Fritz the Cat August 20, 2021
1 Hr., 20 Mins.
hough it would be nice if every “important” movie were as pronouncedly great as its historical value, not all such statured films are lucky enough to remain both significant and affecting. Fritz the Cat (1972), based on the underground comics by Robert Crumb (who hated this adaptation so much that he swiftly killed off the title character in response), is out of luck. Touted as the very first animated
movie geared toward adults (thus inarguably helping pave the way for such cultural touchstones as the long-running The Simpsons and South Park), this black comedy is as pop-culturally consequential as it is a bit of a mess. It’s far more prone to unengaging tangents that lead the film into incoherence than ideological clarity.
The movie, distractedly written and directed by Ralph Bakshi, is set in New York City in the late 1960s. It finds its nucleus in the eponymous character, a saucer-eyed college student who, still trying to figure out his place in the world, is the type to earnestly proclaim that he wants to live every day like it’s his last. Increasingly, though, he finds himself sick of the white liberal types that define so much of his student body (though it’s important to note that everyone in the movie is an anthropomorphic animal; corresponding "races" are unsubtly implied). Naïve Fritz wants to experience what the world writ large has to offer rather than just read about and then critique its failings like his classmates seem to prefer to. (Mid-movie, Fritz skips an exam to hang out in a Harlem club to discuss “the race issue” he tells a skeptical listening companion he has diligently studied; in another breath, he bemoans the presumably racial “guilt complex” he has as a cat.) Soon Fritz is dropping out of NYU, the film swirling in his subsequent soul-search-driven misadventures, clogged with plumes of pot smoke, casual sex, and sudden outbursts of violence.
Fritz the Cat is intermittently successful at poking fun at neoliberal personalities: the superficial investment with social issues du jour; the tendency to regurgitate certain forward-thinking talking points rather than fully engage with them. And the animation can be compelling, like when Fritz and a nagging love interest are driving through a ravishingly red-hued desert landscape or when the cameras are goggling at the animators’ bizarro reimaginings of New York City. But nothing that’s good about Fritz the Cat is very consistent. What is consistent is its lack of focus. The storyline rarely makes sense — new characters go mostly introduced, motivations unspecified, stakes even on a scene-by-scene basis obscured — and so we generally feel adrift, unsure of what’s going on outside of a visual standpoint. You don’t get the sense that Bakshi has ever written a story before, watching Fritz the Cat; you don’t get the sense that there were any story editors around, either. Bakshi has no feeling for structure.
Bakshi is more eager to persistently offer images of animal nudity (or, rather, human nudity affixed to cartoon animals) in a bid to shock. Though I’ll never think of it as a bad thing to work overtime to make the MPAA mad, the film invests far more in this eventually monotonous visual provocation than any of the interesting ideas it invokes. (Fritz the Cat was rated X upon release; much of the critical fawning it received at the time, to my eye, is mostly rooted in an appreciation of the movie’s rebellious dedication.) There’s an emptiness to Fritz the Cat — like it’s only half-interested in being about anything, more consumed instead with wanting to represent something.
The satire is mostly blandly contemptuous than perceptive or probing, with an undercurrent of what seems to be relatively conservative scorn at odds with the film’s wider instances of forward-looking progressivism. Black and Jewish characters never strike us as much more than mean-spirited stereotypes; radical leftists, as introduced toward the end of the movie, don’t really have their ideologies examined — the movie just reiterates ideas of radicals wanting to emptily destroy. Unsurprisingly, the police are portrayed as literal pigs who do little except create further chaos; it might be a little on the nose, but this also may be the movie’s most intuitive use of cliché.
Even if Fritz the Cat, a big hit in 1972, isn’t very good, I do think it’s worth seeing; it’s rewarding to get acquainted with the piece of media fundamentally responsible for the adult-geared animation that, while not so eager to offend, is now so common on TV and (less so) in the movies. How much has the state of the form evolved? But ultimately Fritz the Cat is more fun to talk about, both in terms of how it made a mark on the culture at the time (there truly wasn’t anything like it) and how its legacy would help shape future works, than it is to watch. It’s only inevitable that with time, some culturally defining properties either eerily maintain their relevance or progressively feel hyper-bound to the contexts in which they were released. Fritz the Cat, disappointingly, is an unambiguous example of the latter. C