The Twin Geeks 157: Ralph Bakshi – X-Rated, Animated, & Complicated, Part 1

With the death of the Haye’s Code in the late 1960’s and a dearth of new movies from the Disney Corporation’s homogenous stranglehold over the field of animation, the time was right for new players to take up the field, carving out a unique landscape in cinema which was not only varied in its style and artistic voices, but in its audiences as well. The leader of this pack was a Jewish animator from a historically Black neighborhood in Brooklyn — two informative elements of Bakshi’s past which would inform much of his earliest work in feature film. He cut his teeth in television, working on a variety of serialized cartoons with an emphasis on slapstick and comedy, honing his skills for the eventual day he would aim to apply these sensibilities beyond the limited scope of children’s entertainment.

Those ambitions culminated in the first animated film to receive an X Rating: 1972’s Fritz the Cat, an adaptation of Robert Crumb’s provocative comic strip satire of the same name. It was the first of several X-Rated animated films Bakshi would make, each building off the low-budget, underground, urban aesthetics inherent to the director’s innate sensibilities. His art would perpetuate a propensity for lewdness, feature excesses of nudity and violence as a means of not only challenging audiences’ preconceptions of what animation could and should be, but also as a means of harkening back to the medium’s origins, where titillation and subversion were primary appeals of the animated form. Bakshi would go on to apply his inherently transgressive sensibilities to more conventional animated avenues, brightening up the fantastical worlds of Wizards (1977) and an innovative adaptation of The Lord of the Rings which would impress itself as a vital influence on the later definitive interpretations of Peter Jackson.

While certainly popular in his time, Bakshi always struggled to get his films made. Even in their most broadly appealing form, each were distinctive counter culture works, challenging the viewer to engage with Bakshi’s vision on both visual and thematic levels at every turn. They are not always easy works to swallow — Bakshi’s fearlessness when it comes to depicting racial caricatures as a means of uncomfortable satire and cultural reflection has never been unanimously received — but that willingness to challenge viewers continues to make him a fixture of cinematic interest. Though the craft is often crude, for any number of different reasons, Bakshi’s works endure as distinct, innovative cornerstones in the canon of feature animation.

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