"Ralph Bakshi is a force of nature. He saved the TV animation industry — the creative part of it — by giving back the art to the artists." "Baby, I'm the world's most ripped-off cartoonist, and that's all I'm gonna say."
— Ralph Bakshi
Bakshi was born in Haifa (then part of the British mandate of Palestine) in 1937. When he was one year old, he traveled with his family to America and settled in Brownsville, New York, the seedy lower-income community that became the inspiration for the dark and gritty
urban setting of many of his cartoons. World War II
was about to break out; in fact, when traveling past the Mediterranean, the ship on which the Bakshis were sailing was boarded by Nazi troopers, but the ship's American affiliations prevented the incident from becoming hostile.
Bakshi became interested in cartooning when he encountered a book titled The Complete Guide to Cartooning
by Gene Byrnes in the Brownsville public library (which he promptly stole), circa 1952. Despite being a poor student and disliked by his teachers, who considered him a talentless punk, Ralph was one of only 10 students of art who passed a drawing exam to enter Manhattan's School of Industrial Arts.
He got his start working for famed golden-age
American cartoonist Paul Terry
, a man who regarded cartoons as all business and no art. Bakshi's inventiveness, disregard for the rules, and all-around moxie eventually earned him a certain degree of prestige. He created the obscure comic strips Bonefoot & Fudge
, and launched some larger-scale animation projects like his animated film Wizards
and The Mighty Heroes
, which he pitched on the spot to CBS
execs, making up the show as he went along.
Nowadays, Ralph Bakshi may be best remembered for his work on a film adaptation of Robert Crumb
's risqué underground comic strip Fritz the Cat
, which became the first American cartoon to be rated X by the MPAA
, much to Bakshi's chagrin. He worked for the 1980s
revival of the classic "Superman meets Mickey Mouse
" cartoon, Mighty Mouse
, which was later canned for getting too much crap past the radar
(one of which was a scene of alleged cocaine use that freaked out the Moral Guardians
). Despite the content and censor interference, the show was extremely influential on pretty much every animated series that followed it over the next decade, specifically The Ren & Stimpy Show
Bakshi's filmography certainly does not stop there; he is also the creative mind behind such underground cartoon milestones as the animated version of The Lord of the Rings
, the Cult Classic Fire and Ice
, Heavy Traffic
(a gritty, darkly humorous
modern-day fable about urban violence), Coonskin
(his highly controversial reimagining of the tales of Uncle Remus, considered racist by many due largely to its "blackface" character designs, although the film is supportive of the black community and approved by the NAACP) and Cool World
, a film he envisioned as the first animated horror film, but was radically changed by Paramount Pictures without Bakshi's consent
and wound up as a subpar imitation of Who Framed Roger Rabbit
Also worth noting is that Bakshi also produced and directed Rocket Robin Hood
and the second and third seasons of the 1960s Spider-Man
cartoon. The latter varied in quality under Bakshi's tenure, although a lot of this was due to Executive Meddling
. The suits continually cut both Bakshi's budget and his lead times, forcing him to continually reuse stock footage in the same way that Filmation
later would. By the end, Bakshi was reduced to literally stitching together new episodes entirely
out of stock footage.
The book Unfiltered: The Complete Ralph Bakshi
provides much information on the life, influences and work. His next work, The Last Days Of Coney Island
, lingered in Development Hell
for years, until he started a Kickstarter campaign
to fund it, and, as of March 1, 2013, successfully made its goal.
Some recurring characteristics of Ralph Bakshi's work:
- Adam Westing: He voiced an animated version of himself in the Ren & Stimpy: Adult Party Cartoon episode "Fire Dogs II". It was probably a favor for John, since Ralph was his mentor and John is Ralph's best friend.
- Darker and Edgier: His films in contrast to other animated films made at the time.
- Deranged Animation: In most everything he's touched, save for The Lord of the Rings, American Pop, and Fire and Ice, which were realistic, rotoscoped animation.
- Death by Cameo: He himself makes a cameo in each of his films where he gets killed with the exceptions of The Lord of the Rings, Fire and Ice, American Pop, and Cool World.
- Disney School of Acting and Mime: Ralph dislikes Disney acting, feeling that its a stale, cliché and overproduced form of cartoon acting, and that animators should try and experiment with new types of acting:
"When I hear 2D animators today talking about acting in hand-drawn cartoons, I ask, what kind of acting? Are you talking about the old fashioned acting that animators have always done? You know… the hand on the hip, finger-pointing, broad action, lots of overlapping action, screeching to a halt- all that turn-of-the-century old fashioned mime stuff. Is that what you’re talking about? Well, forget about it. If you’re gonna compete with computer animation, you better go all out and do something that’s totally different. Call it “new acting”. Blow the computer out of the water."
- Doing It for the Art: He made his films very personal and gritty to contrast to Disney's obsessiveness with slickness and escapist entertainment and to combat tired, dumb cliches and perceptions of what cartoons are in general. He believes animation is a tool that can handle any kind of story, idea, technique or genre, and stresses the importance of content in films, and doesn't remotely care if his animation "works" or not, as long as he tries or has something new to say with the medium. He also adamantly stresses that polish and perfectionism only robs a film of raw energy and vitality, seeing it as a crutch to hide weak, stale ideas (he sees this as a flaw of Disney films and their followers, which he thinks are so overworked, over refined until they're perfect, that he finds them impersonal and boring).
