Fritz the Cat ★★★★★

The title character of this film, the first animated feature aimed at an adult sensibility, was the creation of underground comic book author Robert Crumb. Crumb was the most successful of a number of comic creators in the late 1960s and early 1970s, alongside such as Gilbert Shelton and Bobby London (whose work was later adapted for the screen in Dirty Duck). Crumb’s published book of Fritz stories was bought by Warner Bros. and eventually secured by the team of producer Steve Krantz and animator Ralph Bakshi. Although the resultant film was a critical and popular hit, and a pioneering work in the field of animation, Crumb loathed it and a lengthy court battle ensued during which the cartoonist had his name removed from the credits. During the squabble, Krantz and Bakshi also ended their partnership, so that when the sequel came to be made, it was done without Bakshi’s creative input. Fritz the Cat emerged as the first American animated feature designed as a social comment on the 1960s. Although many will forever nostalgically associate it with that era, the film is quite scathing in intent, despite its endearing irreverence, and makes for surprisingly resonant viewing – a true hallmark in the evolution of the animated feature. Bakshi went on to make a number of provocative animated features in the 1970s, establishing himself as America’s foremost auteur in the field.

Fritz the Cat concerns the 1960s adventures of the title character, a student and aspiring hedonist interested in easy sex, dope and social revolution, when it suits him. In episodic fashion, which some felt uneven, he first seduces a trio of naïve girl students, taking them to a dope-filled orgy which is soon raided by the police (animated pigs of course). Fritz takes refuge in a toilet but soon finds himself a fugitive from the cops. He flees firstly through a synagogue and then returns to New York University where his roommates are deep in study for their upcoming exams. Fritz longs for life rather than study and sets his notes on fire. The fire catches immediately and the building is ablaze. Again a fugitive, Fritz makes his way into Harlem, where he befriends an ageing crow. He tries to be hip and cool in this African-American milieu and together with the crow, steals a car and goes for a joyride. Back on the streets of Harlem, a dope-fuelled Fritz starts preaching revolution and the angry mob soon turn on the police that gather there, causing a fully fledged race riot resulting in the death of his new friend. Alone, Fritz hides in a garbage can until rescued by his bourgeois girlfriend who takes him on a journey west. Away from the city, their car breaks down. Fritz abandons her, instead meeting a junkie biker who inaugurates him into a secret order of revolutionary terrorists planning to use him to detonate a bomb in an electrical power plant.

The first ever X-rated animated feature film, Fritz the Cat is an extraordinary debut from Bakshi, who is able to evoke the free-wheeling spirit of the 1960s as well as expose the contemptuous hypocrisy he sees behind it. Cleverly, the film mirrors the era in its course from free love and “harmless” pot-smoking hedonism through to race riots and finally, domestic terrorism. The message is clear: the social changes of the era only induced violence and social misery, with loving hippie “ideals” simply an equally empty and even narrow-mindedly simplistic ideological response to so-called “freedom” or “liberation”. In the film’s sarcasm, there is much bitterness. Youthful rebellion takes Fritz through a variety of adventures but ultimately far from enlightenment as he finds only the futility of revolution (if he even admits this to himself) and can only recourse to escapist peace and love homilies. Like much of the era, he is a figure of hypocrisy, of hedonism and rebellion without a real thought of their consequences. Through him, the film asks what is exactly meant by the term “revolution” when it is applied to that era. Is it sexual, racial, political, and moral? Although it touches on all of those aspects, what emerges most strongly is a sense of disillusionment, an aching lament for the era and for the way in which the ideals of peace, freedom and love segued into violence, exploitation and even sociological contempt.

Such is the paradox of the early 1970s, following on from this turbulent era, and Bakshi captures this alarmingly well. Fritz the Cat is an extraordinary film in its treatment of recent American history. As an example of animation making for social comment, the film is a major accomplishment, whatever personal resentments Robert Crumb may have had about it. Arguably, the film emerges as ultimately superior to the tales which inspired it, which were apparently never considered as amongst Crumb’s finest work, even in underground circles. There is nothing in American film which comes close to being as effective in its single-handed re-definition of animation. The increasingly tumultuous chaos of a seminal epoch in American history has been complexly rendered in poignant, challenging and hilarious fashion. The seamless evocation of race, class and counter-culture futility makes for a valid cross-section of values and attitudes within American society in a process of transition. This theme of the uncertainty of social transition runs throughout the film and a kind of caricaturish behaviorism abounds as both sociological document and a surreal explosion of pop-culture values. About the paradoxes of social transition though, Fritz the Cat is rather despairing, its counter-culture icon systematically debunked: ample proof that Bakshi is a skilled social satirist inspired by the underground tradition.