaptation of Tolkien's books and the one that introduced Peter Jackson to the franchise.  Then the cult classic barbarian movie Fire and Ice came in 1982, based on the art of Frank Frazetta.  None of these movies received much financial success or critical acclaim.  The process of rotoscoping was criticized by some in the industry as Bakshi was only teaching his animators how to "trace."  It is interesting to note that these and other high fantasy movies of the eighties (such as Last Unicorn and Black Cauldron) all struggled with maintaining quality and finding audiences.  People seem to be more accepting of a lesser feature when it is live-action.  

Television (1987-1989)
Bakshi produced one of the most important TV cartoons of al times, Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures, an update of the classic Terrytoons character.  The cartoon featured an incredible staff, including John Kricfalusi, who would later create Ren and Stimpy.  This series was leagues ahead in terms of quality of other cartoons of the eighties and the animation industry took notice.  However the series sparked controversy with a mother who did not like Bakshi's previous career with adult entertainment which unfortunately caused CBS to cancel the series.  Bakshi also created a pilot that aired on Nick at Nite, Christmas in Tattertown (1988) and directed an episode of PBS's Imaging America (1989).  Bakshi then directed a TV special based on Dr. Seuss's The Butter Battle Book (1989), which Theodore Geisel was heavily pleased with.

Last Days of Coney Island (2014)
Bakshi's final animated movie was Cool World which was released in 1991 and suffered from a lot of studio interference.  Bakshi worked sporadically after that, but he had essentially retired.  Currently Bakshi is working on a project that has been long in development called The Last Days of Coney Island.  The movie is being funded through a successful Kickstarter campaign.

Ralph Bakshi has a varied career with many ups and downs, but he definitely has never been afraid take risks.  He is a figure that is hard to ignore.  He is outspoken and committed to his art.  He changed the way that people saw animation with Fritz the Cat and pushed the animation renaissance forward with Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures.  Ralph Bakshi never let others dictate what he could do, he made the animation industry take things on his term.  Cartoons are better because of him.

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