Arts & Entertainment

Fritz the Cat at 50: The X-rated cartoon that shocked the US

Ralph Bakshi’s bawdy and outrageous 1972 film sparked controversy when it was released 50 years ago – changing animation forever, writes Tamlin Magee.

A blazer-clad student called Fritz attends drug-fuelled orgies, steals guns from corrupt cops, sets his college on fire, finds himself in the middle of a race riot, and blows up a power plant. These outrageous moments would have pushed boundaries in any number of grindhouse exploitation films, but this student was a cat, and the star of the very first X-rated animated film – decades before the likes of South Park hit our TV screens. Fritz the Cat, a bawdy 1972 rampage through New York’s underworld, is the work of Ralph Bakshi, a legendary but equally divisive cult cartoonist who has never been a stranger to controversy.

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Using social commentary equal parts scandalous and nihilistic, Bakshi completely flipped the script on what animation could do, in a world that had until then been dominated by Disney. An adaptation of three comic books by original Fritz creator and cult comic legend Robert Crumb, Fritz the Cat’s scrappy animation contrasted its bright, lively main characters with often drab and gritty, realistic backdrops. For audiences more used to the wholesome hijinks of Mickey, Minnie, and Goofy, Fritz, which stuffed in more graphic sex scenes and bloody violence into its short run time than most live action films, came as a shock.

It was a runaway success, in spite of its less-than-shoestring budget of under $1 million, and it went on to become the highest grossing independent animated film of all time. Asserting that animation could be for adults too, it was unquestionably influential in the way that it changed the industry, showing that independent animations outside of the traditional studios could be successful too. As rough and raw as it was, Fritz held up a mirror to inconvenient truths about US social issues that have never faded – fraught race relations, inequality and police brutality. Critics called it debased and pornographic; fans called it gritty and real: the jury is still out in the academic world over whether its explicit nature advanced the cause of animation for adult audiences, or hindered it. But it inarguably disrupted the animation industry, and its breakout success occurred against all odds.


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