Cinophile: FRITZ THE CAT

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“As a writer and poet it is my duty to get out there and dig the world… to swing with the whole friggin’ scene while there’s still time!”

So starts the adventure of one of moviedom’s most memorably animated experienced. Fritz The Cat is that movie you either know or you should really find a copy of. It’s a historical document, a political statement, a hedonist manifesto and the movie that changed animation forever…

It’s also just plain crazy fun. While the films initial marketing has still left it with the sheen of an animated porno, this is not the case at all. Yes, there is nudity and a bit of implied sex. But that is not the core of this film. Instead it’s about a character getting their head around the turmoil of 1960s America, where free love, rebellion against society and the bonds between America’s different races and classes all changed society.

Fritz is a cat that decides to sidestep his college career and instead go find meaning in the streets of New York. He soon hooks up with a wide range of oddball characters. These include the crows, a metaphor of the Black culture of the day, and a few tangles with the police, portrayed as pigs. The white middle class tend to appear as cats. Eventually Fritz’s journey takes him as far as meeting true revolutionaries, not to mention the violence that bubbled under those remarkable times.

This column has covered Ralph Bakshi’s movies before, specifically Fire & Ice. That was a more friendly collaboration with famed fantasy artist Frank Frazetta. Fritz The Cat was also based on previous material, namely the comics by underground comic legend Robert Crumb. But the two never saw eye to eye: Crumb hated the movie and accused Bakshi of hijacking it with his own ideas about the Sixties.

You can see some of that play out – the movie isn’t nearly as pro-radical as Crumb was. Yet at the same time this isn’t a mere adaptation, but also a calling card for Bakshi’s ambitions to break animation free from the child-orientated Disney and Warner Bros pigeonhole it found itself in. That ambition can be found with all of his movies, but Fritz The Cat succeeds most and has become a cult classic because of this.

That said, a lot of effort went into reflecting Crumb’s style and perhaps the hijacking accusations aren’t really fair. Bakshi did a lot of work making art that mirrored Crumb’s style, apparently impressing the cartoonist to some extent, and even the backgrounds were drawn with the same art tools so as to closely mimic Crumb’s work.

Whatever the animosity, Fritz The Cat went on to be a big indie hit, making around $100 million worldwide. It was to be Bakshi’s most successful film and the only animated adaptation of Crumb’s work – if you don’t count American Splendour. A sequel, The Nine Lives of Fritz The Cat, was later made, but it didn’t involve either of the two men and would bomb badly.

Animated movies from the sixties, seventies and eighties that didn’t come from Disney or guys like Don Bluth can be hard to watch. But any fan of the format can’t call themselves that until they have seen this remarkable and utterly iconoclastic piece of animation history.

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Ralph Bakshi was eager to make his mark as an animation director, but had a hard time getting funding for his project Heavy Traffic. After reading a Fritz The Cat graphic novel, he proposed doing an adaptation. Still, this irked Bakshi somewhat as he had spent the previous ten years at studios drawing animated character like Mighty Mouse and wanted to make human characters.
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Fritz The Cat was the first animated feature film to get an X-rating in the U.S. Contrary to the outrage that would cause today, the film’s distributors jumped on it with tagline such as “90 minutes of violence, excitement, and SEX…he’s X-rated and animated!” It even saw a bunch of lower-grade, actual animated porno films being brought in from Europe and Japan by competitors. But the film’s creators hated this marketing angle as it didn’t sell what the film really was about. They tried to appeal the rating, but the MPAA refused to hear the case.
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The movie is based on a series of comics created by the famed Robert Crumb. He didn’t want to sign over the rights, so his first wife – who had a stake in it – did. Crumb would later became a pain for the film’s makers and Ralph Bakshi said he was very “slick,” always getting what he wanted. Later Crumb would disown the film and kill the character Fritz in a comic, detailing how he had been ruined by fame.
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Some of the dialogue were from actual New Yorkers recruited on the street. One scene in a Harlem dive bar featured improvised dialogue from Black Power militants. The movie’s colourful and controversial characters shocked many people, including studio executives paying for the project. It would be accused of being pornographic, racist, sexist and even counter-revolutionary. But the outcome was a film now widely regarded as breaking the mould of animation and presenting it as something more than fantasy yarns for kids. Bakshi was quite proud of the outrage it caused, noting that people were getting upset as if it was a live-action movie. Fritz The Cat would also become the most successful independent animated feature to date, making around $100 million worldwide.

 Cinophile is a weekly feature showcasing films that are strange, brilliant, bizarre and explains why we love the movies.

Last Updated: May 25, 2015

James

A total movie glutton, nothing is too bad or too obscure to watch, unless it's something like The Human Centipede. If you enjoyed that, there is something wrong with you. But bless you anyway - even video nasties need love...

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