When Fritz the Cat, first came out in 1972, it broke new ground for what animation could do in terms of being exclusively for adults. There was sex, nudity, violence, and language that many had found controversial at the time; it even became the first animated movie to receive an X rating. Yet, despite its crude and graphic nature, it became a success at the box-office and paved the way for more grown-up cartoons like The Simpsons, Family Guy, and South Park to name a few. Who do we have to thank for, for such a rudely ambitious feature? It is none other than Ralph Bakshi, who would later go on to make Heavy Traffic, Wizards, The Lord of the Rings (There was an animated film, believe it or not), and Cool World.
The story of Fritz the Cat and its conception came from a series of comics by author Robert Crumb from January 1965 to 1972 about a college cat named Fritz that would get himself tangled up in wild sexual escapades. Bakshi discovered the comic one day and liked the idea so much that he thought it would make for a good film. So he suggested the idea to producer Steve Krantz and they got to work. Bakshi then had a meeting with Crumb, who was hesitant about the film’s potential, but lent Bakshi his sketchbook for reference. However, Bakshi and Crumb could not reach a negotiation. Yet just as all seemed said and done, production began anyway after Krantz got the say-so from Crumb’s wife, who had power of attorney. Once Crumb did see the film, he criticized it for the depiction of Fritz as a character, especially near the end of the movie. Crumb even decided to make a comic killing off Fritz, so the character could never be in another film again. Being that there was a sequel to the movie titled The Nine Lives of Fritz the Cat, two years later, that plan did not work, even though Bakshi was not involved in it.
I was a month away from graduating high school when I first watched Fritz the Cat. I had known about the movie since I was in middle school, but being that it was rated X, I never watched it until my 18th birthday. Back when Netflix had a roster of all sorts of movies, Fritz the Cat happened to be on the platform, so once my special day hit, I tuned in on that night. Needless to say, I wasn’t quite impressed with the film. A lot of it seemed uninteresting and all over the place with nothing of value. Yet I found myself coming back to it every now and then. I will now go on to say that it is one of my favorite animated films and recommend it to animation fans. But for what reason? Is Fritz the Cat really an animated masterpiece for what it achieved, or is it just a tasteless hodgepodge of graphic sex, and disturbing violence with irredeemable characters and satire that would not fly in today’s age?
After revisiting the film for its 50th year, I will say that a lot of Fritz the Cat is brilliant, even if you have to get through a bunch of animals getting it on in vigorous fashion. It is a commentary of life in the 60’s, though a lot of themes still ring just as relevant today, with its portrayal of radical left-wing politics, race relations, and police behavior, though some of it may be stereotypical/offensive (African-Americans being portrayed as crows). Adding to its realism are the conversations heard throughout between characters, being that they weren’t voiced by actors, but were recordings of actual people on the street, some of them being Bakshi’s own relatives, as in the Synagogue scene. A lot of it seems pointless, but for animation standards, the choice is creative in capturing authentic dialogue in different scenes.
As a character, Fritz is a scoundrel who spews philosophical anecdotes, if not to either get laid, or sound hip. While he may sound well-intentioned, his behavior is reckless, as shown in a scene where he incites a riot between a group of crows and two pig cops (Yes, that’s the joke) in the streets of Harlem. It is not entirely clear whether he actually means what he says, or is just trying to be relevant. During the riot, he is shocked by the chaos, yet sees it as a game when he shouts “We shall overcome!” Like most college students, Fritz talks a good talk, but doesn’t quite understand what makes everything a problem in the first place. The film does put him in a heroic light when compared to the comics, especially during a scene where he gets involved in a plot to blow up a power plant, caused by a group of revolutionaries. The scene before that, however, involving a drug-addicted Nazi-rabbit named Blue and his horse girlfriend Harriet takes the film into much darker, more disturbing territory, in a moment that is forever burned in my retina.
Through all its plot devices and set-ups where Fritz plays an observer of political events, the film itself was ahead of its time. Much like other animation of the adult variety, it manages to offend while also holding a mirror to a society finding different ways of dealing with the world’s problems. In a way, the character of Fritz is a commentary on human nature and attitudes regarding sociopolitical issues; wanting to bring attention to certain issues, but not quite fully understanding how to solve these problems, eventually making things harder in the process. Like Fritz, we are reckless beings that do things, if not for the sake of self-gratification, or to just be relevant. The movie, itself, didn’t have to be relevant, it just is, in its own twisted, perverted way, and that’s what makes it work, even when everything else falls short in terms of taste.