Regarded today as that film with Arthur-esque characters getting high and screwing, the 1972 film Fritz the Cat can be seen as an ancestor to raunchy cartoons like South Park and Family Guy. Today adult-oriented cartoons (at least on the small screen) are all too common, from Archer to BoJack Horseman. Hell, we probably wouldn’t have Adult Swim if it wasn’t for that feline Fritz. However, there is actually more to the cult classic than swearing, nudity and furry sex.
Firstly, it is important to remember that the film was actually based on a comic strip created by underground comic artist icon Robert Crumb. For Crumb, the character was malleable. Fritz could take on various roles including pop-star and spy – although the film would largely draw influence from Fritz Bugs Out, where he is a college drop-out. In the film Fritz is a despicable character. Arrogant and pretentious, he’s the perfect art school dropout. Initially using the student counter-culture scene to get laid, Fritz sinks to new lows as he delves into radical politics.
The origin of Fritz as a movie began with two men: producer Steven Krantz and animator Ralph Bakshi. They had worked together before, most notably on that 1960s Spider-Man cartoon. At the time Bakshi was dissatisfied with animation, and looking at some clips from Spider-Man, you can hardly blame him.
He would eventually find inspiration through the cousin of animation, comics: “The underground cartoon explosion showed me the way. That animation like everything else has got to grow up.” In particular, Bakshi loved the works of Robert Crumb, who he approached with Krantz to get the rights to Fritz. One of the most unusual legacies of the film is the relationship between the film adaptation and its original creator.
Crumb was not a fan of the film, calling it “a pitiful attempt”. Furthermore, Crumb maintains that he never signed any contract that gave filmmakers the rights to Fritz. On the other side of the argument, Krantz says that Crumb did sign the contract and accepted a cheque of $25,000 [about $142K nowadays]. Meanwhile, Bakshi says that Crumb probably didn’t sign anything, but an attorney did instead. Given the contradictory statements of the key players it’s impossible to say what really happened.
Regardless, Fritz went into production – but things would only get harder. The production of the film itself was fraught with difficulties, not least of which was the financial side of things. Compared with the millions thrown at Disney productions of the time, Bakshi was given a budget of just $850,000. Because of this, many corners had to be cut. This can be seen in the crowd scenes of the films, where the animation becomes choppier than it already is.
Usually animated films employ checkers to prevent silly mistakes in the animation. As can be imagined from watching it, the team working on Fritz didn’t have that luxury, and so they had to be creative when faced with technical errors. In one desert scene, the edges of one of the cels were visible in the shot so an animator drew a cactus to cover it up.
Fritz wasn’t having any luck outside of the studio either. An executive of the influential Hanna-Barbera studio was quoted as saying in The Wall Street Journal: “It’s unfortunate that the industry has to resort to this kind of picture-making to survive”.
Strangled by budgetary constraints and sneered at before release, the production of Fritz suffered further misfortunes. Artwork that hadn’t been put into the film yet was mistakenly taken out for publicity and came back damaged. One background painting was left in the street outside the studio, which later caught fire, causing the animators to evacuate the artwork.
And yet, despite everything, Fritz was finished. Its infamous X-rating soon became both a curse and a blessing. This highest of ratings was usually reserved for hardcore pornography, which many newspapers of the time would not review or advertise. This could’ve spelled disaster for Fritz’s prospects at recouping its budget. Fortunately for Fritz, another controversial film would aid it in reaching an audience.
A Clockwork Orange had come out in 1971 with an X-rating, but the Stanley Kubrick film was one of the most critically praised of that year. Through a combination of Kubrick’s status, and critical kindness, the film was able to bypass the stigma of its rating. In that film’s wake, Fritz found an opening to success through “respectability by association”. The film’s publicity played up its rating to attract audiences with posters sporting the tagline “We’re not rated X for nothin’ baby”.
While this certainly attracted the public, it has diluted the film’s legacy as just another smutty cartoon. Bakshi intended the film to be political (the degree to which he succeeded in that is debatable), and called it a “documentary of the sixties”. Throughout the film there are digs at various groups of the counter-culture. College hippies are depicted as shallow, with astonishingly naïve attitudes to race, while bikers are portrayed as neo-Nazi addicts.
Perhaps it’s inevitable that the first relatively mainstream adult animation is primarily remembered for its sex, drugs and violence. Sometimes films that are renowned for pushing the boundaries of acceptable content are not worthy of notoriety, like the early splatter film Blood Feast. However, as with the erotic In the Realm of the Senses, they often yield fascinating backstage stories. Fritz the Cat definitely belongs in the latter category.