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Fritz the Cat
Directed by Ralph Bakshi in 1972 and loosely based on the underground comic character created by Robert Crumb (who named the character after his own childhood pet cat), Fritz The Cat, the first animated feature film to be awarded an X-rating by the MPAA, opens with a construction worker high up on a beam urinating, the yellow liquid landing on the head of some poor passerby below. Cue the opening credits.
From here, we meet Fritz (voiced by Skip Hinnant of The Electric Company and The Patty Duke Show), a slacker cat university student who is hanging out in Washington Square Park with his two pals/bandmates. They're not getting any attention and so Fritz decides to act out when three girls walk by. It draws them to him and soon enough, he's left his pals to go have an orgy of his own in the bathtub of an apartment filled with pot smokers. Eventually some of the other partygoers crash Fritz's orgy, but not before the cops show up and chasing him through an Orthodox synagogue. Fritz goes on the lam, leaving the girls behind and then hiding out in Harlem where he befriends a black crow named Duke (Charles Spider). They steal a car and get into some trouble, eventually winding up at Blue's dealers place where Fritz tries to make it Bertha (Rosetta LeNoire), the dealer's girlfriend. One riot later and Fritz splits for San Francisco with intellectual gal pal Winston Schwartz (Judy Engles). Before it's all over, Fritz will get tied up with some dangerous revolutionary types, a female horse named Harriet (Mary Dean) will be brutally assaulted and, well, we won't spoil the ending.
Fritz The Cat was not well-received by Crumb, who wanted his name removed from the credits and killed off the character after the movie was released, but if it isn't a very good adaptation of his work, it is an interesting counter-culture artifact and a pretty trippy slice of early seventies animation very much geared towards an adult audience. Set to a great soundtrack of soul and funk tunes, the seventy-eight minute picture moves at a good clip and, if the plot isn't necessarily ‘deep,' it is frequently as amusing as it is willfully offensive. Dealing in racial stereotypes (the black characters are all crows, for example) of both the visual and aural varieties, the movie pokes fun at anyone and everyone, taking shots at everyone from cops to junkies to dealers to uber-liberal college types and everyone in between. It's a film designed to push buttons, and you know from the opening piss sequence that it's going to push quite a few.
The characters are animated in a style that closely approximates Crumb's style, while the backgrounds are often hazy looking, sometimes using rotoscoping, other times using fairly stationary illustrations with water color painting over top. It makes for an interesting looking film, one that really does a nice job of melding the visuals with its soundtrack (mostly made up of orignial compositions by Ed Bogas and Ray Shankin but also featuring contributions by Bo Diddley, Billie Holiday, jazz musician Cal Tjader and The Watson Sisters). Visually speaking, the movie is a trip and it's easy to see how and why it's attained ‘midnight movie' status over the years, it's probably a lot of fun to watch under the influence.
Most of the humor is crass and lowbrow. Some of it is funny, some of it isn't, there is a definite lack of consistency in this regard. But the movie remains an interesting, and at times fairly surreal, work of genuinely weird animation. Bakshi and Crumb have both done better work than this, but the movie was not only a pretty huge box office success but remains historically significant. There are moments where Bakshi shines a light on societal problems that provide some food for thought, but most of what Bakshi puts into the film seems there only to shock. It's worth seeing mainly as an oddity, as it rarely captures the spirit of its source material, but as an oddity, it's interesting.
The Nine Lives Of Fritz The Cat arrives on Region A Blu-ray from Kino in AVC encoded 1080p high definition framed at 1.85.1 widescreen, the seventy-eight minute feature taking up 19.9GBs of space on the 25GB disc. There's a mild to occasionally moderate print damage present throughout much of the film and it would seem that it hasn't undergone much of a restoration at all, but most of the time it's just small white specks and it's all quite watchable. Colors look great, the trippy water color backgrounds really looking way better than the old DVD release from MGM. Black levels are nice and deep and detail is generally pretty strong as well. There are no problems with any noticeable compression problems and the picture is free of any obvious edge enhancement or noise reduction issues. This would have looked better had it been cleaned up more. That didn't happen. Still, overall this is a nice upgrade over what we've had before for this movie.
A 24-bit English language DTS-HD option is provided in 2.0 Mono format with subtitles offered up in English only. No complaints here, the audio on the disc sounds great, even if it's a bit limited by the single channel mix. The score has good strength and presence to it, while the dialogue stays clean and clear. The levels are nicely balanced and there are no problems with any hiss, distortion or sibilance.
The main extra on the disc is an audio commentary from comic book artist and historian Steve Bissette and Animation magazine editor and journalist G. Michael Dobbs that is a very interesting listen. They start off by talking about how they were both exposed to film, the scene that the opening credits set, the film's infamous X-rating, Crumb's rejection of the filmed version of Fritz The Cat, background info on who Crumb was and his importance in the era that the movie was made, how Bakshi got the rights to make the movie, where Bakshi's father voices a character, how ‘wrong' the scene that takes place in the synagogue is, why Crumb decided to kill Fritz off after the movie, where the film adapts Crumbs stories and where it doesn't, the film's soundtrack and the use of Bo Diddley's music, where the film feels not like Crumb but Bakshi and how the character of Fritz compares to other, similar counter-culture characters. They also go over the use of racial stereotypes in the picture and the depictions of black culture in the movie, the influence of Blaxploitation movies on the feature, how race has always factored into Crumbs work and how it can be problematic for many people (the use of Angelfood McSpade, who appears in the background of a quick scene in the movie, being an obvious example), how Bakshi and comic book retailer Phil Seuling, who helped create the direct market for comic books, voiced the ‘pig' cops in the movie, background on Bakshi's life and career, the film's sequel (The Nine Lives Of Fritz The Cat), information on producer Steve Krantz's career and how he and Bakshi came to work together, how Bakshi's films have often been lightning rods for controversy, the way that New York City is depicted in the movie and quite a bit more. It's a very interesting discussion that is well-worth listening to.
The disc also includes a radio spot for the feature and trailers for the feature as well as The Nine Lives Of Fritz The Cat, Aloha Bobby And Rose, Trackdown, Who'll Stop The Rain, 9/30/55 and King Of the Mountain. Menus and chapter selection options are also provided.
As an adaptation of Robert Crumb stories, Fritz The Cat isn't much to write home about but as a bizarre counter-culture artifact of the early sixties, it remains a seminal work just as likely to stir controversy today as it was when released back in 1972. Scorpion's Blu-ray release looks decent and sounds quite good, and the commentary that serves as the primary extra on the disc is definitely worth listening to. Recommended!
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.