Tag Archives: Ralph Bakshi


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FEATURING: , Philip Michael Thomas, Barry White, Charles Gordone

PLOT: Samson and Preacherman head out on an all-night drive to spring Pappy and Randy from prison; while waiting outside the prison wall, Pappy regales them with the tale of how Brother Rabbit, Brother Bear, and Preacher Fox take Harlem over from the corrupt NYPD and racist Mafiosi.

COMMENTS: Many movies fall into the “they don’t make ’em like they used to” category; Coonskin earns a “there’s is no way they could make this these days” rating. Rarely have I seen a movie filled with so much vitriol, much less an animated film.

Ralph Bakshi is, for lack of a better phrase, altogether something else: an immigrant from Palestine who jammed his fingers on the crackling pulse of American racial discord. Bakshi not only directed and wrote Coonskin, but also penned the lyrics for the eye-wateringly uncomfortable opening song, “Ah’m a Niggerman”–performed masterfully by Scatman Crothers in profile over the opening credits. While Ralph Bakshi may have improved as an animator and storyteller afterwards, in Coonskin he is at his most impressively polemical.

Taking obvious (and unashamed) inspiration from the “Uncle Remus” stories (collected in the late 19th-century by another interloper into Black culture, Joel Chandler Harris), Bakshi sets up a jailbreak framing story. Preacherman (Charles Gordone) and Samson (Barry White) have until dawn to high-tail their Chrysler to the prison holding their friend Randy (Philip Michael Thomas), who awaits them–accompanied by fellow escapee, Pappy (Scat Man Crothers)–at the base of the prison wall. To pass the time, Pappy tells a story about a trio of enterprising Black fellows from Kansas who migrate to Harlem, a supposed Black meccah, to shake off the hayseed racists in their hometown. Once in Harlem they’re disillusioned by faux-militant Black preachers, intimidated by the grotesques of the New York City police department, and harried by a vicious Mafia godfather. Throughout, Miss America cruelly teases, taunts, and tramples on a Black Everyman.

Coonskin is a visually jarring experience, as mid-’70s New York City is overlaid with Warner Brothers’-styled animation and antics. A nasty, bloody bar fight pitting Brothers Rabbit, Bear, and Fox against another Black gang of extortionist thugs has its zany qualities, accompanied by sound effects lifted straight from Looney Toons. There’s an awkward encounter when Brother Bear and his Black lady-friend are approached by two (live-action) whiteys who are just darn pleased that the establishment’s owners have finally allowed Blacks–with their “colorful dress” and everything–into the formerly whites-only restaurant. Visual gags abound during cemetery scenes. And every single stereotype is pushed to the absolute maximum in animation.

The narrative framing device nicely anchors the surreal trips and diversions through which Bakshi drags the viewer. All the vocal (and physical) acting is spot-on, with a genuine feel to it–though I must emphasize that when Bakshi is making a point, the performances have a genuine stereotype feel. Malevolent flights of animated fantasy involving violent hallucinations, exploitative symbolism, and even demonic undertones mix liberally with the social commentary. But Bakshi’s intentions are clear: the 1987 release came with the warning, “This film offends everybody.” Any Blacks, whites, gays, Jews, Italian-Americans, and cops take note: this is hard stuff. This is angry stuff. And Coonskin doesn’t care what you think.


“[Bakshi] seems a little at sea in Coonskin, and his episodes don’t really add up to a coherent whole, but the movie’s filled with vitality and visual exuberance we get a sense of life from the film that’s all the more absorbing because ‘cartoons’ aren’t supposed to seem ‘real’.” -Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Caleb Moss, who argued “throw in some dazzling hallucination sequences, absurdly grotesque caricatures of classic depictions of African-Americans in pop-culture, a subterranean Mafia organization with a little clown hit-man, an obscenely hilarious “romance” scene involving Ms. America, and hell, even an excessively obese con-man posing as a negro messiah shooting at portraits of Elvis Presley and Richard Nixon while hoisted in mid-air, among other things that I shall not spoil, and you got one peculiarly odd curiosity of an animated film in your hands.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)


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


*This retrospective covers only the feature films of .

