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Bakshi's game of cat and mouse

He took heat when he addressed adult themes in animation, a realm thought to belong to kids. Now it's kudos.

April 24, 2005|Susan King | Times Staff Writer

After fighting producers, the studios and even fellow animators for more than 25 years, maverick filmmaker Ralph Bakshi left Hollywood and moved to Santa Fe, N.M., where he has spent the past decade making his living as a painter.

"I was doing adult animation when no one really understood what I was doing," says Bakshi, now 66. "That caused a lot of problems. Everyone understands it now, but in those days, 'Fritz the Cat,' 'Coonskin' and 'Heavy Traffic,' all of those pictures were not understood. Each one was a battle with the studio, and each one was re-edited. I was very happy to have done those films, but there was a lot of aggravation and work."

And he didn't have any protection. "Basically one of the mistakes I made was I both produced and directed, and ran my own company, so there was nowhere for me to go. Ralph Bakshi the director couldn't go to Ralph Bakshi the producer and say, 'I want to spend an extra $100,000 on this scene.' And I had direct contact with the studios, so I would have guys screaming at me, 'You can't do this, you can't do that.' So after 20 or 30 years of that, I thought enough was enough."

When Bakshi abandoned filmmaking, he thought himself a dismal failure. "Let me be clear," he says. "I was self-satisfied, but I didn't think I had done anything that anybody would notice in three or four years. I was pretty depressed when I left."

He credits his daughter Victoria for resurrecting his career. In recent years she has established a website, www.RalphBakshi.com. He reports that she's selling tapes and DVDs of his films, and he's been overwhelmed with letters and e-mails from fans.

Bakshi also is the subject of a retrospective at American Cinematheque at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood and the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica. "Animation A-Go-Go! An In-Person Tribute to Ralph Bakshi" kicks off Friday with 1972's "Fritz the Cat," the first X-rated cartoon, based on R. Crumb's comic creation about a wild and crazy tomcat, and Bakshi's highly personalized follow-up feature, 1973's "Heavy Traffic," focusing on a down-and-out cartoonist.

Cinematheque series

The other films in the three-day series include the 1977 fantasy film "Wizards," his highly controversial 1975 satire "Coonskin," his 1978 version of "The Lord of the Rings" and 1981's "American Pop." Bakshi will be appearing Friday and Saturday at the Egyptian and Sunday at the Aero to answer questions.

Dennis Bartok, head of programming for the Cinematheque and a co-organizer of the tribute, says Bakshi "did for animation what directors like Scorsese, Coppola and Peter Bogdanovich were doing for mainstream movies in the New Hollywood of the late '60s. He was one of the first directors who brought feature-length cartoons into the modern era in terms of dealing with urban settings, graphic language and adult situations."

But the studios didn't see animation as an adult medium, Bakshi says. "In those days, not now, so much of the [animation] industry was against me. I was interfering with their vision of animation, which was, pardon the expression, 'Disney suitable for all ages.' Animation was something holy. I wasn't only fighting the studios, but also the animators and the animation union."

Despite the controversy, Bakshi found first-rate animators to work with him. "The guys who worked for me loved what I was doing. The guys who ended up with me were really behind me. I had animators like Irving Spencer and Virgil Ross and Manny Perez. I had animators who grew up with Warner Bros. and MGM [animation]. I didn't get the 'Nine Old Men' [the nickname of veteran Disney animators], but the guys who came to me were outrageous."

Bartok credits Bakshi, who got his start at Terrytunes Animation Studio, with reinvigorating television animation in the late '80s. "It was assembly-line animation, watered down, and not irreverent or cutting edge. And suddenly Bakshi gets his hands on Mighty Mouse and turns it inside out. What he was doing was making cartoons cartoony," using animation expressively instead of trying to mimic live-action films.

"He had a tremendous impact on younger animators," such as John Kricfalusi of "Ren & Stimpy," who worked with Bakshi on "Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures."

Rappers and black filmmakers, Bakshi reports, still relate to "Coonskin," an outrageous updating of the Uncle Remus story set in a crime-ridden Harlem.

"I had a meeting last week with the Wu-Tang Clan," he says. "They want to do 'Coonskin II' -- seriously. Rappers love it because 'Coonskin' had a very early [form of] rap. I called it shouting because I read in black history slaves used to shout their frustration. Quentin Tarantino did 30 minutes at Cannes on 'Coonskin.' "

Bakshi says he never saw himself as an animation director. "I was a film director who was making movies in animation," he says.

With the renewed interest in his work, Bakshi has decided to return to filmmaking with a project called 'Last Days of Coney Island.' "It's about three perverted love stories, and it's set in the 1940s. It has a lot of music.

"I am financing it myself. I am going to do low-budget animation that is going to make high-budget dollars!"

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

`Animation A-Go-Go!'

An In-Person Tribute to Ralph Bakshi

Where: American Cinematheque at the Egyptian Theatre, 6712 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood; Aero Theatre, 1328 Montana Ave., Santa Monica

When: Friday through Sunday at the Egyptian; Sunday at the Aero

Price: $9

Contact: (323) 466-FILM or go to www.egyptiantheatre.com

Schedule

Friday: "Fritz the Cat," "Heavy Traffic," 7:30 p.m.

Saturday: "Wizards," "Coonskin," 7 p.m.

May 1: "Lord of the Rings," "American Pop," 5 p.m.

May 1 (at Aero): "Fritz the Cat," "Wizards," 5 p.m.

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