FRITZ THE CAT
Color, 1972, 78 mins. 29 secs.
Directed by Ralph Bakshi
THE NINE LIVES OF FRITZ THE CAT
Color, 1974, 76 mins. 13 secs.
Directed by Robert Taylor
Scorpion Releasing | Kino Lorber (Blu-ray) (US RA HD), MGM (DVD) (US R1 NTSC), Arrow Video (DVD) (UK R2 PAL) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)
A milestone in American animation whose impact has largely been forgotten today, Fritz the Cat was a bombshell in 1972 delivering an X-rated animated look at the turbulent politics and social attitudes of the era ranging from racial and religious tensions to Vietnam. Featuring a funky score and an episodic storyline perfect for turned-on college students, the film put young animator Ralph Bakshi on the map and paved the way for his later films including Heavy Traffic, Wizards, and Fire and Ice. That X rating turned out to be a big commercial selling point for exploitation distributor Cinemation, though it raised expectations for something a lot more sexually explicit than expected. (Even with the occasional drawn animal genitalia and urination, you can see far more explicit material now on South Park and Family Guy.) Combined with a lot of topical satire, it was a major hit despite the vocal misgivings of R. Crumb, creator of the original comic strip, who was so irritated with the direction the film ultimately took that he killed off the character for good in the print version. That didn't stop producer Steve Krantz from turning out a sequel two years later without Bakshi or Crumb's involvement, released by AIP with an R rating and almost universally regarded as vastly inferior. As the last chapter of the Fritz pop culture saga it's still noteworthy though, showing the jaded and dissatisfied flipside of the mid-'70s party mindset that morph into something very different by the following decade.
The original film charts the misadventures of fast-talking, girl-chasing college kid Fritz the Cat (voiced by The Electric Company's Skip Hinnant), who becomes embroiled in late '60s left-wing activism in New York City while trying to pick up women in Washington Square. A pot-fueled orgy at a buddy's apartment turns into a raid by the police (literal pigs in this case), which escalates into a cross-town flight, an accidental inferno, an encounter with revolutionaries in Harlem, more drugs, more sex, and a potential disaster in the making. Possibly baffling for anyone younger than its target audience, this is pretty much the textbook definition of a non-P.C. work of art with a desire to tweak just about every demographic imaginable complete with a race riot featuring black crows and a synagogue sequence that confirms the Jewish Bakshi's status as one of the more fearless American filmmakers of the decade. If that were still in doubt, Coonskin cemented it three years later.
Two years later, The Nine Lives of Fritz the Cat picks up with our protagonist as a perpetually stoned deadbeat living a miserable existence being harangued by his wife and mostly ignoring his newborn child. In a doobie-soaked haze, he zones out to experience nine other alternate lives including a bizarre encounter with Hitler in Nazi Germany, a violent attempted seduction in a Puerto Rican neighborhood, a dicey trip as an astronaut to Mars, an alternate universe in a segregated and seceded version of New Jersey, and even brushes with God and Satan. More of an anthology film than a straight narrative, this one brings back Hinnant as Fritz and mostly tries to mimic Bakshi's style. However, the absence of the prior film's guiding hand is keenly felt with the constant provocations landing flatter here by comparison (and the style sometimes looks more like DePatie-Freleng). It does have its virtues though including some fun visual flourishes and a really infectious soundtrack by Tom Scott & The L.A. Express that should've gotten an LP release at the time.
Both films ended up under the umbrella of MGM ages ago and have essentially walked in tandem together on home video since then including simultaneous but separate VHS and DVD releases. Strangely, the first film simply surrendered its X rating and has mostly circulated as unrated despite the fact that it would most likely get downgraded to an R now without any issues (especially with later animated films like Sausage Party in the mix). Scorpion Releasing followed suit in 2021 by releasing the films as separate Blu-rays distributed via Kino Lorber, both featuring colorful and very satisfying HD scans that keep the original blazing color schemes intact. The original handmade quirks of the animation have been left alone here (including visible dust and fluctuating hairs in the first film), keeping the organic look we've known over the years. The DTS-HD MA English 2.0 mono tracks for both sound fine with no issues, and optional English SDH subtitles are provided. Fritz the Cat also comes with a thorough and informative audio commentary by comics legend Stephen R. Bissette and Mike Dobbs who cover the history of the X rating, the backgrounds of Crumb, Bakshi, and Krantz, the state of theatrical cartoons at the time, the touchy portrayals of race and gender here that are even more incendiary today, the Fritz character as "the ultimate white middle-class poser," and the nuts and bolts of the animation process itself. Also included on that disc are a radio spot, trailers for both Fritz films, and bonus ones for Aloha, Bobby and Rose, Trackdown, Who'll Stop the Rain, September 30, 1955, and King of the Mountain. The Blu-ray for Nine Lives also has trailers for both Fritz films along with ones for Blazing Magnum, A Small Town in Texas, and The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane.
Reviewed on July 2, 2022.