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BOOK REVIEW

No new light shed on Bakshi's dark animation

Unfiltered The Complete Ralph Bakshi Jon M. Gibson and Chris McDonnell Universe: 280 pp., $40; illustrated

June 26, 2008|Charles Solomon | Special to The Times

IT'S strange to recall that during the early 1970s Ralph Bakshi was hailed as the filmmaker who would revitalize the American animated feature. Thirty-five years later, except for "Fritz the Cat" (1972) and the cult favorite "Wizards" (1977), Bakshi's films are largely forgotten. Contemporary directors look to Walt Disney, Hayao Miyazaki and the Pixar artists for inspiration rather than to the creator of "American Pop" and "Cool World."

Bakshi's career, which has had more ups, downs and hairpin turns than a roller coaster, is overdue for a serious examination. "Unfiltered" is not that book. Compiled by two avowed fans with heavy input from Bakshi and his family, it's a sloppily written paean that reads like the product of a vanity press.

Throughout his career, Bakshi has generated controversy. When he and producer Steve Krantz adapted "Fritz the Cat" for the screen, they turned Robert Crumb's satiric portrait of a superficial college student into a gritty, angry, violent film.

American audiences were shocked to see sex, dope and blood in an animated film. Although it did well commercially, Crumb hated the adaptation. In a final comic, he turned Fritz into a decadent Hollywood star, ruthlessly exploited by "Ralphy" and "Stevie" -- caricatures of Bakshi and Krantz. A disgusted ex-girlfriend stabs Fritz with an ice pick ("Another casualty of the 'sixties").

The success of "Fritz" and the semi-autobiographical "Heavy Traffic" (1973) was overshadowed by the furor surrounding Bakshi's third film, "Coonskin." When it previewed at New York's Museum of Modern Art in 1974, representatives from the Congress of Racial Equality objected to its depictions of blacks and disrupted the program. As the controversy over "Coonskin" grew, Paramount dropped the film; Bryanston Films distributed it.

Bakshi still doesn't seem to grasp that in 2008, as in 1974, many African Americans take offense at ugly, thick-lipped caricatures -- and at a white man writing a song titled "Ahm a Niggerman." On "Coonskin's" release in 1975, Time magazine critic Richard Schickel dismissed both the film and the surrounding controversy: "No one who does not wear white sheets in public could intentionally offer such a blatantly distasteful representation of blacks on the screen at this late date and hope to get away with it. Irony was surely intended -- and sorely missed in the end."

According to Jon M. Gibson and Chris McDonnell, though, "Coonskin was a pure Bakshi production -- unhindered, unabashed, and most outstandingly, unapologetic. Because if you ask Ralph, apologies are for someone who did something wrong."

For his most ambitious film, an adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings"(1978) Bakshi used a technique he'd developed on "Wizards." He shot the film in live action, then had his artists copy the figures frame by frame. Bakshi told The Times, "We shot the whole film in live action, with costumes, beards, makeup -- like we were shooting it to be a live-action film. Then I virtually traced every frame of film. Why? To get the total realistic motion that animation has never gotten before. The film is not animated. The film is something else."

"The Lord of the Rings" proved what other animators had learned decades earlier: Tracing live action produces stilted, unconvincing movements. Combining the traced characters with regular drawn animation and reworked high-contrast live-action footage resulted in a visually discordant muddle. Many artists felt Bakshi had turned his back on the art of animation when he used the tracing technique for "American Pop" and "Fire and Ice"; these films, they claimed, were essentially live-action.

Not surprisingly, Gibson and McDonnell tactfully omit mentioning the utter failure of "Cool World" (1992). An animation-live action combination starring Kim Basinger and Brad Pitt, "Cool World" was billed as a racy answer to Disney's "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" Frenetic, incomprehensible and not even vaguely sexy, "Cool World" appeared on many critics' 10 worst lists.

In between "Fire and Ice" and "Cool World," Bakshi did some of his best work on the new "Mighty Mouse" television series, breathing life into the threadbare Terrytoons character. The series was done in by another scandal, this one as undeserved as it was overblown. In an episode titled "The Littlest Tramp," which aired in October 1987, Mighty Mouse sadly sniffed up the desiccated remains of a flower that Polly Pineblossom had given him. In June 1988, Rev. Donald Wildmon of the American Family Assn. asserted that "The Littlest Tramp" showed Mighty Mouse snorting cocaine. A media kerfuffle ensued, and CBS canceled the series. Ironically, "Mighty Mouse" may well rank as Bakshi's most influential work. It boosted the career of John Kricfalusi, who went on the create "The Ren and Stimpy Show," a series that altered the course of television animation.

Bakshi's "Fritz the Cat" and "Heavy Traffic" opened new areas of content in American animation, but his vision proved too dark, too violent, too ugly and too lacking in taste for many viewers. His work has not aged gracefully and is mostly disregarded at a time when animated features have achieved greater prominence. A thoughtful, balanced study might attract new audiences to Bakshi's films, but a superficial apologia like "Unfiltered" cannot benefit the reputation of the man or his work.

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Charles Solomon is the author of many books, including "Enchanted Drawings: The History of Animation" and "The Disney That Never Was."

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