Legendary animation outsider Ralph Bakshi celebrated his 77th birthday yesterday with a defiant cartoon comeback called Last Days of Coney Island.
Premiering exclusively on Vimeo on Demand, the 25-minute, $3.99 Last Days of Coney Island screens perhaps even too profane for midnight animation distributors like Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim — which arguably wouldn’t exist without Bakshi’s foundational 1972 X-rated feature, Fritz the Cat. That fractured collaboration with underground comics standout Robert Crumb — along with the influential Bakshi’s streetwise follow-ups, Heavy Traffic and Coonskin, as well as his more theatrical crossovers like The Lord of the Rings and American Pop — mainstreamed the mature animation continuum we take for granted today.
Starring an uncompromising cacophony of hustlers, outsiders, and antiheroes, Last Days of Coney Island is something of a throwback to the freewheeling animation styles of Golden Age New York animators like Jim Tyer and Johnny Gentilella, the director told Cartoon Brew in a wide-ranging, hilarious bellow by phone from New Mexico — where he now paints atop a mountain when not making animated films. Taking place in the same politically and socially charged ’60s which destabilized Fritz the Cat, Heavy Traffic, and Coonskin’s early ’70s hangover, Bakshi’s new short also time-warps through his cartoonish ’80s, spent mentoring upstarts like John Kricfalusi and Bruce Timm, and into our internetworked present — where younger fans can suddenly fund an old animation legend’s next film and reignite his fire.
“I did 98 percent of all of the animation, and all of the backgrounds and in-betweens, which was hard for a 77-year-old guy,” Bakshi told me of his transgressive comeback. “At my age, I wouldn’t release it if I thought it didn’t work.”
With detours to monoliths like Disney and Pixar as well as painters like Bacon and Pollock, the unabashed Bakshi and I spoke at length about his crowd-funded comeback, why animators should stand up and fight for their names as well as let go of their work, and why the first rule of cartoons is that there are no rules.