The Filming of Fritz the Cat, Part One
From Funnyworld No. 14, Spring 1972
I. Bucking the Tide
When I spoke to Ralph Bakshi, the young director of Fritz the
Cat, a couple of days after the picture had been previewed in
Los Angeles, he was still jubilant over the audience's response.
"Everyone makes the turn," he said. "They forget
it's animation. They treat it like a film. This means we can make
War and Peace in animation. This is the real thing, to get
people to take animation seriously."
few days later, after a February 15 showing at the Museum of Modern
Art in New York, with Bakshi there to field questions from the audience,
he reported the same sort of reaction, but with a difference: "Some
guy asked me why I was against the revolution. The point is, animation
was making people get up off their asses and get mad."
Bakshi's words may provoke discomfort in people who are familiar
with animation's recent history. Other cartoon-makers have tried
to make audiences forget that they were watching animated films,
and that usually has meant that the cartoon-makers forgot they were
making animated films. They have tried to hide animation behind
a bush, or else make it indistinguishable from live action. Fritz
was not made with that in mind. What Bakshi tried to do was to make
an animated feature that was both "serious" and blatantly,
Fritz the Cat, which is based on several comic-strip stories
by Robert Crumb, the most widely admired of the underground cartoonists,
is full of blood, sex, urine, radical politics, and four-letter
words. Bakshi's professed intention was to marry this fearsome subject
matter to traditional, mainstream animationthat is, animation
that makes the impossible seem solid and real. He was remarkably
successful, especially considering the odds against him. Fritz
is a messy and imperfect picture, and it bears the scars of its
difficult birth, but it has the energy of a good idea behind it,
and that is enough for it to be outstanding at a time when most
animated cartoons are made out of habit, or for a quick buck. Fritz
is like a beautiful butterfly that has just begun to emerge from
its cocoon. It's easy to see the cocoonthe mistakes, the miscalculations,
the compromises Bakshi had to make because he didn't have the money
or the people he neededbut with only a little effort, you
can see the butterfly: the movie that Fritz might have been
if it had been made under happier circumstances.
There is no point in mourning the loss of a more nearly perfect
Fritz, just as there is no point in regretting the clumsy
animation in parts of Snow White; both films were necessary
stepping stones for the people who made them. If Ralph Bakshi builds
on his strengths as a director, he will make animated cartoons that
leave Fritz far behind, but even if he fails to grasp this
opportunity, he still will have opened doors for animation as no
one has since Walt Disney. That is quite an achievement.
Some critics of Fritzincluding Robert Crumbsee
mostly the cocoon. Crumb says now that he never wanted the picture
made, and he didn't like Fritz when he saw it late in February;
it has a morbid, disturbed mood, he says, and doesn't bear much
resemblance to his stories. Some other cartoonists haven't liked
it either, and one has condemned what he called its straightforward,
live-action approach to all its off-color activities. "I think
animation is weak when it tries too hard to do the things live action
does better," he said, "and Fritz really is a live-action
script. It is only incidental that Fritz is a talking animal and
that the film was made as an animated cartoon."
The irony in such criticism is thick, because Bakshi has proclaimed
repeatedly his desire to get away from animation that walks in live
action's shadow. "I don't think realistic [i.e., realistically
drawn] characters have any business in animation, at all, ever,
never again, please," he told me last spring in Hollywood,
not long after his animation studio had moved west from New York
City. But, he added, "Characters die in this picture; they
do get shot. To get that kind of believability, I had to go back
to a solid formsolid construction, solid motion. Also, I wanted
to relate directly to what characters like Porky Pig and Bugs Bunny
used to do in old cartoons, so that the audiences would understand
what could have been done even in those cartoons, and what we're
At first glance, there might seem to be some conflict between
such statements and another that Bakshi made last fall. "My
approach to animation as a director is live action," he said.
"I don't approach it in the traditional animation ways. None
of our characters get up and sing, because that's not the type of
picture I'm trying to do. I want people to believe my characters
are real, and it's hard to believe they're real if they start walking
down the street singing."
How can a director reject "realistic" animation and yet
espouse a "live-action" approach to animation? The two
goals are not really contradictory. What Bakshi wants to abandon
is animation that tries to match the appearance of live action (Disney
features such as theLady and the Tramp and Sleeping
Beauty are good examples) in favor of animation that conveys
the substance of the best live-action filmsin other words,
the emotional depth that has been largely absent from animation
for the last fifteen or twenty years.
