In Praise of Ralph Bakshi, Animation Pioneer

One of animation’s most influential artists, Ralph Bakshi made his mark on pop culture by refusing to sacrifice his singular vision to popular tastes and trends.

Consider Bakshi’s 1978 adaption of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, out Tuesday on DVD and Blu-ray: Faulted by critics for its darkness and violence, the animated movie paved the way for Peter Jackson’s Oscar-winning film nearly 25 years later. From its pioneering use of rotoscoping to its determination to shove cuddly hobbits into the end times without worrying about the children’s demographic, Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings was a defiant box-office success.

Bakshi’s dark perspective, like Tolkien’s before him, came from witnessing a world lost in war’s aftermath, where today’s comforts and conveniences were unthinkable.

“I grew up in a different time,” Bakshi, 71, told me by phone. “My mother’s family was killed by Hitler. Blacks weren’t able to vote. I grew up in a time where ideas were very important, and you had to fight for truth and justice. I don’t see that in today’s animation at all.”

Bakshi brought that fighter’s sensibility to Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures, the influential ’80s television cartoon that he spearheaded with legends like Ren and Stimpy creator John Kricfalusi and Batman: The Animated Series brainiac Bruce Timm.

The influential Mighty Mouse series took television animation off the assembly line and put it back in the talented hands of animators whose brains were bursting with jokes.

“If not for Ralph Bakshi, the ‘creator-driven’ [animation] revolution of the ’90s would probably never have happened,” Kricfalusi told me by e-mail. “Everyone credits Ren and Stimpy for drastically changing the way kid cartoons were made, but it really started two years earlier with Mighty Mouse.”

Decades before, Bakshi had done the same for animated cinema with Fritz the Cat, the first X-rated toon film in history. Based on underground comics legend Robert Crumb‘s horny strip of the same name, 1972’s Fritz the Cat was made for less than $1 million, but has grossed more than $100 million while laying the foundation for the mature animation wave of the ’70s and beyond. The movie, which celebrates its 38th anniversary April 12, immediately affected commercial animators, who had been straitjacketed by the old-school morality of more accessible studios like Disney.

Bakshi’s later work continued the arc. Surreal, streetwise entries like 1973’s Heavy Traffic and 1975’s Coonskin reflected the animator’s hardscrabble upbringing in Brooklyn, New York’s Brownsville neighborhood. More expansive efforts like 1977’s Wizards and 1981’s American Pop hop-scotched from sci-fi and fantasy to historical drama without losing sight of the outer limits of storytelling and technique.

The director’s hard-fought cinematic journey is informatively chronicled in the new half-hour documentary, “Forging Through the Darkness: The Ralph Bakshi Vision for The Lord of the Rings,” which is sadly the only bonus feature on the DVD reissue. (Bakshi’s influence on television animation, beginning with his ’50s and ’60s work for Terrytoons and extending to his ’80s mind-meld with Kricfalusi, can be found in bonus features on the Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures DVD set, released in January.)

From those movies to his current love, painting, Bakshi has refused to consider animation a vehicle for anything except creative expression. Soap-selling is someone else’s problem, Bakshi said.

“It was an art form to me,” he told “I worked hard at Terrytoons doing the original Mighty Mouse. But I woke up and said, ‘This isn’t working anymore.’ The world was changing in the ’60s, from Bob Dylan to the Cuban missile crisis. I used to go to work thinking I was never going to see anyone again.”

It’s a far cry from today’s high-end animation multiverse, with its swelling budgets and cross-platform deals. Not that the 21st century makes Bakshi feel any safer.

“This America I’m watching now has heroes with clay feet,” he said. “Who do the kids have to look up to? The whole thing has gone crazy, from banking corruption to Hurricane Katrina. Where’s Superman? It’s beyond my understanding, so now I paint pictures and have shows in New York. But I don’t have the hope I used to; I’m disgusted with what’s happened to us.”

Bakshi isn’t looking to jump back into the front lines of animation to try to steer pop culture into different waters. He’s had enough of that to last him a lifetime, although next-generation gear does possess certain charms.

“I’m not looking to get back into animation,” Bakshi said. “The only reason I would come back is to try the new technology.”

This article appeared at Wired

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