Cinema: An X Cartoon

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Written and directed by RALPH BAKSHI

Robert Crumb is a kind of American Hogarth, a moralist with a blown mind. The gallery he has created in underground comic books—from the gnomic sage Mr. Natural, the Priapus of the Midwest, through such creatures as Angelfood McSpade to that morsel of 13-year-old jailbait, Honeybunch Kaminski—constitutes Head City's sharpest and funniest view of American life. And perhaps the most pornographic. His fantasy unchecked by the strictures of mass circulation, Crumb gave back to cartooning the scatological vigor and erotic exuberance it had during the Regency, and then some.

The kind of animated cartoon Ralph Bakshi has made of Crumb's world is something else again. Fritz, the hero, is what the average campus revolutionary was in the late '60s—a fool tabby, living off vicarious experience, with his head full of windy sub-Marcusian rhetoric and only one ambition: to swive. Fritz gets involved in a hilarious orgy in a Village bathtub, is nearly busted by two cops, drawn inevitably as pigs, takes off to Harlem after an interminable chase through a synagogue, and is turned on to grass. Stoned, he makes inadequate love to a blimplike crow named Big Bertha; having thus grasped the black experience, he becomes a revolutionary. "My soul is tortured and tormented by this racial crisis," he informs Duke, another crow he meets in a Harlem bar, to which Duke properly replies, "No sheeyut."

It is the last funny line in a movie that still has a long time to run. Fritz harangues the crows and implausibly starts a street riot; he goes on the lam again, cross-country, and becomes involved with a vaguely realized bunch of bikers and Mansonites with Weatherman reflexes who take him to blow up a power station—in the course of which Fritz is blown up himself.

Bakshi's animation is good, and the visuals—which marvelously capture the grainy, lowering look of the Manhattan streetscape—are raucous, ingenious and convincing. But Fritz the Cat is, for a cartoon, exasperatingly slow: Bakshi's sense of pace and editing is snail-like, and the dialogue mostly naive and muffled. Moreover, the characters are so ill-defined that Fritz's relation to them becomes incomprehensible—a sad defect for a movie that should have been as crisp and schematic as a puppet show. The voice-over acting constantly hovers just below the threshold of competence.

To greet Fritz as a masterpiece of satire, or even as a significant voice from the counterculture, is wishful thinking: Bakshi seems to have been as unsure of his targets as Fritz himself. The '60s, in all their wide-open absurdities, still demand a more pointed epitaph than this. It will come as no surprise to head comic fans to learn that, on seeing what became of Fritz in the film, Crumb asked to have his name removed from all publicity. Meanwhile, the movie, largely because of Fritz's bathtub scene, got an X rating, something of a coup for the animated cartoon, the last bastion of pudency.*

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