There's not any novelty in making films that are both "real"
and animated. The people who made the best short cartoons in the
thirties and forties filled them with sex, violence, racial caricatures,
and other volatile ingredients, but they came at such subjects from
oblique angles, in keeping with the taboos of the day. This means
that Bakshi's task was actually quite different from theirs; he
tried to put together a film that was both explicit and animated,
using good animation to break through the psychological bonds that
have kept cartoons languishing in the ghetto of children's television.
Bakshi says that he constructed Fritz to lure the audience
in, starting funny (and so establishing his links with the old cartoons
even more strongly) and then killing one of his most sympathetic
characters in a Harlem race riot and leaving him lying in the street.
His story turns more somber then, but the animation itself does
not. The question has always been, will audiences accept this? Can
they make the turn? The answer is yes, as the picture's boxoffice
There is a disquieting undercurrent in this success, however,
and it takes the form of another question: is Fritz really
awakening audiences to what animation can do, or are they attracted
to Fritz because it is a novelty, with its cartoon animals
living hard and talking dirty? The real test of Fritz's impact
will come when Ralph Bakshi directs more animated features. Thanks
to Fritz, Bakshi will now have enough time and money to make
features that will be a better measure of his talents than Fritz
was. These new Bakshi features will go before audiences that have
become accustomed to sex and blood and politics in animation. If
Bakshi lives up to the promise he shows in Fritz, the test
will be clearcut, and we will learn if audiences really will accept
long cartoons that ignore the restrictions of the Disney formula.
Fritz is not the limit of Bakshi's ambitions, and he makes
no claim that it's a great piece of animation, as animation ("Disney
it ain't"). It couldn't have been. Fritz was hobbled
to some extent by Bakshi's own inexperience in making animated features,
but more important, the movie suffered in some way from all the
diseases that afflict animation in the 1970s. To follow the film's
tribulations is to realize how much blood has been squeezed out
of animation since World War II, on the one hand by people who have
tried to "elevate" it and on the other by people who want
only to make money from it.
There are two paths to animation of a more "elevated"
kind. One is the route taken by the Disney studio, where the refinement
of animation has meant the development of a stifling house style.
Live action has been imitated, rather than transcended. There have
been brave attempts in recent years to break out of this trap, but
at best they have summoned up memories of earlier and better days.
Considered simply as animators, the Disney men remain unexcelled,
but to paraphrase what was once said about a Toscanini performance
of a musical trifle, watching a new Disney cartoon now is like watching
superb chefs prepare hot dogs.
Of course, there is no shortage of cartoon-makers who are willing
to attempt animation of the "serious" themes that the
Disney studio avoids, but most of these people seem to be ashamed
of animation itself. Animation is probably not by nature "serious";
an animated drawing must, in fact, be animated, it must move, or
it is simply a drawing. The great short cartoons of the thirties
and forties, from the Disney and Warner and MGM studios, were nothing
if not animated, and this seems to have served as a constant embarrassment
to many of the artists who have been making cartoon films during
the last two or three decades. For example, the program for a recent
showing of animated shorts at the Whitney Museum in New York said
that "unlike the traditional 'cartoons' made for mass audience
appealand usually comic effectthese films are more an
intimate view of the filmmaker's inner dreams, fantasies, and nightmares."
To avoid having their pictures lumped with all those cartoons
with talking ducks and mice and rabbits, such filmmakers have often
treated animation like a poor relation, shoving it behind handsome
designs, drowning it in color, and smothering it with themes that
invite movement the way the appearance of the undertaker invites
mirth. Some of these films, like those made by UPA in the years
immediately following World War II, are appealing on their own terms,
and the animation in some "art" filmsJohn Hubley's
especiallyis excellent, but that seems incidental to the cartoon-makers
themselves. Central to animation is the movement of three-dimensional
figureshuman, humanoid, animaland to the extent that
animated films disregard that fact, they must be counted failures.
