Bakshi continued his pursuit of avante-garde animation throughout the 1980s. His refinement of rotoscoping as a means of perfecting the fluid translation of human movement continued into the decade, beginning with American Pop (1981): a jukebox journey through America’s cultural apogee, starting with the sonic roots of vaudeville and ragtime, building towards an electric rock ‘n roll climax through the eyes of four musicals generations. 1982 saw the release of a project Bakshi first began after the production of Cookskin (1975). Hey Good Lookin’ was originally envisioned as an animation/live-action hybrid, but was scrapped by Warner Bros. after its initial completion when doubts around its financial prospects festered. Bakshi worked on it off and on between his various other projects, eventually releasing it as a completely animated feature, far from the innovative conceit he initially pursued.
With Fire and Ice (1983), Bakshi collaborated with legendary comic artist Frank Frazetta in order to ride the wave of popular sword and sorcery films kicked off the previous year by Conan the Barbarian. Bakshi returned to the reliable shorthand of rotoscoping in order to effectively convey the requisite amount of action the film’s story called for. Despite failing to capitalize on the market’s purported success for these kinds of films, Fire and Ice eventually found a cult following in the home video market, maintaining a niche fanbase to this day. After that, Bakshi shifted his priorities back to television, heading a revival for the old Terry Toons creation Mighty Mouse, coming full circle to the place he began in the industry. It was nearly another decade before Bakshi made another feature film — his last, in fact, for both the animated medium and the silver screen.
Cool World (1992) was Bakshi’s most ambitious and star-studded film, bringing with it a greater wave of scrutiny than any of his previous underground works had ever received. With big names like Brad Pitt and Kim Basinger attached, along with the publicity power of Paramount Pictures in tow, Cool World was positioned to be the most commercially viable film of Bakshi’s career. That’s probably one of the biggest factors that led to its ultimate failure, alongside studio interference curbing Bakshi’s initial vision of hybrid animation/live-action horror film into the more audience-friendly Who Framed Roger Rabbit? riff it finally ended up as. Its wider reach led to greater declamation, and the effective end of his movie-making career. Two years later Bakshi directed a made-for-tv film for Showtime, notable only for its debut of Jared Leto as a leading performer, and for being the only non-animated film of Bakshi’s entire catalogue.
There are plenty of ups and downs to be found through Ralph Bakshi’s storied career. His works are often crudely uneven, and even controversial in their imagery and messaging. But these uncomfortable elements are what ultimately make him a compelling and pioneering figure in film history. Beyond proving a viability for adult-centric animated films which can talk about sex and politics and institutional racism, Bakshi struck out with a unique sensibility for the form itself, combining any and all techniques available to him in order to further his provocative and creative artistic sensibilities. Whether he was drawing from his own life living in impoverished New York slums, or adapting the works of literary titans, Bakshi brought something wholly unique to the animated scene. And despite the relative retirement he presides in now, having been rejected by the movie-going public too often to continue, his work lives on and speaks for itself. There’s a reason Bakshi’s legend lives on, as the field of animation increasingly returns to the homogenous, Disney-centric sensibilities he once railed so thoroughly against. Despite consistent flaws, Bakshi’s work maintains a uniquely subversive quality which resonates some thirty years past his last theatrical contribution to the medium.
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