Animation has an unfair reputation as a kids’ medium, and animator Ralph Bakshi understands this better than most people. He has also done more to break that myth than any other director. He may be the first successful independent animator. His films terrified distributors, but they have a cult following among film and animation fans.
Bakshi’s family immigrated to America in 1938 and lived in gritty Brownsville, New York in central Brooklyn. Bakshi has described his family as “dirt poor,” but his childhood was actually far from terrible. Despite some myths about his upbringing, he had a loving family and found the city fascinating.
Bakshi always loved comics, but after finding the Complete Guide to Cartooning by Gene Byrnes at the local public library, it finally occurred to him that he could make a living drawing.
He got accepted into Manhattan’s School of Industrial Arts and focused all his time on his cartooning and illustration classes, finally graduating in 1956.
Fellow classmate Cosmo Anzilotti was planning to work at Terrytoons, the animation studio known for Mighty Mouse, Heckle and Jeckle, and Tom Terrific, and he recommended Bakshi to the production manager. Even though the trip from Brooklyn to New Rochelle was a long commute, Bakshi didn’t think twice. He loved cartooning, and he was one of the hardest workers at the studio, going from cel painter to animator to director on shows like The Deputy Dawg Show and shorts starring cartoon characters like Sad Cat and James Hound.
Bakshi even saved the studio at one point by pitching the TV show The Mighty Heroes right before CBS was going to cut ties with them, after which he was promoted to creative director.
The hero status and the promotion was great, but the job title of “creative director” did not entail as much freedom as one might assume. The Terrytoons studio was very assembly-line (as was Hanna-Barbera and every other TV animation studio), and the job consisted mainly of trying to salvage second-rate scripting, storyboarding and voice acting.
As a result, even though The Mighty Heroes was successful, Bakshi wanted to leave Terrytoons and try to make it on his own so that he could have more creative freedom.
Luckily, this was around the time Paramount fired animator Shamus Culhane and was in need of someone to head their cartoon studio, which was founded as Famous Studios by Max and Dave Fleischer, the brothers behind the Betty Boop and Popeye shorts.
Bakshi had a great reputation and was quickly hired. Now he was a producer! And he was still in his twenties!
Shorts he directed, wrote, produced and designed at Paramount include The Fuz, Mini-Squirts, Marvin Diggs and Mouse Trek.
What Paramount didn’t tell Bakshi was that they only intended to keep him on as a holdover guy, and his gig only lasted eight months. But that didn’t stop Bakshi’s determination. He took every animation gig that was available, even if he had to travel to Canada.
His production company finally gained traction when he accepted the animated Spider-Man TV series which ran from 1967 to 1970, but just like at Terrytoons, the assembly line nature of TV animation was tedious. The budget was also extremely low, meaning Bakshi had his work cut out for him making an action show about one of the most acrobatic superheroes.
When Bakshi began production on his first feature film, Fritz the Cat (1972), he would not be held back by censors.
Based on the comic by R. Crumb, the X-rated Fritz the Cat was an animated movie like no other. The voice acting was realistic, the comedy was irreverant, the writing had depth, the directing was imaginative, the violence was brutal, the portrayal of New York was authentic, and the sex scenes are some of the most graphic in cinema history to this day!
Ralph Bakshi was completely fearless in his portrayal of this subject matter, leading Warner Bros. to instantly drop distribution after viewing it, but it became the most successful indie film at the time, earning rave reviews from Rolling Stone and The New York Times, and even being accepted into the Cannes Film Festival!
The film spoke to young people who had experienced the tumult of the previous decade and were ready for an animated film that they could relate to.