Ralph Bakshi (pronounced Back-Shee, not Bahk-shee) was born in Haifa, Israel (then part of the British Mandatory Palestine) to a Krymchak Jewish family on October 29, 1938. When he was one year old, he traveled with his family to America and settled in Brownsville, Brooklyn — a 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, while mentoring under animators like Jim Tyer and Connie Rasinski. 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 Junktown, 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 excessive demographically inappropriate humour (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 & Ice, Heavy Traffic (a gritty, darkly humorous modern-day fable about urban violence), Coonskin (his highly controversial re-imagining 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 sub-par 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-including lifting footage from Rocket Robin Hood.
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. It was released on Vimeo in late 2015 and YouTube in 2016.
As of October 7, 2016, he has announced another animated project, three one-minute shorts called "Short Thoughts", two of which are follow-ups to his previous films Wizards and Coonskin, with the third one being a surprise.
- Fritz the Cat (1972)
- Heavy Traffic (1973)
- Coonskin (1975)
- Wizards (1977)
- The Lord of the Rings (1978)
- American Pop (1981)
- Hey Good Lookin' (1982)
- Fire & Ice (1983)
- Cool World (1992)
- Cool And The Crazy (1994): To date, his only fully live-action film.
- The Last Days of Coney Island (2015): Was in Development Hell for years, but Bakshi crowdfunded it via a successful Kickstarter campaign. It was released on Vimeo on Demand on October 29, 2015, just in time for Bakshi's 77th birthday. It was released onto YouTube for free by Ralph almost a year later.
- Short Thoughts (TBA): His latest project, which are three animated shorts, two of which are follow ups to Wizards and Coonskin respectively, with the third one being a surprise.
- 8th Man (1963, Animated the intro for the American version)
- The Butter Battle Book TV special (1989)
- Hound Town (1989)
- The Mighty Heroes (1966)
- Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures (1987-1988)
- Christmas In Tattertown (1989, Christmas Special produced for Nickelodeon loosely based on "Junktown")
- Spicy City (1997)
- What A Cartoon! Show shorts: "Babe He Calls Me" and "Malcom and Melvin" (1997)
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". The fire chief character from the original short had been based on him, while the sequel drops all subtleties and just turns him into a cartoon version of Ralph.
- Animated Shock Comedy: Bakshi's first three films can be seen as early examples of this trope.
- Darker and Edgier: His films in contrast to other animated films made at the time. Many of them have explicit adult content and tone to them, and they do not hold back when it comes to their political messages. Even his lighter works like Wizards tend to have rather dark elements to them.
- Death by Cameo: He himself makes a bit part cameo in each of his films where he gets killed with the exceptions of The Lord of the Rings, Fire & Ice, American Pop, and Cool World.
- Deranged Animation: In most everything he's touched. Even his rotoscoped films, while intended to be more naturalistic, are pretty out there.
- 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 youre talking about? Well, forget about it. If youre gonna compete with computer animation, you better go all out and do something thats totally different. Call it new acting. Blow the computer out of the water."
- 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.
- Lighter and Softer: Wizards is a rather dark film, but it's a much lighter film than his first three animated features (it was also the first of Bakshi's films to be rated PG rather than R or X). Obviously, his The Butter Battle Book TV special and two What A Cartoon! Show shorts weren't as adult as most of his theatrical films.
- Mushroom Samba: Heavy Traffic, Coonskin, and Hey Good Lookin' have scenes that describe this perfectly.
- Picaresque: His earlier work in particular owes much to this form of storytelling, with its satirical content, roguish protagonists with stop just short of true criminality and shaggy, episodic plot structure.
- 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.
- Shown Their Work:
- In order to ensure that the satire for Coonskin was relevant enough, Bakshi personally went around New York City to interview black citizens about their lives during the Civil Rights era.
- In the special features on the DVD of Wizards, Ralph talks about some of the animators that worked on the film.
- Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism: Aside from perhaps Wizards and Lord of the Rings, most of his works land squarely on the Cynical end of the scale.
- Technician Versus Performer: Ralph is 100% performer. All he cares about is the content of his films, and his technique is completely subservient to it—he doesn't give a rat's ass about whether or not his animation is polished or stacks up to the standards of Disney, because he knew he would only set himself up for failure if he held his very low budget films hostage to Disney's very high standards for animation.
- 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.
- Unbuilt Trope: Like many adult animated works in the years after him, the works of Bakshi featured jerkass protagonists and racial stereotypes. Unlike many of these same adult animated works, these protagonists and stereotypes were done for the sake of satirical and political commentary rather than for the sake of shock value.
- Ur-Example: The collage-like style of Bakshi's animation proved heavily influential to later companies like MTV and Adult Swim, who both popularized these practices with their own cartoons.