Coming out of the Warner Brothers cartoon factory, Ralph Bakshi emerged as one of America’s unheralded surrealists. He is as authentic in his way as was. Both share a related aesthetic, which is closely linked to avant-garde cinema tradition, but grounded in the stylistic tenets of Surrealism. Russell, unquestionably flamboyant, probably has the more secured reputation with aficionados, while Bakshi too often is summarily dismissed as a cult animation specialist. Yet, as Paul Klee, Max Ernst, and have proven aesthetically more consistent (and infinitely more interesting) than that hero of male teenage angst, , so too Bakshi likewise may come to be seen as the part of the pulse of Western Surrealism.

Bakshi’s debut, Fritz the Cat (1972), is delightfully of its period and  could probably only have been made in the 1970s (although work on it actually began in 1969). It was a first on numerous fronts: The first X-Rated cartoon, Bakshi’s first feature (his previous work include a number of shorts and the television cult classic animated “Spiderman” 1967-1970), and the first cinematic adaptation of the work of Robert Crumb. Crumb himself thought Bakshi’s adaptation too subdued and hated it (it does lack the original’s bite), as did the cartoonist’s loyal fan base. Critics were divided over it then, and they’re still split on it, which sets the pattern for the whole of Bakshi’s work.

The critics of Fritz The Cat accuse it of blatant racism and sexism. Its defenders proclaim it as brutally honest and immune to political correctness. However, few dispute that Bakshi’s animation style is a highly original, handsomely mounted one.

Still from Fritz the Cat (1972)It is set in the late 60s, as we follow the pot smoking, Candide-like protagonist Fritz out of college, into a Harlem ghetto filled with barroom brawls, riots, unbridled sexual escapades, drug abuse (which includes a heroin addled rabbit), cynicism, graphic anti-establishment violence (the police are literally portrayed as inept pigs), and revolutionary spirit.

Despite budgetary limitations and Crumb’s refusal to endorse the film, Fritz The Cat proved a success, even inspiring a sequel—The Nine Lives Of Fritz The Cat ( 1974)—which Bakshi was not associated with. Predictably, the sequel flopped, making the original look like a masterpiece.

Heavy Traffic (1973) is Bakshi’s most personal film. Essentially, it is an animated autobiography about the shy, sexually frustrated, pinball-playing aspiring underground cartoonist Michael Corelone (yes, it’s one of many references to ‘s The Godfather). Michael attempts to make his way out of his warring parents’ Bronx home. As his much put upon Jewish mother and philandering Italian Mafioso father play out an urban “Taming of the Shrew,” Michael ambitiously sticks to plying his trade. Heavy Traffic is a paradoxical, heartbreaking, harrowing love letter to counter-culture urban freaks; replete with transvestites, amputees, interracial relationships, construction worker thugs, and God as a rapist. Bakshi is deep into Herbert Selby, Jr. territory here, Continue reading DIRECTOR RETROSPECTIVE: RALPH BAKSHI, PART ONE (1972-1977)


Reader recommendation by “Jackie”


FEATURING: Ron Thompson, Lisa Jane Perksy, Jeffery Lippa

PLOT: Centering on a family of musicians from the 1910s to the 1980s, American Pop takes a psychedelic look at the history and evolution of American music whilst telling a story of its own.

Still from American Pop (1981)
WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: American Pop contains many vivid and flashy surreal images. It’s like a trip through psychedelia that encompasses it’s plot and structure beyond measure.

COMMENTS: This film is important not only for its creativity, but it also has a unique take on American culture. Bakshi’s talent is at its peak with this film. His style is fluid and the film’s visuals are stunning.


“Bakshi… continues to push animation techniques to the outer limits more frequently explored by film makers who call themselves avant-garde, but who seldom are. His newest film, ‘American Pop,’ is a dazzling display of talent, nerve, ideas (old and new), passion and a marvelously free sensibility.“–Vincent Canby, The New York Times (contemporaneous)



FEATURING: Joseph Kaufmann, Beverly Hope Atkinson

PLOT: The life of an unemployed underground cartoonist who lives with his shrewish mother and mobbed-up dad and lusts after a saucy Nubian bartender, laid down in a mixture of animation and live action.