This does not mean that all animated cartoons must be in a single
style, but only that they must proceed from the same starting point,
even if their destinations are radically different. Regrettably,
most animated films start nowhere and go nowhere. Limited animationthe
simplified, stripped-down movement that has become standard in most
non-Disney animation since World War IIhas been an integral
part of this movement to upgrade animation, since it stands in contrast
to the smooth, natural movement ("full animation") of
earlier cartoons. This is the ground where the "serious"
cartoon-maker and the avaricious television producer meet. Some
television producers even mouth the line of "serious"
cartoon-makers, touting their bare-bones animation as an advance
over the vastly superior work animators were doing twenty or thirty
In one sense, the TV men have won their point, since television,
with its indiscriminate appetite, treats the old cartoons as if
they were the same as the made-for-TV product; cartoons of both
kinds are sandwiched routinely between commercials for pre-sweetened
cereals and talking dolls. The television audience no longer seems
to notice the difference, either. The difference is there, and it's
not hard to measure; it shows up in how cartoon producers spend
their money. All television budgets are low, at least by Disney
standards, but budgets have been low for many theatrical cartoons
of the past, too. Sometimes a budget (or other circumstances) can
put a straitjacket on a cartoon producer, but often, within the
limits of his budget, a producer has a choice: he can give the bulk
of his expenditures to the stories and the animation for his cartoons,
or he can stress the technical side of the operationeverything
that determines how polished the picture looks on the screen.
The TV producers have chosen slickness; they have reduced the
stories and animation for their cartoons to formulas, and they rely
upon their technical people to salvage rushed, hacked-out drawings.
The demands of television (and its moronic executives) may have
made this inevitable, but the contrast with many theatrical short
subjects of the pastespecially the old Warner cartoonsis
striking. In them, it's the "production values" that are
sloppy; the cartoons often lack a smooth surface, but the money
was going where it really mattered, and there is so much vitality
and inventiveness in the best of these cartoons that the technical
errors simply aren't important.
Economic factors (the rise of the double feature, the general
decline in movie attendance) killed short subjects like the old
Warner cartoons, and left theaters open only to cartoon features
and the occasional animated "art" film. Television cartoons
have filled the void left by the closing of the theatrical cartoon
studios, and the TV studios are filled now with veterans of the
Disney, Warner, MGM, and Lantz studios, but the work they must do
is mechanical and demoralizingespecially since television's
cruel economics provide work for most of them for only half the
There is, then, this great cleavage in animation, between the
handful of cartoon-makers who are still "advancing the art,"
in however misguided a fashion, and the great mass of animation
craftsmen, who have little choice but to pursue careers as mechanics
rather than artists. More is involved than any dispute over the
merits of full animation versus limited animation. The cry for "full
animation" has become a shibboleth in recent years, because
most animation is limited, and most limited animation is bad, but
full animation can be good or bad according to how it is used. As
a number of recent television commercials and specials and an occasional
feature (The Phantom Tollboth, for example) have demonstrated,
it is possible to have full animation that is not especially good
animation. What has been achingly absent from animation is not so
much full animation as convincing movementnot movement for
its own sake, but movement that defines character, clarifies motives,
and reveals emotions in ways that live action cannot.
Animators are actors with pencils, but even in full animation
in recent years there has been a lot of reading of lines, and very
little acting. Characters may move, in a rough approximation of
live action, but there is little in their movements to distinguish
one character from another. This is a disease often thought peculiar
to cartoons from television studios like Hanna-Barbera, but its
corrupting influence is present in much of today's full animation
as well. Directors will sometimes try to plug this hole with visual
fireworks, toying with color and shape and line in emulation of
Yellow Submarine. Usually, sitting through this stuff is
like watching an elaborately decorated stage on which no play is
There have been a few exceptions to this general rot; portions
of The Aristocats and The Phantom Tollbooth come first
to mind. But there have not been many of them, and even the exceptions
are only echoes of what used to be commonplace in the work of the
great directors and animators. Many of these directors and animators
have grown rusty because their skills have not been put to use;
others have lapsed into apathy and cynicism. What is being lost
is a sense of animation's possibilities and the pleasures that only
animation can offer. Fritz represents an effort to turn animation
around, at a time when almost all the currents are running in the
opposite direction; even the Disney featureswhich at their
best have combined a high degree of polish with beautiful animationhave
taken on a rough-hewn look in the last five years, and the budget
for the next Disney feature, Robin Hood, was ordered reduced
despite the studio's prosperity.