He discarded pencil tests and retakes not only for money reasons, but because he trusted the veteran animators to know he expected creativity and professionalism in their animation rather than perfection. And one time, when one artist came up to him pointing out a minor continuity mistake between two layout drawings (specifically, a key switching hands between the drawings), Ralph proceeded to chew him out in front of the whole studio, basically telling him he was wasting his time on irrelevant details, instead of what's really important to the film.
- There have been some projects he's done just to keep money flowing, but that was just so he would be able to make the projects he really wanted to do, rather than just make a quick buck for its own sake.
- Executive Meddling: He's a frequent victim of this, particularly with Cool World and his TV series Spicy City (which led to the latter being cancelled despite decent ratings).
- Furry Denial: Bakshi's reasoning for why the anthropomorphic characters in his films never act like animals is that it would ruin what he was trying to create, which was a more realistic and mature form of animation.
- George Jetson Job Security: Bakshi is known within the animation industry for this, especially on the Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures show. John Kricfalusi (who's also been fired several times) in particular has stated that he lost count on how many times Ralph fired him from the show.
- Lighter and Softer: Obviously, his Butter Battle Book TV special and two What A Cartoon! Show shorts weren't as adult as most of his theatrical films.
- Moral Dissonance: Wizards has What Measure Is a Non-Cute? enforced by Designated Heroes who think Science Is Bad and yet aren't afraid to shoot the villain. Actually, Bakshi has stated that the message behind Wizards isn't that Science Is Bad, it's that propaganda is bad. Note that this is a common theme in Bakshi's work.
- Mushroom Samba: Heavy traffic, Coonskin, and Hey good lookin have scenes that describe this perfectly.
- Random Events Plot: Invoked; his first three films (and Hey Good Lookin) deliberately eschewed traditional story structure and narrative in favor of a collage like, improvisational approach, juggling together seemingly unrelated character vignettes or seemingly non-sequitir scenes with an overarching theme or subtext tying them all together, allowing the films to juggle multiple point of views on a subject, as well as aiding his films biographical and satirical undertones.
- Roger Rabbit Effect: Heavy Traffic, Coonskin and Cool World
- Rotoscoping: On American Pop and The Lord of the Rings. Contrary to popular belief, Ralph strongly disliked using it and sees it as a uncreative dead end for animation, which he fell back on due to several factors, including his shoestring budgets, the fact that the veteran animators he previously worked with were retiring, and the new college students coming to work for him weren't skilled enough to animate on their own yet.
- Saved from Development Hell: His film The Last Days of Coney Island.
- Shown Their Work: In the special features on the DVD of Wizards, Ralph talks about some of the animators that worked on the film.
- 10-Minute Retirement: After behind the scenes trouble in Spicy City, Bakshi retired from film-making for many years and chose to focus on painting, but came back into it with Coney Island when he realized his films and influence were much more appreciated than he initially realized in later years.
- What Could Have Been: Sometime during the 1980's when Ralph was working on Mighty Mouse, he had recognized John K's talent. Ralph and John were planning on teaming up to do an animated film called "Bobby's girl". Which was set to be a parody of the teen comedies during the time. However Tri-Star canceled the project. But artwork of this proposed project can be seen in the Unfiltered: The Complete Ralph Bakshi book. One can wonder what would have happened if this film had been made.
- "Christmas in Tattertown" was actually the pilot for what would've been Nickelodeon's first animated series. It didn't get picked up, but was successful enough to convince Nick to produce their own animated shows
- Ralph had an interest of doing a film of The Catcher in the Rye. He intended to shoot the story's bracketing sequences in live action and to animate the core flashback scenes. J.D. Salinger rejected this offer (as well as the other offers that were made beforehand to adapt the book).
- Originally, Ralph Bakshi envisioned Cool World as an animated erotic horror film about a cartoonist who has sex with his hot female creation and spawns a half-human, half-cartoon daughter who sets out to kill her parents for being born a freak. Sadly, due to Executive Meddling, the premise was changed into a wannabe Who Framed Roger Rabbit with nothing (except for the taboo of humans and animated characters having sex) from his original vision.
- One of the ElfQuest supplement books contains a couple of character sketches done by Bakshi with commentary and pointers from artist Wendy Pini (since his elves and Pini's elves have a measure of similarity) as part of an (ultimately fruitless) project to create an ElfQuest animated series.
- Bakshi's plan for The Lord of the Rings was to make two films, one of which would cover as much of The Fellowship of the Ring as he could and The Two Towers up to the end of the battle of Helm's Deep, and the second film would cover the rest. The studio, however, would not greenlight two films at once, and then released the first film without the "Part One" that Bakshi wanted in the title, since they did not believe anyone would pay for "half a movie". The film didn't sell was well as expected, mostly due to audiences realizing only after they had bought a ticket and sat through the whole thing that it wasn't the full story, and thus, the studio ruled against greenlighting the "sequel".