The success of the X-rated Fritz finally led Bakshi to the creative freedom he had been seeking, and his next films would be even more personal and imaginative.
They included Heavy Traffic (1973), a loosely structured story of a depressed New Yorker who finds refuge in his cartooning (even better than Fritz the Cat); Coonskin (1975), an urban take on Uncle Remus that satirizes the experience of black Americans; Wizards (1977), Bakshi’s first fantasy feature and his first attempt at something kid-friendly; The Lord of the Rings (1978), the largely rotoscoped adaptation of the beginning of J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic story; American Pop (1981), the rhythmically charged chronicles of four generations of characters which also chronicled four generations of 20th century American music; Hey Good Lookin’ (1982), the 1950’s Brooklyn-set passion project Bakshi had been developing for years; and Fire and Ice (1983), Bakshi’s fantasy collaboration with artist Frank Frazetta, which Bakshi treated as the epic finale in his line of feature films.
Indeed, Bakshi was burned out in the ’80s. He had a prolific and creative mind, but he had worked non-stop since Fritz the Cat and was drained of energy. Not surprising since none of his eight feature films were ever released more than three years apart for a decade straight.
He didn’t remain stagnant for long. By the eighties, Ralph Bakshi had a reputation as a creative and cool artist thanks to his daring animated films, and that invited collaborations with people like The Rolling Stones, whose manager called Bakshi in 1985 to animate a music video for their hit single “Harlem Shuffle.”
This was where Bakshi first worked with John Kricfalusi, creator of The Ren & Stimpy Show, with whom Bakshi would have significant success collaborating with before decade’s end.
The experience on “Harlem Shuffle” cemented Bakshi’s relationship with the like-minded young Kricfalusi, and other animators besides Kricfalusi who came straight out of art school and who worked with Bakshi around this time would also go on to find tremendous success in the animation industry. These animation all-stars included Bruce Timm (Batman: The Animated Series), Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo, WALL-E), Jim Reardon (The Simpsons), Jeff Pidgeon (Monsters, Inc.) and Dave Marshall (The X’s).
Many of these people would work with Bakshi and Kricfalusi on a television series that was important in the history of animation.
Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures (1987, CBS) would take Bakshi full circle back to the character he used to animate back in his Terrytoons days, only this was not a typical show. It was very different from other Saturday morning fare like The Smurfs and He-Man. This new Mighty Mouse show was actually very funny and it evoked the spirit of classic Looney Tunes cartoons better than any other animated series on television.
Mighty Mouse was a critical success, but it was short-lived. It was a bit too irreverant compared to what CBS was expecting, but it was the first animated series of its kind, paving the way for more creative cartoons like The Ren & Stimpy Show, SpongeBob SquarePants and Adventure Time.
Other things Ralph Bakshi worked on include the 1988 Nickelodeon TV special Christmas in Tattertown, the “This Ain’t Bebop” episode of PBS series Imagining America, a 1989 adaptation of Dr. Seuss book The Butter Battle Book (which Dr. Seuss liked), and another feature film called Cool World (1992).
Ever since he stopped working on feature films in the eighties, Bakshi had focused more on expressing his art through painting and less on animation (which he continues to do to this day), but when he came up with the idea for Cool World, he decided to pitch it to Paramount.
The movie was about a cartoonist played by Brad Pitt who enters the animated world that he created and gets seduced by a cartoon woman who wants to be real.
Cool World failed with both critics and audiences, but Bakshi was not the only person to blame for the film’s poor performance, especially since the movie he pitched to Paramount was very different from the movie that ended up on the screen.
Originally it was a horror film about a cartoonist, a cartoon woman, and their hybrid love child who tries to murder the cartoonist, and it was intended as an R-rated film, but Paramount insisted on a PG-13 rating, which completely altered the story. Overall Bakshi’s experience making the film was not fun, and his vision was once again being suppressed by interfering film executives.
He didn’t have luck in television either. HBO’s Spicy City, a futuristic and gritty adults-only animated series (it pre-dated South Park as the first one) had mixed reviews but decent ratings. Unfortunately it only lasted one six-episode season because Bakshi refused to fire his writing team and replace them with professional L.A.-based writers like HBO wanted.
Bakshi didn’t work in animation for a long time since then, focusing mainly on his paintings (which ended up in the movie Vanilla Sky, by the way. Apparently Cameron Crowe and Tom Cruise weren’t happy with the paintings they had and someone recommended Bakshi as a replacement).
Bakshi didn’t have the energy to fight studios over his artistic vision anymore, although most studios these days wouldn’t even bother buying his films.
The last film he made was the 2015 animated short Last Days of Coney Island, which was an idea rejected by every animation studio from Pixar to DreamWorks. He got it funded on Kickstarter (an idea from Bakshi’s son Edward Bakshi), which gave him unprecedented freedom. The gritty 22-minute short was released on Vimeo on Bakshi’s 77th birthday for the purchase price of $3.99 and later for free on YouTube.
As a fan of many adult-oriented animated productions such as South Park, Sausage Party and the entire Adult Swim schedule, I have tremendous respect for and gratitude towards Ralph Bakshi for opening the door to what was possible in a medium that to this day still gets unfairly classified as a medium for kids.
Pioneers are the people who go through the most struggles, but they also have the most perserverance. Bakshi’s spirit, and his passion for animation, has changed the face of entertainment, and just like the timeless sentimentality of Walt Disney and the ageless humor of Looney Tunes, the films of Ralph Bakshi are just as thought-provoking, and even as shocking, as they were when they were first released.