For his first film, writer/director Ralph Bakshi decided to do what no one else had ever attempted: to create a feature-length, adult cartoon. The result was Fritz the Cat. Sometimes hilarious, juvenile and downright bonkers, this is a consistently provocative satire on the hedonistic counterculture populating the college halls of New York in the sixties.
Perhaps more infamous for it’s tumultuous production history rather than merits, the titular character was borrowed from the work of underground cartoonist Robert Crumb. Moving the outrageous character from comic strip to the big screen, Crumb was never happy with Bakshi incarnation, resulting in heated arguments, lawsuits and Crumb removing his name from the production altogether.
Hardly with plot, per se, Bakshi situates the foul-mouthed feline Fritz right in the middle of the social turmoil pervading the changing city streets, presenting the character anthropomorphically as a restless college student at NYU who decides to “bug out” and experience everything America has to offer him, which consists primarily of experimenting with sex, drugs, and revolution. Forty years on from it’s release, faux-bohemian Fritz is remarkably similar to the quotidian “hipster” of today. Selfish and misguided, Fritz is equally amusing and annoying, constantly spewing clichéd counterculture platitudes without knowing their true sentiments.
A total phoney, Bakshi’s harshly drawn Fritz is a representation of liberal values gone awry, the antithesis of capitalism, yet still a participant in the regime. The movie makes a strong statement right from the opening sequence, which shows a construction worker pissing from a high-rise scaffold onto a passing by hippie’s head. With exacerbated, cross-species orgies and psychedelic drug binges, Bakshi attacks the hyperbole with unequivocal grotesquerie, leaving you in audible fits of laughter or wincing in discomfort at the change of a frame.
The film is also very interesting as an American artefact. Although paying both homage and parody to the liberal movement, it is very much a product of it, with the film not only the first x-rated animation, but the first to be made independent from studio finance. A fifty-strong army of practitioners created the rough-and-ready animation, with Bakshi heading out onto the streets of downtown NYC to make field recordings with real-life bums, college grads, and family members voicing the praying rabbis. He also uses the convention of animated animals as stand-ins for human characters, taking it to its outer extremes by equating various species with social subcultures. African-Americans are portrayed as crows, police officers are pigs, and anarchic revolutionaries are reptiles or white rabbits.
Aesthetically aged and thematically repetitive over it’s miniature 78 minutes running time, Fritz the Cat underlying messages about social hypocrisy on all levels still has a strong bite to it. It’s South Park for the seventies and remains one of the more creative and daring forays in feature-length animation.
Although obscure, Fritz the Cat is available on DVD in most online stores.
If you’re unaware of Robert Crumb then I can wholeheartedly recommend Terry Zwigoff’s 1994 documentary Crumb, as well as the man’s excellent Kafka comic panels and The Book of Genesis comic book series.