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Bakshi, pictured here with two unidentified fans.

"Ralph Bakshi is a force of nature. He saved the TV animation industry — the creative part of it — by giving back the art to the artists."

"Baby, I'm the world's most ripped-off cartoonist, and that's all I'm gonna say."
Ralph Bakshi

Ralph Bakshi is one of animation's greatest unsung heroes.

Bakshi was born in Haifa (then part of the British mandate of Palestine) in 1938 to a Krymchak Jewish family. When he was one year old, he traveled with his family to America and settled in Brownsville, New York, the seedy lower-income community that became the inspiration for the dark and gritty urban setting of many of his cartoons. World War II was about to break out; in fact, when traveling past the Mediterranean, the ship on which the Bakshis were sailing was boarded by Nazi troopers, but the ship's American affiliations prevented the incident from becoming hostile.

Bakshi became interested in cartooning when he encountered a book titled The Complete Guide to Cartooning by Gene Byrnes in the Brownsville public library (which he promptly stole), circa 1952. Despite being a poor student and disliked by his teachers, who considered him a talentless punk, Ralph was one of only 10 students of art who passed a drawing exam to enter Manhattan's School of Industrial Arts.

He got his start working for famed golden-age American cartoon studio, Terry Toons, owned by Paul Terry, a man who regarded cartoons as all business and no art. Bakshi's inventiveness, disregard for the rules, and all-around moxie eventually earned him a certain degree of prestige. He created the obscure comic strips Bonefoot & Fudge and Junktown, and launched some larger-scale animation projects like his animated film Wizards and The Mighty Heroes, which he pitched on the spot to CBS execs, making up the show as he went along.

Nowadays, Ralph Bakshi may be best remembered for his work on a film adaptation of Robert Crumb's risqué underground comic strip Fritz The Cat, which became the first American cartoon to be rated X by the MPAA, much to Bakshi's chagrin. He worked for the 1980s revival of the classic "Superman meets Mickey Mouse" cartoon, Mighty Mouse, which was later canned for getting too much crap past the radar. It was eventually pulled off due to a scene where Mighty Mouse sniffed a flower that was reminiscent of cocaine consumption, but it was extremely influential on pretty much every animated series that followed it over the next decade.

Bakshi's filmography certainly does not stop there; he is also the creative mind behind such underground cartoon milestones as the animated version of The Lord of the Rings, the Cult Classic Fire and Ice, Heavy Traffic (a gritty, darkly humorous modern-day fable about urban violence), Coonskin (his highly controversial reimagining of the tales of Uncle Remus, considered racist by many due largely to its "blackface" character designs, although the film is supportive of the black community and approved by the NAACP) and Cool World, a film he envisioned as the first animated horror film, but was radically changed by Paramount Pictures without Bakshi's consent and wound up as a subpar imitation of Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

Also worth noting is that Bakshi also produced and directed Rocket Robin Hood and the second and third seasons of the 1960s Spider-Man cartoon. The latter varied between in quality under Bakshi's tenure, although a lot of this was due to Executive Meddling. The suits continually cut both Bakshi's budget and his lead times, forcing him to continually reuse stock footage in the same way that Filmation later would. By the end, Bakshi was reduced to literally stitching together new episodes entirely out of stock footage.

The book Unfiltered: The Complete Ralph Bakshi provides much information on the life, influences and work of this sadly underrated animation maverick. His final work, The Last Days of Coney Island, is currently in Development Hell.


Television animation

Some recurring characteristics of Ralph Bakshi's work:


 "When I hear 2D animators today talking about acting in hand-drawn cartoons, I ask, what kind of acting? Are you talking about the old fashioned acting that animators have always done? You know… the hand on the hip, finger-pointing, broad action, lots of overlapping action, screeching to a halt- all that turn-of-the-century old fashioned mime stuff. Is that what you’re talking about? Well, forget about it. If you’re gonna compete with computer animation, you better go all out and do something that’s totally different. Call it “new acting”. Blow the computer out of the water."

  • Doing It for the Art: Ralph made his films very personal and gritty to contrast to Disney's obsessiveness with slickness and escapist entertainment.
  • Executive Meddling: He's a frequent victim of this, particularly with Cool World and his TV series Spicy City (which led to the latter being cancelled despite decent ratings).
  • Furry Denial: Bakshi's reasoning for why the anthropomorphic characters in his films never act like animals is that it would ruin what he was trying to create, which was a more realistic and mature form of animation.
  • George Jetson Job Security: Bakshi is known within the animation industry for this, especially on the Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures show. John Kricfalusi (who's also been fired several times) in particular has stated that he lost count on how many times Ralph fired him from the show.
  • Lighter and Softer: Obviously, his two What a Cartoon Show shorts weren't as adult as most of his theatrical films.
  • Moral Dissonance: Wizards has What Measure Is a Non-Cute? enforced by Designated Heroes who think Science Is Bad and yet aren't afraid to shoot the villain. Actually, Bakshi has stated that the message behind Wizards isn't that Science Is Bad, it's that propaganda is bad. Note that this is a common theme in Bakshi's work.
  • Mushroom Samba- Heavy traffic, Coonskin, and Hey good lookin have scenes that describe this perfectly.
  • Roger Rabbit Effect: Heavy Traffic, Coonskin and Cool World
  • Rotoscoping: On American Pop and The Lord of the Rings. Although Ralph regretted using it for Lord of the Rings.
  • Shown Their Work: In the special features on the DVD of Wizards, Ralph talks about some of the animators that worked on the film.
  • What Could Have Been: Sometime during the 1980's when Ralph was working on Mighty Mouse, he had recognized John K's talent. Ralph and John were planning on teaming up to do an animated film called "Bobby's girl". Which was set to be a parody of the teen comedies during the time. However Tri-Star canceled the project. But artwork of this proposed project can be seen in the Unfiltered: The Complete Ralph Bakshi book. One can wonder what would have happened if this film had been made.
    • Ralph had an interest of doing a film of The Catcher in The Rye. He intended to shoot the story's bracketing sequences in live action and to animate the core flashback scenes. J.D. Salinger rejected this offer (as well as the other offers that were made beforehand to adapt the book).
    • Originally, Ralph Bakshi envisioned Cool World as an animated erotic horror film about a cartoonist who has sex with his hot female creation and spawns a half-human, half-cartoon daughter who sets out to kill her parents for being born a freak. Sadly, due to Executive Meddling, the premise was changed into a wannabe Who Framed Roger Rabbit with nothing (except for the taboo of humans and animated characters having sex) from his original vision.
    • One of the Elf Quest supplement books contains a couple of character sketches done by Bakshi with commentary and pointers from artist Wendy Pini (since his elves and Pini's elves have a measure of similarity) as part of an (ultimately fruitless) project to create an ElfQuest animated series.