Ralph Bakshi creates animated movies like no one else working in the medium. He tackles a variety of styles and genre's ranging from fantasy (Wizards, Lord of The Rings), Blaxplotation (Coonskin), adult comedy (Fritz The Cat) and musicals (American Pop). Bakshi makes films he wants to make and even though flaws are obvious, his passion, diversity and artistic vision is apparent throughout, making him an appealing director and an interesting artist to explore.
Born in 1938 in Haifa (then a Palestinian territory, now part of Israel), the Bakshi family migrated to New York in 1939 to avoid World War 2. American culture is very much part of Bakshi's films. Growing up in the Brownsville area of Brooklyn he was clearly exposed to a range of cultures and this is reflected in his films.
Bakshi's first feature length animation was an adaption of a comic book by counter culture icon Robert Crumb. Released in 1972, Fritz The Cat tells the story of a smart talking anthropomorphic feline who takes drugs, has sex and considers himself a poet. Being the first X Rated American animated film Bakshi does not hold back when presenting drug abuse in a cartoon New York. The loose hand drawn style does little to distract from a uninteresting story that relies on blatant sexual imagery to engage the viewer, however the lack of restraint feels manipulative and prevents any real connection to the main character. The result is a cold film where Bakshi's vision was to remove animation from the niceties of Walt Disney and push it to X rated extremes. Speaking at the 2008 San Diego Comic Con Bakshi highlighted his lack of respect for Disney and his desire to do things his own way. Although admiral, the reactionary nature stifles Bakshi's work and is apparent in his 1975 film Coonskin.
Coonskin homogeneously combines live action and animation and has been described by Quentin Tarantino as "The most incendiary work in the entire genre" in reference to Blaxplotation. Starring Barry White (whose deep baritone voice is perfectly cast as Bear) again we see sex and drug abuse and follow two gangsters who make it to the top of the Harlem criminal underworld. Despite plaudits from Tarantino, Coonskin has similar problems to Fritz The Cat, with the need to shock being second to the uninspiring story. However the influence to Tarantino is obvious and clearly inspired Pulp Fiction, making Coonskin an interesting movie within this context.
Wizards (1977) is a family fantasy film and a precursor to his now overshadowed adaption of The Lord Of The Rings. We are in a post apocalyptic planet earth where a war rages between good and evil. Here Bakshi presents diversity in the chosen genre which is far removed from Coonskin. Visually Wizards is bland with the vast landscapes appearing insipid, with pale purple colours and a distinct lack of detail. Although this in part could be due to time and money constraints. Without major financial backing Bakshi had to economise when making his movies, cutting corners wherever possible, but for Wizards this is obvious and to the determent of the imagery. Undertaking a method known as posterisation (a photographic development process where areas of colour are graded to separate tones and present a colourised image) Bakshi entirely removes animation from the equation. This juxtaposition is jarring with the posterised scenes being too obvious to fit seamlessly within the context of the film. This however is not apparent in 1981's American Pop.
Celebrating American popular culture through it's music, American Pop follows four generations that are linked together through tragedy and the love and expression of music. Using an animation technique known as rotoscoping (where the animator traces over live action footage to create a drawn animation that mimics real life), American Pop emphasises the theme of America and is visually more dramatic when compared to Bakshi's previous movies. At times the live music sections are awe inspiring capturing the raw energy of a Jimi Hendrix concert, the expressive freedom of jazz and the intensity and passion of punk rock. The epic story takes in 1930's burlesque, World War 2, the Beat Generation and concludes with 80's excessiveness. American Pop was released the same year MTV launched and captures the marriage between visuals and music.
Bakshi has not made an animated movie since Cool World in 1992. Despite starring Brad Pitt and Kim Basinger in live action segments, the film was a commercial failure. Instead Bakshi has taken to painting to express himself, but that was until February 2013. Utilising crowd funding (where creators invite fans to pay upfront for new ventures, thus funding the projects and cutting out traditional investors) Bakshi has again found a way to make films his own way and fulfil his artistic vision. If funded, another one of the directors passions will be evident. Entitled 'Last Days of Coney Island', we will see Bakshi's beloved America in animated form once again.