By Jerome Reuter
What happens when you combine the twisted world of cartoonist R. Crumb, with the animation of Ralph Bakshi? You get a film that not only becomes an instant cult classic, but one that insights controversy several years after its release. In 1972, that’s precisely what happened. We were given Fritz The Cat, an animated feature that satirized the counter culture, and was the first cartoon to be given an X rating. To this day, this film has a loyal cult following, and a reputation that precedes it in every way possible.
Fritz The Cat is everything that embodies the hedonism of the late 1960’s. It’s exploitive, unapologetic, and mocks the establishment every chance it gets. It’s a story that’s full of sex, drugs, violence, police brutality, and racial tension. In other words, this is the ultimate product of its time A modern film audience might not understand the social dynamics of this film, or fully comprehend the setting in which the events take place. At a time period when social tension was at a boiling point, Bakshi knocked the kettle over, and let the water run all over the kitchen floor.
Fritz serves as the perfect representation for a generation in crisis. More than that, he embodies a youth completely disenfranchised with the status quo. He’s the ultimate anti-hero, the self-absorbed heathen who only thinks of himself. Fritz is also your typical drop out from the flower child era. He’s someone who drifts through life, completely ignorant and oblivious to the consequences of his actions. Much of the storyline for the film is lifted right out of Crumb’s comics, so that should give you an idea of what you’re in for. Bakshi would take several liberties with Crumb’s character and story, resulting in Crumb disowning the film. However, the basic concepts that Crumb’s original ideas set forth are still there.
One of the primary themes found in this film, is Bakshi’s brilliant use of anthropomorphic animal characters. This is something that would grace some of Bakshi’s later works, most specifically the highly controversial Coonskin. This is a brilliant satire of many different ethnicities. At first glance, they almost seem racist. In Fritz The Cat, crows are used to depict African Americans, and they’re heavily modeled after characters you’d see in any Black-sploitation film from the era. (i.e. Dolemite, Superfly, Penitentiary, and even Foxy Brown.) Truth be told, this film doesn’t focus on one ethnic group, or just one aspect of a cultural revolution. Here, he makes fun of everything and everyone who existed during this time period.
In this day and age, something like this would be instantly dismissed as politically incorrect. That’s very understandable, considering today’s modern views on film content. However, it has to be noted that Bakshi leaves no group untouched throughout the narrative. This is essentially a satire of every stereotype, and he leaves no stone unturned. A native of Israel, he even satirizes his own Jewish heritage. In another case of ‘art imitating life’ Bakshi has inner city policemen portrayed as bumbling pigs.
What you’ll find in this film is nothing you won’t come across in any exploitation flick from the time period. Here, it’s just presented in an animated format. This isn’t just a tale of hedonism gone wild, it’s one a bygone era. Does it hold up? Absolutely. Will future generations find Bakshi’s brilliant commentary that lies beneath? That remains to be seen.