This is a terrible time to be devising an alternative to the Disney
style, the posturings of the "art" films, and the emptiness
of the television cartoons, especially with a story as raw as that
of Fritz. For Fritz, good animation was needed not
merely to make the story believable, but to reduce its sensational
nature. This was a tremendous challenge to put before animators
at a time when men who once could make a pencil line dance no longer
have any greater ambition than to retire.
Fritz suffered other difficulties, some so large that Bakshi
admits that at some points, "I thought it was all over."
Bakshi and his producer, Steve Krantz, had difficulty from the first
in finding financing and distribution for Fritz. "There
has never been a project that was received with less enthusiasm,"
Krantz recalls. "Animation is essentially a dirty word for
distributors, who think that only Disney can paint a tree, and in
addition to that, Fritz was so far out that there was a failure
to understand that we were onto something very important."
Krantz is correct about the film industry's attitude toward animation.
Hollywood has traditionally regarded animation with contempt, and
the animation departments of large studios have always been in danger
of extinction, regardless of how well they were doing. The story
goes that when Jack Warner closed his animation department in 1962,
it was the only part of the studio that was making a profit, thanks
mostly to the Bugs Bunny television show. Animated cartoons are
money in the bank, because they can be reissued and rebroadcast
almost without limit, but they have the look of luxury about them,
and a new management can make a great show of cost saving by shutting
its cartoon department; that happened to Chuck Jones's MGM unit
Even when money was finally found for Fritz, there still
wasn't very much of it. The film was made on a budget of less than
a million dollars; that means that Fritz, which is a little
less than eighty minutes long, was made on a budget that compares
unfavorably, on a per-minute basis, with the budgets for the better
animated television commercials, which cost fourteen or fifteen
thousand dollars per minute.
It is possible to produce animated features on a small budget;
Filmation, which has concentrated on television cartoons to date,
has made an agreement with Warner Bros. to turn out a whole series
of feature cartoons budgeted at about a million dollars apiece.
However, these features will almost certainly have the same soulless,
mechanized look as Filmation's television programs, which are produced
on budgets much smaller (on a minute-to-minute comparison) than
the new features. For Filmation to produce features in something
resembling full animation will require only stirring a little more
motion into a limited-animation stew.
But if good animation is desired, rather than animation that is
merely "professional," then a budget of less than a million
dollars leaves precious little room for mistakes, or for the kind
of improvisation that can lift a scene out of the ordinary (and
also run its costs up). Bakshi tackled the cost problem from both
ends of production. He saved money "up front"that
is, in the stages before the picture actually went into animationby
serving as his own story man, and by taking on other jobs that are
usually filled by someone other than the director himself. "I
run a one-man operation," he said last fall. "Everything
coming from the studio comes from the talented people backing me
up, but all the thinking is mine, as far as color, characters, timing,
designthe whole schmearis concerned."
Bakshi took risks by saving money at the other end, on the technical
side of production, thus abandoning any effort to give his movie
the smooth, seamless look of many other cartoons. For example, animation
studios employ checkers, who make sure that everything fits together
the way it should: characters must match backgrounds, the celluloid
sheets ("cels") on which characters are inked and painted
must be the right size, and so forth. Checking for Fritz
was so skimpy that at one point, the cameramen discovered that the
cels for a desert scene were not wide enough; the edges of the cels
would be visible on the screen. A cactus was hastily painted to
cover the edges of the cels. In other cases as well, members of
the technical crew went beyond the call of duty. The result was
that Bakshi could spend more of his budget on the animation of the
picture than he could have if he had followed the normal procedures.
Moreover, Bakshi prides himself on his ability to get good results
on low budgets by bearing down on the animation in the crucial scenes:
"This is my schtick, trying to get animation where it counts,
and where it doesn't count, forget it."
Even with his emphasis on the animation at the expense of the
picture's surface gloss, there wasn't enough money to permit the
"personality animation" that Bakshi apparently wanted.
Animators work under what is called the footage system; most studios
require animators to produce enough animation each week to fill
a specified number of feet of 35mm. film (which passes through the
projector at the rate of ninety feet a minute). For obvious reasons,
the quality of the animation varies pretty much according to the
footage required. Many television studios require one hundred to
one hundred twenty-five feet every week, and at the other extreme,
the Disney studio had no footage requirements for many years (although
fifteen feet a week is being asked for Robin Hood). The requirements
at the Krantz studio in Hollywood ran around twenty to twenty-five
feet a week, and Bakshi says that the amount of animation actually
produced averaged less than that; but even a twenty-foot requirement
is high if the aim is to get under the characters' skins and make
them come alive.
