Ralph Bakshi is an animator and director who will turn 75 this October. He began his career at the Terrytoons TV studio as a cel polisher, working his way up to director. He then worked at Paramount Pictures’ animation division until he established his own company, Bakshi Productions, in 1968. In 1972, Bakshi made his feature directorial debut with Fritz the Cat, the first animated film to receive an X rating from the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America). For this installment of Animation Corner, I’ll be taking a look back at the only two good feature films Bakshi ever made: 1973’s Heavy Traffic (now celebrating its 40th anniversary) and 1978’s The Lord of the Rings (now celebrating its 35th anniversary).
Written and directed by Bakshi, 1973’s Heavy Traffic centers on a young, struggling NY cartoonist who must deal with the harsh, gritty world that surrounds him. Featuring the voices of Joseph Kaufmann, Beverly Hope Atkinson, Frank Dekova, Terri Haven, and Mary Dean Lauria, this critically acclaimed film became Bakshi’s second box office hit in a row despite earning an X rating from the MPAA. The film features some usage of live-action footage (mainly at the beginning and the end), and uses pinball imagery as a metaphor for inner-city life. Bakshi was actually fired by producer Steve Krantz halfway through production when he kept inquiring about when he would receive the money he was supposed to be paid for Fritz the Cat. Bakshi was able to return to work a week later after Samuel Z. Arkoff threatened to withdraw the money he was funding the film with. Several attempts were made to get an R rating from the MPAA, but they felt there was too much sexual content to give the film anything less than an X rating. Nevertheless, Heavy Traffic remains one of Bakshi’s greatest successes.
1978’s The Lord of the Rings is an adaptation of the first half of author J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, covering The Fellowship of the Ring and the first half of The Two Towers. The film centers on a young hobbit who embarks on a quest to destroy the One Ring, which is being sought by Sauron, its original master. Featuring the voices of William Squire, John Hurt, Michael Graham Cox, and Anthony Daniels, this critically acclaimed film grossed $30 million on a $4 million budget. It featured a screenplay written by Peter S. Beagle, the author of The Last Unicorn. The film is notable for its extensive use of rotoscoping, an animation technique in which live-action footage is traced onto animation cels. The film was publicized as the “first movie painting” due to most of the film being rotoscoped, which saved the production money and allowed the film to feature hundreds of characters in extended battle scenes (something that had never been seen in an animated film before). Bakshi tried to remain as faithful to Tolkien’s books as much as possible, and it was he who had convinced Saul Zaentz to finance the two-part adaptation through United Artists Unfortunately, Bakshi was unable to make a sequel, partially due to the exhaustion he had from making the film as well as an argument he had with United Artists (Bakshi intended to release the film with ‘Part One’ in the title and UA refused to include it, which eventually confused audiences who went to see the film thinking that it would cover all three books). Despite this, the film still garnered some awards attention, including a Hugo Award nod for Best Dramatic Presentation, a Saturn Award nod for Best Fantasy Film, and a Best Original Score Golden Globe nomination for Leonard Rosenman’s terrific score.