Apparently it's Bakshi's biggest critical success. He'd been trying to make it before Fritz the Cat
, but it wasn't until the latter made it big that he finally got the green light for this. It's X-rated again, which gave the producer headaches and briefly got Bakshi fired from his own movie, but in the end it did very well and Bakshi became the first person in American animation to have two back-to-back hit movies since Walt Disney.
This is surprising, because I'd never have guessed that it had done well at the box office. It's got a free-associating narrative that does whatever the hell it wants, unsympathetic characters, a ton of family-unfriendly material and it kind of hurts your head.
The story, such as it is, involves Michael Corleone. In case you're wondering, The Godfather came out in 1972 and Mario Puzo's original novel was published in 1969. Bakshi's Michael is a very different character, though. He lives in New York with his insanely dysfunctional parents and he's a 22-year-old virgin who sees himself as an underground comics artist. He's also obviously a surrogate Ralph Bakshi, although it's not simply a cut-and-paste job, e.g. Michael's father is Italian, while Bakshi's was Russian. Nevertheless this is clearly a deeply personal movie. We see the rich, disturbing tapestry of his neighbourhood in New York, with its perverts, killings and legless musclemen who wheel themselves around on trolleys. Death strikes at random. The police are thugs, sex can at times be monstrous and it's an ugly world of obscenity and misfits.
Michael eventually becomes the main character, although that's after quite a long sequence where Bakshi is throwing random freakiness at the audience. It's impressionistic.
Once that's settled down, though, we start to get to know Michael. What quickly becomes obvious is that Bakshi isn't trying to make Michael look cool. On the contrary, he's particularly interested in the guy's reality-denial, sexual failures and occasionally horrifying behaviour. "She had it coming." The only thing that makes him not a villain is the fact that the film's full of people who make him look like the Lord and all his angels, with his Jewish mother being possibly insane and his thug of a father being... wow. Words hardly begin to describe his father. There are murder attempts between Mum and Dad, which at the time seemed normal and reasonable.
It's not really a film about plot. Stuff does happen, but it's never the focus and Bakshi's always happy to go off on wild tangents that don't seem to make sense. Two of the most striking sequences here are films-within-the-film, being animations based on Michael's work. The first one looks as if Bakshi simply cut-and-pasted his first ever animated short film into the movie, from when he was fifteen or so. I presume he didn't, but that's the impression one gets. This very crudity makes it compelling. The second of these short films is more polished, but even more offensive and involves post-apocalypse SF, obscene extremes of blasphemy and a shrieked renunciation of religion. It also kills Walt Disney. Michael tries to get a job with an aged, sick animation mogul who's clearly meant to be Disney and shows him this, which appears to deliver the coup de grace.
There's a lot of live-action in it too. There's a framing story of Michael playing pinball, which is done in the usual way with actors in front of cameras. However there's also superimposition of animation over photographed backgrounds or live-action stock footage, often deliberately out of focus or through strange colour filters.
Ralph Bakshi has called this his favorite of his films. I can't believe it's not his most personal. It's not a particularly easy watch and you wouldn't call it enjoyable, but it's snarling and screaming with energy, character and cruelty. Like Fritz the Cat
, it feels real in a way you rarely get from regular films, let alone animated ones. This is clearly the rawer of the two, though. It's interesting and worth checking out, although obviously not for everyone. If nothing else, you'll be glad to have seen Bakshi's freedom with story and imagery, e.g. the mafia Godfather who's eating tiny people in his spaghetti, or alternatively Snowflake's dance. Even the dancing in this movie is disturbing. I'm glad I've seen it, anyway.