"Personality animation" is simply acting of a high order,
and the great animators at the Disney studio, with no quota to meet,
could depict cartoon characters with a depth of understanding that
is beyond the reach of most other animators. Brer Bear and Brer
Fox in Song of the South are good examples; both characters
are beautifully realized, with personalities that are at once complex
and easily grasped, but they are funny only because of the expert
way they are played against one another. In the cartoons of other
studios, such characters could only have been broad caricatures.
A great directora man like Chuck Jones, Bob Clampett, Tex
Avery, or the late Frank Tashlincan impose his own personality
on a cartoon, and pull its elements together so that it is more
than the sum of its parts. This is why the directors' personalities
are dominant in the Warner cartoons, whereas in the Disney features,
it is the work of the individual animators that catches the eyein
Pinocchio, for example, it is easy to distinguish Ward Kimball's
Jiminy Cricket, Fred Moore's Lampwick, and Bill Tytla's Stromboli.
A director like Chuck Jones, who contributes many drawings to a
cartoon himself, can achieve subtlety in delineating personality
even while working within footage requirements that are high by
Disney standards, but Ralph Bakshi doesn't work that way, and so
comparable results necessarily remained elusive.
Moreover, Bakshi's budget problems were such that in important
respects, he had to compromise on the quality of the animation he
was getting even within the bounds set by his footage requirements.
Fritz was made almost entirely without pencil tests ("We
pencil tested I'd say a thousand feet, tops," Bakshi says).
A pencil test involves photographing the penciled animation drawings
before they are inked (or Xeroxed) onto cels and painted; that way,
the director and the animator can check their timing and how well
the animation works, and then make any changes that seem necessary.
If there are no pencil tests, and no one really knows what the animation
looks like until it has been inked and painted and photographed
against the background paintings, then the director is flying blind.
One member of the Fritz staff in New York says that was
"a little scary even for seasoned animators," and Bakshi
says that doing the picture without pencil tests seems like "insanity"
in retrospect: "We do a major feature without pencil teststhat's
tough. The timing falls off. I can always tell an animator to draw
it better, and I know if the attitude of the characters is right,
but the timing you really can't see." Bakshi had to judge the
timing of the animation simply by flipping an animator's drawings
in his hand, until he could see the completed animation on the screen.
In one sense, it was natural for Bakshi to plunge into a feature
cartoon without the money for pencil tests; the studios he had worked
for in New York never made pencil tests (they never made feature-length
cartoons, either), and pencil tests would have been superfluous,
given the low quality of most of their animation. Pencil tests might
have been superfluous for Bakshi, too, since he couldn't afford
to spend much money on having animation done over, except for crucial
scenes. About all he could do was to give his animators low footage
requirements and then rely on their skillsa risky business
these days. The risk was compounded when the Bakshi-Krantz studio
moved from New York to California in the middle of production, and
Bakshi had to work with animators whose skills were unknown quantities.
Problems like these have to do with what happened in the studio
itself, but Fritz has also had its enemies in the outside
world. In California, especially, some other cartoon studios have
tried to use Fritz to prove that their own skirts are clean.
One executive of the Hanna-Barbera studio was quoted in the Wall
Street Journal as saying, "It's unfortunate that the industry
has to resort to that kind of picture-making to survive. I hope
I never have to be involved in any part of it." (One of Bakshi's
animators sent a note to the executive saying, "Word for word,
that's exactly how I feel about Hanna-Barbera.")
Fritz may have suffered a little from such bad-mouthing,
but it seems just as likely that this pious fakery has increased
interest in the picture. There is a greater danger, and that is
that Fritz's impact will be diluted by an outpouring of cartoons
that are authentically pornographic, as Fritz is not.
Pornographic cartoons are not new, although their public exhibition
is. Buried Treasure, a 1928 cartoon about the unsuccessful
efforts of a character named "Eveready Hardon" (or "Harton")
to relieve his sexual tensions, was circulated surreptitiously for
years; more recently, all or part of this short cartoon has been
included in virtually every "blue movie" anthology, beginning
with History of the Blue Movie. Buried Treasure has
been shown by itself in San Francisco, with music and sound effects
Other pornographic cartoonsmost them crude and amateurishhave
turned up in the last few years, some of them originating in Europe.
