When Hobbits Go Bad: Ralph Bakshi the Fantasy Provocateur

When Christopher Holliday and I first conceived of Fantasy/Animation: Connections Between Media, Mediums and Genres, the animator Ralph Bakshi sprung to mind immediately as an example of an individual whose work I thought would benefit from the methodology we were hoping to inspire within both our edited collection, and through future collaborations on this research network. If you are unfamiliar with who Bakshi is, chances are you are nonetheless a fan of either an animator or live-action filmmaker who has been inspired by his productions. Bakshi’s short-lived but nevertheless impressively productive career in feature film production largely spanned the 1970s and early 1980s. Bakshi would first come to the public’s attention upon leaving the studio to form his own production company, through which he would release his adaptation of Robert Crumb’s X-rated adult comic Fritz the Cat (1972). The commercial success of this film would allow Bakshi to briefly enter into the public zeitgeist, kick-starting a career in which, for a short-while at least, he came to be one of the leading proponents within the US. His career is fascinating to researchers and fans of both fantasy and animation, yet is elusive at the same time given the multiple interests, styles and modes of productions found across his career from drug-fuelled hallucinogenic trips like Heavy Traffic (1973) to his homage to rock’n’roll in American Pop (1981).

  Fig. 1 - Ralph Bakshi’s  Lord of the Rings  (top) and Peter Jackson’s more recent adaptation (bottom).

Fig. 1 - Ralph Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings (top) and Peter Jackson’s more recent adaptation (bottom).

I first became aware of Bakshi as part of my research into the history of fantasy cinema. Like countless fantasy fans before me, I discovered that the first onscreen adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings was not in fact the much heralded live-action/CGI trilogy directed by Peter Jackson, but was an animation made in the late 1970s. Bakshi’s The Lord of the Rings (1978) would be a key source of inspiration for Jackson’s creative team, with the New Line adaptations keeping many of the same simplifications and embellishments as well as adding numerous references to Bakshi’s original in their films (Fig. 1). The picture I formulated through such research gave me an impression of an individual very much interested in experimenting with the technological boundaries and parameters of animation in order to visualise secondary world fantasy fiction (Croft 2007). Whilst working on The Lord of the Rings, Bakshi pioneered a use of rotoscope technology, seeking to bring a level of realism to his imagery  that had less in common with the costly, hyper-realist tendencies of the Disney studio, indebted more  to the paintings of Rembrandt (in Zito 1978: 60). In his film Wizards, Bakshi blended live-action footage from WWII propaganda with a comic style of animation to make a fairy-tale with real socio-political bite (see below). Bakshi was therefore a fantasist who provided a perennial source of intrigue; a director who utilised animation to bring to life the kind of complex secondary worlds associated with high genre fantasy for the first time in Hollywood’s history.

Wizards (Ralph Bakshi, 1977)

When I eventually turned to animation studies to find their account of Bakshi’s career and how it fitted within the broader trajectory of US animation, I expected to be presented with a similar narrative of technological innovation and experimentation through fantasy. Instead, I was greeted with an altogether different presentation of Bakshi’s career than I had originally anticipated. It is certainly true that there are studies of Bakshi that present him as an animator interested in the relationship between technology and realism, exploring some of his fantasy works for how they achieve this goal of bringing narratives to life through animated methods that look startingly similar to celluloid photography (Ward 2004). However, most of the limited scholarship on Bakshi offers an alternative narrative of his career. Reflecting on the controversy surrounding Bakshi’s earlier efforts like Fritz the Cat, Heavy Traffic and Coonskin (1975) (which was famously pulled by its distribution amidst protests against the film’s provocative use of African-American caricatures), animation historians placed an emphasis on Bakshi’s earlier efforts rooted in youthful counter-cultural dissonance. His fantasy films become aberrations within a career otherwise concerned with realism (Grant 2001: 20; Telotte 2010: 195). Bakshi was painted as a punky outsider who helped introduce audiences to the capacity of animation to function as a mature and rebellious force. Whilst I had begun thinking of Bakshi as a kind of 1970’s version of Walt Disney who pioneered a new form of animated adaptation utilising high fantasy as opposed to fairy-tale source material, I ended up thinking of him as the antithesis of everything the corporate, mainstream sensibility of Disney animation represented.

My chapter in Fantasy/Animation was essentially a way of trying to reconcile Bakshi’s two personas emerging with fantasy and animation history. Despite their important status within his career, Bakshi’s fantasy films are often either dismissed in critical discourse as somehow less reflective of the animator’s “true” artistic impulses as an iconoclast, or else are considered only for the technological innovations Bakshi pioneered in such films divorced from their narrative content. Within scholarly discourse on fantasy, however, Bakshi is seen as director who utilised animation to bring to life the kind of complex secondary worlds associated with high genre fantasy for the first time in Hollywood’s history, examining Bakshi’s work as a fantasy filmmaker in a manner that obfuscates his earlier work rooted in adult animation and socio-realism. Bakshi is either considered as an animator who just happens to have made a few fantasy films, or else as a fantasy filmmaker required to use animation to bring such worlds to life onscreen. Yet neither identities fully do justice to the complex interaction between fantasy and animation taking place within the films themselves.

The solution to this paradox to me came from rooting Bakshi’s status as a fantasist and as an animator within the socio-cultural context of his time, contextualising the US filmmaker against the backdrop of youth radicalism that emerged from the dual political traumas of the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal. I argued for his fantasy films to be considered alongside his early socio-realist works, exploring the potential subversive and counter-cultural interpretations available within Wizards and The Lord of the Rings especially. In particular, I examined the relationship between the style of animation pioneered by Bakshi – simultaneously low-fi in its resolution and quality whilst incorporating startling realist elements including live-action footage and rotoscoping – with the cultural function of genre fantasy (as opposed to a wider fantasy genre) throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Despite the stale, often banal associations we have with fantasy media today thanks to the commercialisation of fan culture and the prominence of events like ComiCon, to be a fantasy fan in the mid-to-late twentieth century was to position oneself as a youthful outsider. It meant aligning yourself with bands like Jefferson Airplane and Led Zeppelin, who included references to Lewis Carroll and J.R.R. Tolkien through their songs. It meant rejecting the perceived values of good taste represented by a conservative older generation, and embracing instead a youthful subculture of fantasy fandom. Bakshi’s fantasy films played to this generation, touring college campuses and being received as underground hits that told a different type of fantasy for an audience of different tastes and politics to the generation raised on Disney. Exploring these connections to 1960s and 1970s genre fantasy that was adopted by youth culture to express an anti-establishment rejection of conservatism, and Bakshi’s own notoriety as a counter-cultural animator, I argue that Bakshi’s forays into fantasy can be read as a continuous through-line of the same aesthetic and cultural concerns of his earlier works. In this sense, the methodology of fantasy/animation helps to understand how Bakshi fits within the history of both subjects.

References

Croft, Janet Brennan. “Three Rings for Hollywood: Scripts for The Lord of the Rings by Zimmerman, Boorman, and Beagle” in Fantasy Fiction into Film: Essays, eds. Leslie Stratyner and James R. Keller (Jefferson, NC: MacFarland, 2007), 7-21.

Grant, John. Masters of Animation (New York: Watson-Gutpil Publications, 2001).

Telotte, J.P. Animating Space: From Mickey to Wall-E (Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky Press, 2010).

Ward, Paul. “Rotoshop in Context: Computer Rotoscoping and Animation Aesthetics,” Animation Journal 12 (Oct 2004): 32-52.

Zito, Stephen. “Bakshi Amongst the Hobbits,” American Film (Sep 1, 1978): 58-63.