GeekOut

Before 'The Simpsons' and 'South Park,' there was Ralph Bakshi

Ralph Bakshi shocked audiences in 1972 with the animated feature film "Fritz the Cat." The movie, with its adult themes, received an X rating at the time.

"What’s extraordinary is what they’re saying on 'The Simpsons,' on television, is almost more than I did on 'Fritz the Cat,' which I got yelled at and beat up about," Bakshi told CNN earlier this month. "And 'South Park!' What is going on here? I got shot for less than this."

Not only did "Fritz" and many of his subsequent films move animation well beyond kids' fare, but Bakshi's irreverent 1987 take on "Mighty Mouse" for CBS Saturday morning TV, influenced what came just a few years later on television, if only by the fact that it employed the creators of "Ren & Stimpy" and "Batman: The Animated Series".

Bakshi has also had his feet planted firmly in nerd culture for decades. He recently made an appearance at the popular Atlanta, Georgia sci-fi/fantasy convention Dragon*Con to screen his 1977 cult classic film "Wizards," and to take part in a panel discussion of his pre-Peter Jackson version of "Lord of the Rings."

"I’m shocked that all my films are still around to be seen by young audiences," he said. "These were made 30 or 40 years ago, and when I did them, I did them so cheaply. We were working very hard just to get the films out, I never thought they’d be around so long. Maybe it’s the fact that no one makes these kinds of films, except crazy Ralph."

"Crazy Ralph's" fans, like cartoonist and animator Jeaux Janovsky, consider Bakshi to be "the animated, living embodiment of DIY."

Janovsky said he admires that Bakshi often works outside the traditional animation studios. "I love his art, film techniques, humor, attitude," he said. "Whenever I am down about animation, or about my own animation, I always listen to this man's kernels of wisdom."

Janovsky saw "Fritz the Cat" at the age of five when his mother rented it for him, not realizing it was the furthest thing from a kid's movie. "It warped my mind in the best of ways," he said.

"He showed us that cartoons could be for grownups too, not just for the kiddies," he said. "Ralph has tackled a lot in his films: racism, violence, drugs, society, poverty, fantasy, life ... His films show us parts of ourselves in a distilled, abstract animated way."

With Pixar and the like dominating the box office, things have certainly changed since Bakshi's last feature film, "Cool World," which starred Brad Pitt and Kim Basinger, in 1992. "Animation has just exploded as a multi-million dollar industry," he said. "I wish I was around now. It’s now a business and I would have gotten more money for the films to make them. I guess it has a lot to do with the technology now."

For Bakshi though, the most exciting stuff is happening online. “There’s so much great animation on YouTube. Young kids are coming out with their films and that excites me. I saw the [Oscar-nominated] 'Triplets of Belleville,' which was absolutely beautiful. Some of the Japanese films are extraordinary. ’Akira’ and ‘Nausicaa' - that stuff is beautiful. The stuff on television is a little crude. Cartoon Network has some good designs, and some good shows."

Bakshi is busy planning his comeback, as well, but he continues to show that "DIY" spirit.

"The kind of films I wanna make, I can’t go to Hollywood," he said. "I’m going to make a new movie called ‘The Last Days of Coney Island.’ It’s kind of an ‘L.A. Confidential’ – a murder mystery set in the ‘50s. In fact, they tried to sell ‘Coney Island’ to a couple of Hollywood studios, big ones. They said we can’t do this, this just isn’t what we do. They said there’s nothing to merchandise in here. They thought the film was too dark. You can’t make a murder mystery with flowers - it’s a murder mystery! It’s gotta be what it is, it can’t be a happy murder mystery."

Bakshi wasn't shy about speaking his mind on the topic of comic books, either.

"I don’t like what’s happening with comics," he said. "DC Comics is rewriting all of the histories, trying to restart it. They’re going to alienate the fans who wanted to keep those characters around. They’re making a huge mistake on the ugliness that they’re putting on these characters visually. It’s not the continuity, it’s that they look ugly and look hard. I look at Aquaman and Superman, I can’t tell the difference, they both look like heroic faces. You look at the old comics, the faces have a subtle difference. They’ve lost that, they’re all perfect drawings by brilliant artists. But that’s not what comics are about. It’s the inconsistencies that you love. When they started doing 22 pages with this computer rendering, it’s too hard. There’s no love in comics either, it’s all hate."

So, if "The Last Days of Coney Island" never gets made, Bakshi has a backup plan. "I’ll go edit a comic book for DC and show them."

Regardless of what medium he uses, Bakshi is determined to continue pushing boundaries, and Janovsky couldn't be happier: "He's still stirring the animation stew and adding plenty of pepper, spice, and hot sauce while he's at it!