None of these cartoons seem to have received wide exposure, but
a short cartoon titled Little Annie Fannyflagrantly
plaigiarized from the Harvey Kurtzman comic strip in Playboywas
shown in a New York theater last fall. In April, just three days
before Fritz opened in New York City, a Japanese-made animated
feature, Cleopatra, began its run at two Manhattan theaters,
billed as an X-rated cartoon in an obvious effort to steal some
of Fritz's thunder. In fact, Cleopatra had not been
submitted to the Motion Picture Association for a rating, and it
is highly unlikely that it would have received an X if it had been;
one critic described it as "kid stuff with naked breasts."
While Fritz was still in production, though, rumors began
to circulate about pornographic feature cartoons that would follow
it into the theaters, and it would be surprising if that did not
happen. The novelty of sex in animation is sure to be short-lived
(Screw, a New York sex paper, gave Fritz a low rating
even before the picture opened there), and Bakshi seems to have
been aware of the danger to his future cartoons if his Fritz
should become regarded as merely a fad item. Bakshi has talked about
the picture as "a documentary on the sixties," and has
soft-pedaled the sex angle. (When Fritz was introduced at
an April showing at the University of Southern California as the
first pornographic cartoon, Bakshi said firmly, "Fritz
the Cat is not pornographic.") He has, instead, contrasted
the supposed realism of Fritz with the supposed unrealism
of earlier animation. He was quoted last year in the Los Angeles
Times as saying that the idea of "grown men sitting
in cubicles drawing butterflies floating over a field of flowers,
while American planes are dropping bombs in Vietnam and kids are
marching in the streets, is ludicrous."
Advertisements for the picture have played up the sex angle ("90
minutes of violence, excitement and SEX. . . he's X rated and animated!"),
but Bakshi blames the distributor for that, and he said in April,
"We almost didn't deliver the picture, because of the exploitation
of it." In fact, the explicit sex in Fritz is outweighed
by its political content; Bakshi himself calls Fritz "a
political film." "Social relevance" of this sort
can easily become a crutch, since there are audiences who will forgive
what is shallow and crude, so long as it greases their prejudices.
Underground comic books and rock music have provided many examples
of this, and Fritz draws heavily on both.
The temptations must have been great, and Bakshi was seduced by
his gaudy story line more than once. Parts of Fritz are crayon-crude.
If Bakshi were simply using this "relevance" as a gimmick,
to ingratiate himself with the young audience, he would be worthy
of contempt; but there is ample evidence that this is not the case,
and so Fritz's crudities, regrettable though they are, are
not as disheartening as they might have been.Bakshi's sincerity
is no guarantee that his future films will be improvements on Fritz
(there is no direct relationship in art between sincerity and quality),
but sincerity counts for a great deal now in animation, when almost
everyone in the industry is cynical and their work shows it.
Despite the film's "political" emphasis, the explicit
sex and raw language in Fritz guaranteed from the beginning
that it would receive either an R or an X rating from the Motion
Picture Association's rating agency. After reporters first began
poking around the Krantz studio early in 1971, almost every article
about the picture described it as either actually or potentially
X-rated. In their own comments, Bakshi and Krantz seemed to have
mixed feelings about such a rating. Any misgivings had a solid foundation;
in the year or two before Fritz was released, an X rating
became synonymous with hard core pornography, and more than thirty
newspapers refused to review X-rated films or to carry advertising
for them. Early in 1972, when Fritz was finally completed,
it was assigned an X; the publicity about the film may have made
any other rating impossible, even though an R would have been more
appropriate. Fortunately for Bakshi and Krantz, Stanley Kubrick.'s
A Clockwork Orange, one of the most widely praised movies
of 1971, was being distributed with an X, too, and Fritz
thus had the opportunity to profit from respectability by association.
Fritz has had yet another out-of-studio problem to contend
with, this one subtler and potentially more damaging than the others.
It has to do with the movie's relationship to Robert Crumb, the
creator of Fritz.
