Ralph Bakshi’s Fritz the Cat is a kaleidoscopic trip through the late sixties as viewed through the lens of the titular character (Skip Hinnant) who goes from idealistic college dropout to leftist revolutionary to a resigned, center-left resignation in the span of a fleet 78 minutes. The film’s march from its freewheeling beginning to the darker side of the hippie generation is nothing short of miraculous; a pocket-sized, coast-to-coast epic if there ever was one. In a stark parallel to history, the film treks from a joyous, purple-perfumed bathtub orgy in the opening minutes to a harsh, assaultive gangbang near the end of the film in a darkening sundown similar to the fair New York winds of Woodstock in August of 1969 turning bitterly acrid by the time they wafted through the Altamont Motor Speedway in California a couple of months later.
An adaptation of the underground comic by Robert Crumb, Fritz the Cat is given quite a working over by Bakshi and his specific brand of expressionistic animation, here rooted in a wild, street-level raggedness that resembles moving graffiti and is further augmented by the filmmaker’s astonishing and transcendent technique of animating over audio field recordings. Crumb’s spirit as an artist is in here, referenced specifically in the wonderful neon signage as Fritz and Winston travel through the desert and a peripheral character here and there. But, though his misanthropic attitude disallowed him much joy for anything, it’s not hard to see why Crumb hated the film because, as evidenced by the director’s films that came after, Fritz the Cat was just a filter for Ralph Bakshi’s vision and really had little to do with Crumb at all.
Coming to Fritz the Cat and expecting a laugh-a-minute comedy peppered with the kind of naughty bits that would earn it its famous X rating might lead to a certain amount of disappointment. For Ralph Bakshi was using Fritz the Cat as a bid to be taken seriously as a filmmaker. Not only did he aim for his films to be a legitimate, adult alternative to the films Disney was producing but he also wanted them to be something more than “cartoons.” Fritz and company may be anthropomorphic animals in a very real world but their function is not only to take the softness away from Walt’s creations but to also serve as a jive-ass spiritual updating of some aspects of George Orwell’s Animal Farm.
Most all of Fritz the Cat is impressively made so it’s all the more glaring when something seems to have been overlooked in terms of the film’s quality control. This is mostly noticeable with the character of Winston Schwartz who, throughout the crucial part of the film, is voiced with a pissed-off cadence by Judy Engles. Sensing she lacked a proper introduction into the story, Bakshi gifts Winston’s name to a similar-looking character who appears at the beginning of the film. Though that character’s chirpy delivery is eons away from Engles’s shrewish sneer, the filmmakers could have gotten away with it had her shift in tone originated with the beating she takes by the cops when the aforementioned bathtub orgy is violently broken up and then stayed a consistently cantankerous hiss throughout the rest of the film. Unfortunately, the retrofitted Winston character from the beginning returns at the end of the film, original squeaky voice in tow and serving as a reminder of the film’s rough construction.
But, ironically, the rough construction is one of the film’s endless charms. It’s a go-for-broke explosion of color, sex, sound, and energy that manages to be hilarious, sad, insightful, audacious, erotic, and just as much an ode to the times it celebrates as it is a bonafide product of same. And though the end is an ode to youthful and libidinous goofing around, there does seem to be a detectable amount of growth and maturation in the character of Fritz which gives his story and its era a satisfying arc and stands as a fabulous pop culture allegory of its era.
But, then again, maybe it’s just about a cartoon cat that smokes dope and likes to fuck.
(C) Copyright 2023, Patrick Crain