DIRECTOR RETROSPECTIVE: RALPH BAKSHI, PART TWO: 1977-PRESENT

Part I of the Ralph Bakshi retrospective is here.

followed Wizards (1977) with the grandfather of all fantasy narratives: The Lord Of The Rings (1978). With the success of his previous work, Bakshi was given an astronomical budget (in 1978) of four million dollars (the box office take exceeded 30 million). Predictably, J.R.R. Tolkien’s elf fan boys were mighty upset with the news that the man behind that obscene Fritz the Cat would be directing. Per the norm, the fans were wrong when they protested that Bakshi would make a travesty of Tolkien. Actually, Bakshi’s adaptation is largely faithful to the first two books. made his (uncredited) Hollywood debut here as one of the animators. This was also the first animated film that was extensively rotoscoped. A few purists cried foul, but generally, critics and audiences disagreed. Bakshi originally conceived of using a Led Zepplin score for LotR, and one can only wonder how that might have affected the final work. Unfortunately, he could not negotiate rights to the rock band’s music and used Leonard Rosenman instead (a decidedly mediocre film composer).

lord_of_the_rings_bakshiAt the time of its release, LotR was the longest feature-length animated film, with the exception of Fantasia (1940), which originally was a stateside flop. Bakshi and producer Saul Zaentz indeed took a considerable risk, which paid off, at least at the box office. The film was unfortunate to be made during a studio shakeup at United Artists, which resulted in a change of producers midstream and budget cuts, ultimately resulting in an unfinished work (originally, the plan was for a trilogy). The tension shows on screen, and too much is packed into the two-and-a-half hour running time. Minor flaws aside, it’s a beautifully mounted, innovative, ambitious production.

Like Wagner’s Ring Cycle, perhaps a perfect LotR only exists on the printed page. ‘s admirable but too-zealous triptych is plagued with about thirty battle scenes too many and a lot of sickening doe-eyed close-ups of hobbits in the final entry (Jackson did pay homage to Bakshi in several admittedly “lifted” scenes).

Although a few Tolkien fans cried blasphemy because of cuts made in the narrative, Bakshi’s LotR established him as the most innovative big name in animation.

American Pop (1981) was already suggested here. Although rightly praised, it’s prospects for making the List were dismissed, which is an assessment I wholly disagree with. Surreal, psychedelic, and phantasmagorical, Pop startles in its innovativeness. This well-written Western saga covers a family of musicians from the turn of the century until the 1980s. It is a collage of a cultural fantasia, mixing animation, footage from newsreels and documentary films, painting, and still photography. Bakshi’s legacy is in pushing the boundaries of what constitutes both animation and film. Bakshi is a juggernaut here, and American Pop is the most pronounced example of his art, standing as one of strongest examples of experimental American cinema (in either live action or animation). Unfortunately, animated films were in not in vogue during the 1980s, and such a force of innovation predictably confused several critics of the period. American Pop died at the box office, but has rightly become a cult classic.

Hey Good Lookin’ (1982), a coming-of-age tale set in the 1950s, was originally set to follow 1974’s Coonskin, having been started (and finished, at least as Bakshi was concerned) in 1975. In the original, only the main characters were animated, mixed with live action sets and actors. However, Warner Brothers, who were initially enthusiastic, changed their minds a week after the preview, convinced that American audiences would not accept a mix of live action and animation. (This was before 1988’s smash hit Who Framed Roger Rabbit?). After finishing LotR, Bakshi relented and resumed working on it as an entirely animated feature. Back in the familiar terrain of provocative social commentary, Hey Good Lookin’ is one of Bakshi’s least known ultimately underrated films, although it’s not perfect. Warners’ continued tampering with the film (replacing the original ’50s rock soundtrack with an ’80s retro-sounding score), harming it even further.

On the surface, Hey Good Lookin‘ seems to be a nostalgic trip, but as many artists have correctly surmised, nostalgia can often be a harmful crutch. Bakshi knows this, and calls out the inherent racism of a period that many feel would “Make America Great Again.” Naturally, in depicting racist stereotypes, Bakshi was accused of being racist and the film, which received mixed reviews, died quickly at the box office.

Co-produced by fantasy artist Frank Frazetta, Fire and Ice (1983) should have been a hit, which was of course what Bakshi was hoping for after two box office failures. It wasn’t, and proved to be another nail in the artist’s coffin.

Far simpler in plot than previous efforts, Fire and Ice was produced on a reduced budget of 1 million and took in less than half of that.  It is entirely rotoscoped, and reviewers were beginning to sharply criticize the process. Despite a budget which compromised the production, pacing issues, and being aesthetically less ambitious in scale, Fire and Ice still has much to recommend it, including a innovative collaboration between Frazetta and Bakshi. The Limited Edition DVD includes a second disc with a documentary about the late Frazetta, whom Bakshi clearly had immense respect for.

After the failure of Fire and Ice, Bakshi disappeared from the scene until 1987, when he produced and directed many episodes of “Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures.” Like Bakshi’s feature films, the series was highly innovative. Numerous critics noticed this time, and both Bakshi and his work rightly received accolades. Alas—only in America!—it all came toppling down thanks to a vile Methodist pastor and radical right-wing fundamentalist kook (is there any other kind of right-winger or fundie?) Bakshi’s ahead-of-his-time experiments flew right over the head of Puritan neanderthal Rev. Donald  Wildmon, who saw only Satan hisself peering through Bakshi’s flowers, and a mouse wearing underwear. Amazingly, Wildmon actually succeeded in his crusade, threatening sponsors of this “evil cartoon.” After one season, Mighty Mouse, despite having won numerous awards and a large viewer base, was yanked off the air.

Bakshi was well ahead of the game in crafting animation for adults. In 1992, he got his last stab with Cool World, the story of a cartoonist who enters an animated world with a curvy female toon who wants to become real. It was a disaster of the highest order. With the success of Roger Rabbit, Bakshi got the green light to finally direct a live action/animation feature. Unfortunately, and unwisely, Paramount did not follow the lead or model of Touchstone, who actually trusted Robert Zemeckis and left him alone. Paramount executives, under the lead of perennial hack producer Frank Mancusco, Jr. (who gave the world the Friday The 13th series, whether we asked for it or not), were determined to keep the film within a PG rating. Without Bakshi’s knowledge, Mancusco and Paramount commissioned numerous rewrites, cast in the lead (Bakshi wanted , but Mancusco argued that Pitt lacked star potential), sabotaged the editing, and slashed the film’s budget.

Cool-WorldDisgusted with Mancusco’s interferences, Bakshi actually punched his producer in the face. Unfortunately, Mancusco Sr. was the president of the studio. Bakshi was promptly blacklisted (and still is). Despite his attempts to disown the film, Bakshi was solely blamed for the critical panning and box office failure of Cool World. Bakshi has not made a feature film since.

Although the finished film is not quite as wretched as its reputation, it is easily Bakshi’s weakest effort. Tellingly, the film does not feel at all like a Bakshi. Even when Bakshi kept the narrative simple, as he did in Fire and Ice, his films were never as muddled or as crude as Cool World. It does have inspired moments of surrealism, a cool song from and Kim Basinger, who, with Pitt, easily steals the show from Byrne (although some hated both her and her character).

Since 1992, Bakshi has produced a few animated shorts; but essentially, he was forced to retire. Still, he earned a place among the top tier of innovative American filmmakers.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.