There was a time when the very idea of sex and violence in a cartoon was so antithetical it would draw audiences on the novelty alone. Fritz the Cat was the first of its kind to receive an X rating from the MPAA. Audiences flocked, making it a midnight-movie staple and a forerunner for cult cinemas as a recognised and marketable genre. It broke ground for animation as a subversive and adult art form. We are now quite accustomed to adult-themed japanimation and can watch cartoons like South Park, which on a weekly basis exceed the boundaries pressed by Fritz. But it is important to take the film in its historical context before judging it too harshly. Though it may appear dated, the very things that made it audacious for its time serve as an important document to the effort to exceed limitations. You name the hot topic of the late 60s, Ralph Bakshi went after it.
Based on Robert Crumb’s groundbreaking underground comic, Bakshi took Fritz – an oversexed, cool and hip character – and tried to paint a portrait of 60s America and its shortcomings. He attempted to shock with both a raunchy sex comedy and biting political drama. However, the film, like the counterculture that inspired it, doesn’t succeed on either level.
We meet our hero Fritz the cat as he begins his descent into proverbial madness. The cast of characters is meant to be representative of race, colour and creed, all in the guise of different animals. The story is simple enough – Fritz the cat is a college student in New York, out to get laid. At the park he meets three girls, who he impresses enough with his hackneyed ‘philosophy’ to entice them to an apartment for sex. From there, Fritz goes on a series of misadventures, running from the cops (who are represented as pigs), burning his college dorm, winding up stoned in Harlem with the crows (the film’s depiction of blacks), starting a riot and ultimately meeting up with the ‘real’ revolution – a crypto-fascist gang plotting to blow up a power plant somewhere in the American Southwest.
Like Fritz, the film is confused about what it wants. Overall it has a ‘groovy’ late 60s/early 70s feel to it. Unfortunately, it drags severely in most places. It skips around from vignette to vignette without any real theme to connect them other than the sex/drugs/rock and roll overtones.
The most important break from tradition is that Fritz is written for adults. But beyond the fact that animated characters are naked and have sex, Fritz broke other ‘rules’ of animation. Most of the backgrounds are minimalist, with only line drawings instead of the rich ‘Disney’ detail. Bakshi overlays his animation with colour gels, reinforcing the ‘psychedelic’ world that Fritz sometimes lives in. There are parts of the film in which the characters react against a black background with few, if any, further detailing. Instead music adds depth to the animated scenes, and Bakshi uses it extremely well.
Bakshi (and Crumb in the comics) pulls no punches when he depicts Fritz living the life of a ‘radical’, oblivious of the consequences of his actions until it’s too late. Walt never had the guts to make such a stand. However, the cartoon’s use of racial stereotypes is inappropriate in today’s society (and rightly so).
Fritz the Cat is a viable historical landmark movie, and should be viewed not only by animation buffs, but also as a means of understanding how the 60s were defined in their own time.
Director: Ralph Bakshi Writer(s): Ralph Bakshi, Robert Crumb (comic book)
Runtime(s): 78 minutes
Soren McCarthy, Cult Movies In Sixty Seconds: The Best Films In The World In Less Than A Minute, Fusion Press, 2003.