In the early 1970s, animation still reigned supreme as a storytelling mode for children. Disney was still a dominating force at the box office, with titles like THE ARISTOCATS (1970) and ROBIN HOOD (1973). Something started to change as the decade progressed, and the counter-culture started to take hold in live action cinema post-EASY RIDER (1969) and the success of American International Pictures. Animation became decidedly more transgressive, hip, geared towards an audience that had just seen the fall of the production code, and wanted content that embraced this new freedom and the excesses it may allow. Enter Ralph Bakshi.
Ralph Bakshi would spend the 1960s making animated shorts, only to enter the 70s with the first X-rated animated feature in the form of FRITZ THE CAT (1972), to much controversy. The film would be based on cartoonist Robert Crumb’s comic strip of the same name, also featuring risqué content. The strip featured our titular cat in 1960s New York City, dabbling in protests and other forms of activism when he isn’t graphically participating in orgies, fucking a crow, or running through a tunnel of breasts. Cinemation, its production company, glorified the X branding in advertisements with slogans like “He’s Animated and X-rated!” and “We Rated X For Nuthin’” adorning the theatrical posters. FRITZ would go on to make a name for Bakshi and would elevate animation to a sort of notoriety and cult fervor that the medium had yet to reach. It would additionally be followed up with HEAVY TRAFFIC (1973).
HEAVY TRAFFIC was also released with an X-rating, though efforts were made to cut it down to a more acceptable R. The MPAA wasn’t having it, though. Unlike with FRITZ THE CAT, in the mere span of a year, more theaters were willing to show X-rated content. This was partly due to the success of that film, as well as successful art house and midnight titles like LAST TANGO IN PARIS (1972) and PINK FLAMINGOS (1972), respectively. It would end up grossing more at the box office than FRITZ THE CAT and remains Bakshi’s most critically acclaimed work to date.
What separates HEAVY TRAFFIC from FRITZ THE CAT is not its lessening sexual content, but Bakshi’s use of live action, which would appear again at various points in his later career, perhaps culminating in the primarily live action COOL WORLD (1992). The use of live action, mostly in bookend segments and brief moments that collide with animation, allow HEAVY TRAFFIC to feel even grittier and dirtier than FRITZ THE CAT does at its most vile times. The result is something that feels like Chuck Jones by way of Robert Downey Sr., with politics, pathos, and sexual liberation taking charge of exceptionally detailed, yet scrappy animation.
Bakshi had one more controversial animated film in him in the form of COONSKIN (1975), featuring Brother Bear, Brother Rabbit, and Preacher Fox causing all sorts of chaos in Harlem. It was by no surprised attacked for being outwardly racist and sparked protests due to its appropriation of blackface. Bakshi then switched gears to mainly making films targetted towards children with the fantasy films WIZARDS (1977), THE LORD OF THE RINGS (1978) and FIRE AND ICE (1983). In that period he also created a couple of adult films—though not nearly as graphic as his earlier work—in the form of the coming-of-age drama HEY GOOD LOOKIN’ (1982) and the music epic AMERICAN POP (1981), before turning his career solely to TV and short films minus the near universally reviled COOL WORLD. But prior to all of that, he gave the world a horny, anthropomorphic cat and one of the most potent films about 1960s New York City ever made, and they just happen to have been animated. And X-rated!