‘Fritz the Cat,’ the ridiculous X-rated cartoon-animal movie that was also a blockbuster

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Simon Abrams

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Of the titles screening at the Film Society at Lincoln Center's fun, summer-long "Midnight Movies" program, Fritz the Cat stands out for sheer lasciviousness.

Written, animated and adapted by Ralph Bakshi, the film is an absurd and just-shy-of-pornographic cartoon adaptation of the adventures of Robert Crumb's titular cat. Bakshi's film isn't the most straight adaptation of Crumbs' work. In fact, Crumb disowned the film, violently disagreeing both with the way that Fritz denounces left-wing politics and the fact that the film was so, well, perverted. 

Which is striking since Crumb's cartoons are hardly chaste and Bakshi's film makes a big show of being critical of everyone, from hippies to cops. Still, Bakshi's Fritz the Cat, which screens at the Walter Reade Theater this Friday night at midnight, was the first X-rated animated film and is, to this day, the most financially successful independently financed animated movie. And that's largely because it's got a lot of memorably dirty stuff in it.

Fritz (voiced by Skip Hinnant) is a girl-crazy college student who, like pretty much everyone other member of the counterculture around him, is trying to pass as something he's not. Hypocrisy is what unites the anthropomorphized animals in Fritz the Cat, a film that suggests that cops, shown as pigs, don't have stricter morals than the pot-smoking, clothes-doffing, would-be revolutionaries Fritz hangs out with.

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In one of Bakshi's film's first scenes, Fritz dupes a trio of college girls into having an orgy with him. He tells them that they'll have sex in order to explore their inner selves. These girls agree to Fritz's proposition but only after they fail to impress a gay black crow. (In Fritz's world, African-Americans are, like the stereotype established by Heckle and Jeckle cartoons, crows, while white people are all cats.)

But their four-way with Fritz gets interrupted by a group of posturing hippies. The pot-smoking long-hairs horn in on Fritz's action and introduce some weed to the orgy. Then that group is interrupted when two cops barge in. But one of the cops changes his tune when a horny and very high girl lands in his arms. Everyone is corrupt in Bakshi's film, because everyone is horny.

One of the many reasons Crumb disliked Bakshi's Fritz the Cat is that it is so hyper-sexual. It's basically a celebration of how morally bankrupt everybody is, especially Fritz, who somehow manages to convince himself into thinking that he's more morally upright than he really is. Before trying to score some grass and have sex with a heavy-set crow, Fritz delivers a speech to himself about how he should drop out of school. Experience is the best teacher, he tells himself, giving him the freedom to seek out breasts and buttocks.

Sex is the motivating factor when Fritz joins a group of extremists who ask him to blow up a power plant. The group that Fritz gets involved with includes the worst examples of radicals thinkers in Bakshi's film. They're tellingly represented as lizards and they eventually rape Fritz's girlfriend. Fritz doesn't speak out against this violent act or even avenge his girlfriend. Instead, he goes through with the bombing and somehow miraculously survives, living to seduce the trio of co-eds who gather at his hospital bed. He embraces his self-centered spinelessness. Bakshi's lewd cultural critique is fairly toothless. But his quasi-avant garde narrative, full of elliptical asides and random tangental confrontations, is pretty arresting, and the film's charmingly manic and almost hallucinatory vibe makes it a sensible choice for a midnight movie.

Crumb isn't wrong when he says that the politics of Bakshi's movie are ostensibly moderate and effectively conservative. But there is something viscerally exciting about Fritz the Cat. If this film were anthropomorphized, it would probably be an affectionate tomcat, reeking of the gutter, that tries to rub up against you as its pupils dilate asynchronously. You'd find it offensive, but you'd probably have a hard time ignoring it.