Fritz the Cat

By: Marco Alvarez

If you’ve seen Fritz the Cat, the 1972 X-rated and animated feature based on Robert Crumb’s comic strip character, then you already know how heavy it is.  But if you have never heard Fritz being mentioned by any of your friends or at any of the cocktail parties of artists and intellectuals you attended, I urge you to begin celebrating now with an obese blunt or a couple bong-loads because you’re in for a real treat.

The rating makes it clear that this film is nothing like the Disney cartoons we all grew up on as kids; it is an animation for adults. Why would adults be interested in cartoons? –Adults’ interest in cartoons reveals something about how adults can relate to animated films through a kind of mature revisitation of their childhoods.  For adults, watching the movie was like watching a new kind of cartoon.  Kids love cartoons for what they do for their imaginations and playful senses of wonder.  Similarly, adults love Fritz the Cat because it captures a vividness of real adult life.  You can appreciate the psychedelic part of cartoons when you’re an adult: the visual trips, the composition of the story, the unraveling of the animation.  Fritz the Cat sparked controversy for its intense violence, sex, and psychedelia, and is the first animation to receive an X-rating from the Motion Picture Association of America. It was groundbreaking in the history of American film and in the evolution of animation itself.  This fact indicates more of an achievement than a negative label because of the form and context of the film.

Fritz the Cat did more than set the stage for later television successes like The Simpsons, Beavis and Butthead, Family Guy, and South Park, which have similar adult-oriented content and animation.  The only American animation I know that is more explicit than Fritz the Cat is Rob Zombie’s The Haunted World of El Superbeasto (but keep in mind the time gap between the two).  Fritz the Cat surpassed all standards, and since its release in 1972, there has been no bolder or more real animated feature that shows us our own disgusting behaviors, our own shortcomings and trippy fantasies. It has been almost 40 years and it has aged exceptionally well because there is actual substance to the film. At the movie’s core, there is this fascinating quality of a double-edge – a realization that what Fritz embodies: overindulgence in sex, weed, and himself in a society marked by racial issues and power hierarchies is at the same time beautiful and ugly, funny and foolish. When you watch the film, you are accompanied by the feeling that Fritz is both the protagonist and the antagonist at different moments. While this movie is iconic in counterculture, even its portrayals of counterculture do not escape its own satire – so really, everything is subject to its satirical sting.

As a satire of the socio-political atmosphere of American life during the ‘60s, the film is meant to disturb and embarrass us and provoke thoughts about ourselves through the dynamics of Fritz, other anthropomorphic characters, and their happenings.  After all, that is exactly what excellent satire does: sarcasm simply stabs, but satire incises like a surgeon and then sews you back up.  The combination of mature content with mesmerizing animation produced a satire of a higher order.  It was not the satire of a schoolboy cheating on an exam; instead, it was the satire of a pot-smoking, womanizing NYU student trying to find out “where it’s at.” It reinvented peoples’ ideas of what a cartoon can be. Fritz the Cat spoke to a new audience, the young adults that were becoming the next generation of artists, laborers, and politicians.  The aesthetic form of the satire can be applied to the movie simply beyond its textual content.  In other words, the sheer visual dimensions and the colors of it, also fulfill the definition of satire. The word “satire” comes from the Latin phrase “lanx satura,” which means a full medley of fruits or dishes.  Fritz the Cat truly radiates a variety of colors and meanings. It represented a new aesthetic, an unexplored part of the spectrum of American animation.

Fritz the Cat began as a comic strip by Robert Crumb, and the strips he would create with this character gained a reputation in the underground comic culture. In a story published in Robert Crumb’s Head Comix in 1968, an intro on Fritz says, “Fritz is a sophisticated, up-to-the-minute young feline college student who lives in a modern ‘supercity’ of millions of animals…Yes, not unlike people in their manners and morals….” The same effect of animals behaving like people comes through in the film. The mature content that was typical of Crumbs’ Fritz the Cat comic strips brings a realism to the film that makes the characters seem human; as a result, the viewer takes the film more seriously than the established Disney cartoon that is full of clichés and romantic fluff.  According to Michael Barrier’s The Filming of Fritz the Cat: Bucking the Tide, Bakshi is quoted as saying in a 1971 L.A. Times article, “Grown men sitting in cubicles drawing butterflies floating over a field of flowers, while American planes are dropping bombs in Vietnam and kids are marching in the streets, is ludicrous.” –At least Bakshi included what was going on in the country in his animation. He even used real audio recordings of people on the streets of New York for the characters. Bakshi refused to use celebrity voices for the main characters.  He also refused to portray his characters singing like those of Disney’s because he thought it wasn’t realistic. One exception is when Fritz plays guitar and sings as three girls walk by, but he does so because he is trying to get laid.

