It's more historically important than good. It's America's first X-rated animated feature film. (Japanese hentai doesn't count.) It brought to the world of feature films both Ralph Bakshi and the underground comix of Robert Crumb, not to mention a painfully accurate study of sixties counter-culture. It was controversial and a huge deal on release, kick-starting a genre of X-rated animation, and even today is still the most successful independent animated feature film of all time.
Unfortunately it's also a bit random and pointless. The story is whatever happens next. Fritz has no goals except to do whatever looks like a good idea at the time. He believes in hippy ideals, including the need for revolution, but its main significance in his life is in getting girls out of their knickers.
Firstly, Robert Crumb. I'm not actually as familiar with his work as I should be, but obviously I know of the guy. (I've always been more into the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, personally.) Fritz the Cat draws on Crumb's own life experiences and people who've worked with him have called him "one of the slickest hustlers you'll ever see in your life". Bakshi worshipped Crumb, but Crumb disliked this movie so much that the next thing he did with Fritz the Cat in his original comics was to kill him. (What's more, Fritz stayed dead.) It's worth talking about this disagreement, because I think both sides have a point. Some of the best stuff in this film comes when Bakshi's departing from the source material and doing his own thing, but Crumb's also correct in that the film isn't fundamentally much good. It's influential because it was ground-breaking.
To quote Bakshi... "That's why Crumb hates the picture, because I slipped a couple of things in there that he despises, like the rabbis - the pure Jewish stuff. Fritz can't hold that kind of commentary. Winston is 'just a typical Jewish broad from Brooklyn.' [...] [The strip] was cute and well-done, but there was nothing that had that much depth."
To quote Crumb... it's "really a reflection of Ralph Bakshi's confusion, you know. There's something real repressed about it. In a way, it's more twisted than my stuff. It's really twisted in some kind of weird, unfunny way. [...] I didn't like that sex attitude in it very much. It's like real repressed horniness; he's kind of letting it out compulsively." Crumb also called the film's ending "red-neck and fascistic" in its attitude towards the radical left, although I see he's also claimed elsewhere that he always found hippies annoying. His most interesting criticism for me though is that he didn't like Skip Hinnant as Fritz and that instead the voice should have been Bakshi himself.
For me, the film has a problem with tone. Bad things happen, but then the film just carries on regardless and Fritz is neither nice nor nasty enough for those bad things to have any impact. He's sleazy and childish, he doesn't care about anyone but himself and he's an idiot who frequently causes catastrophes. However he's not evil. He doesn't mean any harm, although it often happens anyway. He's just drifting along, in exactly the superficial, pseudo-intellectual way that these days screams "hippy".
Ergo I didn't care about Fritz. I didn't like him for even the most subliminal instant, but I didn't hate him either. Sometimes he genuinely believes in his ideals, as in the scene where he preaches revolution and stirs up a riot that gets his friend killed, but the consequences of these ideals are invariably terrible. Acts of terrorism (specifically blowing up a power plant) will apparently be a "great leap forward in America's social evolution". He's causing less harm when he's just blowing bullshit in order to talk three girls into a foursome. I'm reminded of the scene in Robocop where ED-209 machine-guns someone in a board meeting. Doing this with only a little blood made test audiences fall silent in shock, but they fell about laughing when Verhoeven instead went over the top with fountains of gore. Fritz the Cat is in that awkward halfway house and I think the reason is that what it's talking about is real. By all accounts, Bakshi nailed his subject matter. He's not being cartoonish. The sixties really was full of people like that and Bakshi's doing a film that's at once attacking them and yet at the same time playing to that constituency.
After all, this is also counter-culture to its bones. It's an X-rated animated adaptation of Robert Crumb. The police are so buffoonish and stupid that they wouldn't get into the Keystone Cops, not to mention being literally pigs. (All the characters are animals. Black people are crows.) There's a brief scene of Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse and Donald Duck cheering on the U.S. Air Force bombing an urban black district.
That said, there's a lot to like here. I admire the animators' courage in putting Crumb's lines on-screen in all their crude glory and as a result I loved watching the art. The nudity isn't sexy. Instead it's ugly, which is much more interesting and a big part of what makes the animation work. After all, this movie is combining documentary realism, social satire, X-rated story elements and cartoon animals... and yet the art style makes this seem natural.
When I say "documentary realism", by the way, that's not a figure of speech. Bakshi went out into the streets with his tape recorder, talked to real people and then put that in his film. Almost all of the dialogue was recorded out on the streets of New York, in fact. The construction workers talking about hippies in the pre-credits sequence were real construction workers, to whom Bakshi paid fifty bucks each and then drank Scotch with them, recording the conversation. The rabbis are real rabbis, including Bakshi's father and uncles. The Harlem bar scenes come from Bakshi visiting real Harlem bars, which explains why I couldn't always understand where those scenes were going or what they were talking about. That's impressive. I admire that.
I also like the rich, relaxed use of music. The film's soundtrack has its own wikipedia page.
It would be possible to get upset about racism (a misreading, I think) or misogyny (perhaps nearer the mark). There's depraved behaviour from characters who are black, but that's a pinprick compared with the nuclear blast of ocean-to-ocean depravity from whites. Similarly this isn't a good film in which to be a woman, with violence (both by and against) and eager participation in their own sexual exploitation. I'd be more offended about this if the picture being painted didn't feel painfully accurate.
It's just occurred to me that some viewers might also object to the nudity. There are a lot of breasts here. This objection barely even strikes me as sane, but I thought I'd mention it.
Did I like this film? I don't know if I'd go that far, but I admire it. I'm glad I've seen it and I'm certainly going to be watching more Bakshi. I think he's trying a lot of interesting things that had never been done before and I think the world's better for the attempt. I always like seeing someone fail ambitiously and in any case it's harsh to call this a failure. To quote Bakshi again... "A lot of people got freaked out. The people in charge of the power structure, the people in charge of magazines and the people going to work in the morning who loved Disney and Norman Rockwell, thought I was a pornographer, and they made things very difficult for me. The younger people, the people who could take new ideas, were the people I was addressing. I wasn't addressing the whole world. To those people who loved it, it was a huge hit, and everyone else wanted to kill me."
Personally though I don't think it quite works and I'm torn on whether to watch the Crumb-less and Bakshi-less sequel, The Nine Lives of Fritz the Cat
. Everyone says that's worse. That doesn't usually stop me, but in this case I'm hesitating. Maybe I'll take the plunge.