Still from Heavy Traffic (1973)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: There’s not much of a story, and what plot there is turns needlessly nasty, but as a series of visual experiments Heavy Traffic is a success. Underground animator Ralph Bakshi is an important and very odd innovator with a cult following, and at least one of his films probably should make the List—is this semi-autobiographical tale the chosen one?

COMMENTS: With its brutal violence, casual sex, and animated floppy bits, today we would call Heavy Traffic “edgy” and reward it with a post-midnight slot on the Cartoon Network. But in 1973, this seamy peep-show tour of 1970s Manhattan was scandalous, nearly obscene stuff (Variety‘s dismissive review called it “a blatant example of hardcore pornography.”) Ralph Bakshi’s underground comic on film is emphatically not hardcore pornography; the moral tone is a lot lower and more misogynistic than Deep Throat. Traffic is more like a Tijuana Bible animated by the team behind “Fat Albert” while they passed around doobies. The story begins in live action as a young man plays a pinball machine; we then see his reflections and fantasies about his real life portrayed in grotesque cartoon form. Dad is a low-level Italian gangster out to bust the waterfront unions; Mom is a Jewish housewife whose only pleasures in life are feeding her son and clunking her philandering husband on the head with a frying pan. Young Michael Corleone (yes, the protagonist is named Michael Corleone) attempts to escape the agitation of his home life by drawing, but the world outside his window is hardly any better than the bedlam in his apartment. The local gang of greasy toughs tries to get him to lose his virginity with the neighborhood slut, but he accidentally knocks her off the rooftop. “She had it comin’,” he quips, which inspires the goombahs who put him up to it into frenzy of violent hilarity that ends with them beating each other bloody with chains and knives. That’s okay, because Michael really has the hots for Carole, a foxy black bartender in a halter top and low-slung bell bottoms. When she loses her job halfway through the movie, a plot finally develops as Michael works up the courage to offer to let her share his bedroom, a plan his racist dad doesn’t much like. The interracial couple strikes out together to make it in the big city, but when Michael fails to sell his blasphemous comic about a post-apocalyptic world of garbage worshipers, they turn to tricks to make ends meet. Carole lures johns into a hotel room and a suddenly vicious Michael caves their heads in with a lead pipe. Michael starts as a good kid, but only out of timidness; in his own fantasies, he corrupts himself. The ending is downbeat and jaded, but there’s a hopeful live-action coda that also suggests that the real city is almost as weird as Michael’s imaginary metropolis. With its multi-ethnic, grossly caricatured cavalcade of pimps, hos, burnouts, gangsters, transvestites, and amputee bouncers, New York City circa 1973 is the most fully-rounded character in Heavy Traffic; but it’s the movie’s visual invention that’s the star. Colorful cartoons are layered on top of footage of the real city in all its grungy greyness, while the film stock is often tinted, solarized, or otherwise transformed. The drawings are Hanna-Barbera Saturday morning cartoon quality, but are inventively grotesque and sometimes even surreal (as when Jesus hops by on a cross to rat out Michael’s dad to a bullet ridden Godfather who’s just finished slurping a bowl of pasta peppered with tiny people). Devoted more to alienating bluenoses and earning its X rating by any means possible than to character development, Heavy Traffic may not be a deep and thoughtful movie, and it may not be the feel-good hit of 1973, but it is an utterly unique, nasty vision that is occasionally capable of astounding you with its excesses.

Bakshi had pitched the idea for Heavy Traffic to producer Steve Krantz, but the idea was considered  uncommercial. After Bakshi’s had a hit with the 1972 X-rated animated feature Fritz the Cat, Traffic got the green light. Shout! Factory released the film on Blu-ray earlier this year, although the release contained no special features.


“Bakshi’s style is completely over the top here, he’s running full steam ahead into material so surreal and so mind bendingly bizarre that you can’t help but get pulled in.”–Ian Jane, DVD Talk (Blu-ray)