To go along with the mature content are current events of the time, which add to that realistic feel and provide depth. The movie captures a particular era of people, places and occurrences.  There are several cultural and literary allusions throughout the dialogue that create various meanings and connections. You probably wouldn’t immediately understand all the different associations unless you lived during that time: Comedian Flip Wilson’s female alter ego Geraldine, Terry and the Pirates, James Baldwin, Dick Tracy, the Head Start Program. The movie acts like a cinematic time capsule through which contemporary society can look back and reflect on its relevance.

To give you some back-story, according to Gibson and McDonnell’s Unfiltered: The Complete Ralph Bakshi, director Bakshi noticed Crumb’s strong satirical style at a bookstore where he found a copy of Fritz the Cat. He identified with Crumb’s raw approach and told producer Steve Krantz that he thought it would make a good movie.  Bakshi flew from New York to San Francisco, where Crumb lived, to convince him to sell the rights to Fritz for the film. He showed Crumb some Fritz drawings he made in imitation of his style to help persuade him that he could adapt it to animation. Crumb seemed interested but did not sign the contract. Upon returning to New York, Bakshi found out that Steve Krantz bought the rights from Crumb’s wife, who was able to make the decision by power of attorney. They immediately began making and marketing the film.

The movie’s marketing approach was to capitalize off its own notoriety of being X-rated and animated. The theatrical release poster reads, “We’re not rated X for nothin’, baby!”  You can see Fritz with his arm around a female feline on the couch, his hand reaching down into her shirt, and his leg positioned between her legs. The headline is true.  The movie doesn’t hold back at all. The excessive sexuality in the film functions on at least a few levels, so it’s there for some good reasons. One example is that it is a way of making a point about the freedom of an artist’s creative expression. Another example in which the permeation of sex becomes significant is that it satirizes sexual promiscuity and the notion of free love.  A third and perhaps the most appropriate reason of all is that Crumb characterized Fritz by his sexual adventures, so his Fritz the Cat strips were known for having a strong sexual element.  The nudity in the film is full and in your face. Fritz has an orgy at the beginning as well as at the end of the movie.  At one point, Fritz leaps through hallucinatory tunnels of breasts, and at another, he repeatedly thrusts his pelvis into an idealized vision of a massive ass.  One of Fritz’s favorite ways of opening his mind is by opening girls’ legs.  Many people think that this compromises the movie’s substance because it seems trashy, but if anything, it makes it more real as it mimics human behavior.

The other controversial element of the film is its excessive depiction of drugs, which makes sense because it satirizes the ‘60s and it’s a social taboo usually paired with sex. In one scene, a male aardvark asks a female rabbit while puffing on a pipe, “I can’t tell if I’m there or not, how do you tell?”  After she assures him that he’ll simply know when he is, he humorously replies, “Oh balls, it doesn’t work for me. I’m a failure as a pot smoker.”  In another scene, the pairing of sex and drugs couldn’t be more seamless as the crow Duke takes Fritz to visit Bertha, a former prostitute who now deals pot. Bertha shoves seven joints in Fritz’s mouth and he gets super horny. Fritz gets freaky with her and upon climax, he claims to have gained some clarity.  “Revolt, revolt!” Fritz begins to yell his sudden epiphany. The contrast between the Fritz that just wants to smoke and fuck, and the Fritz that has noble revolutionary ideals, is hilarious. The contrast makes you critically think about the inconsistencies and contradictions of not only rightist, but also leftist views. The brilliant mix of catchy dialogue and thrilling visuals in satiric fashion approaches the topic of drugs more candidly and comprehensively than any anti-drug propaganda campaign that has been funded by our tax dollars.

It took some talented and courageous people to make Fritz the Cat a success.  Despite expected criticisms and controversies, the movie was received quite well.  The film grossed over $100 million internationally and became the most successful independent animated feature in history. For Bakshi, his directorial debut couldn’t have been any bigger. He would proceed on to other mentionable television shows and films such as Spider-Man (1967), Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures (1987), Cool World (1992), and Cool and the Crazy (1994).  For Crumb, even if the film wasn’t created exactly as he would’ve preferred, it nonetheless extended the legendary status of Fritz the Cat beyond the world of comics.  However, in 1972, Crumb ended the strip by having Fritz’s ex-girlfriend stab him in the back of the head with an ice pick in the story “Fritz the Cat, Superstar” (The Life and Death of Fritz the Cat). For producer Steve Krantz, he would go on to produce the 1974 sequel, The Nine Lives of Fritz the Cat, which didn’t involve Bakshi or Crumb. I saw the sequel too, and it was decently compelling, but it lacked the same ambition and depth of the original.

Considering Fritz the Cat’s success and how legitimately awesome the film is, I’m surprised not more people have heard about it. Of its time and ahead of its time, this piece is certainly worthy of your movie collection. So now you know what to do when you have that sweet vixen over at your pad. Just pop Fritz the Cat into your DVD player, light up some heavy joints, and embrace the sacred truth!

bringing you that fire! stay tune for more posts.

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