Whenever a comic strip is translated into an animated cartoon,
there is always a greater question of the author's involvement than
when a novel is made into a screenplay. Comic strips and animated
cartoons, if not close kin, are at least cousins, and when comic-strip
characters are animated in something like their originator's style,
the natural assumption is that he had something to do with the film.
This has often been true, from the time of Bud Fisher and the Mutt
and Jeff cartoons until the present day, when both Charles Schulz
of Peanuts and Walt Kelly of Pogo have been actively
involved in the cartoon versions of their great comic strips. Such
animated comics have usually been inferior to the originals, but
at least there has been no question of the artist's intentions being
distorted. That is not the case with Fritz.
The assumption has been present in some articles about the picture
that Crumb somehow collaborated on it with Bakshi, but that is far
from the mark. His hostility to the entire project was no secret
for months before the picture was released, and when I spoke to
him in February, he condemned the completed Fritz as "a
Crumb's attitude toward the picture is significant not only because
the original stories are his, but because of what he and his work
represent. Crumb is the most important of the underground cartoonists;
only Gilbert Shelton rivals him in popularity and influence. Crumb,
after a few brushes with the "New York syndrome," now
scorns the "big-time mass-media trip" and concentrates
his efforts on underground comic books. Not all underground cartoonists
share his contempt for large financial rewards (even Shelton has
turned up in the pages of Playboy), but his fear of the tethers
that success brings is widespread among underground cartoonists
and their admirers; so is his contempt for the businessmen who would
like to tie him down. One of his close friends speaks vehemently
of Crumb's disdain for "the big-money boys who rush in to exploit
any new phenomenon (such as underground cartoons), gobble it up,
suck off as many quick bucks as possible, and then spit out the
fur and bones on the ground."
What this means is that Fritz can be interpreted not merely
as a perversion of Crumb's work, but as a counter-attack against
Crumb and the other cartoonists who have managed to make their way
without complying with the wishes of feature syndicates, commercial
comic-book publishers, animation studios or any of the other employers
of cartoonists. The underground comic books, for all their excesses,
have restored to the comics a personal, individual flavor that has
been all but lost in the increasingly vapid strips that fill newspapers
and comic books today. Bakshi's Fritz has been regarded by
some of Crumb's admirers as an effort to cash in on the individuality
of these comics and so absorb them into the very entertainment "establishment"
that the underground cartoonists have rejected. (There is irony
in this, because Fritz also breaks with formulas, and, in
its early stages, suffered at the hands of some of the same people
whom Crumb's most ardent admirers find so distasteful.)
This double-edged hostility to Fritz could have damaged
it at the boxoffice and even hurt Bakshi's career, but that was
never too likely, for reasons that Steve Krantz suggests when he
asks, "How many people read underground comics, really?"
The answer is, not that many, especially when compared with the
millions who will see Fritz. Undoubtedly, many people will
see Fritz who have never heard of Robert Crumb, or who have
only the slightest acquaintance with his work. That may be the point.
Through Fritz, Crumb's name will be linked with a motion
picture that he believes distorts his work (it is certainly different
from Crumb's Fritz stories in spirit) and that he says he never
The real issue is essentially a moral one: if Crumb feels this
way about Fritz, and if he has felt this way about the project
from the beginning, should the film ever have been made? That question
can be answered "yes" if, at some point, Crumb freely
gave his permission for Bakshi and Krantz to make the picture. If
he did, he and his readers are entitled to quarrel with the contents
of Fritz, but not with Fritz itself.
Unfortunately, sorting out what happened among Crumb, Bakshi and
Krantz is not a simple matter, even though it seems likely that
Bakshi and Krantz were on solid ground legally from the beginning.
If Fritz were a masterpiece, even doubts about the picture's
legitimacy would become irrelevant; masterpieces are their own justification,
unless the sacrifices required to produce them are really outrageous.
But no animated feature made in the early 1970s could be a masterpiece,
regardless of its director's intentions; the tools simply are not
there. The most that can be expected of any feature cartoon now
is that it be reasonably entertaining, and that it lay the foundations
for cartoons that are more than entertaining. Fritz the Cat passes
those tests handsomely, and that must be regarded as a considerable
achievement, not least becausethrough no real fault of his
ownRalph Bakshi's name has never before been attached to a
cartoon nearly as good.
[ Click here to continue to the next section
of "The Filming of Fritz the Cat."]