‘Fritz the Cat’ Mellows With Age


Originally advertised as “X-rated and animated,” “Fritz the Cat” scored a hit when it was released in 1972, earning a then-impressive $25 million. (It cost only $850,000--a shoestring even at the time.)

Gritty, violent and often gross, the film shocked U.S. audiences accustomed to innocent romances and painless slapstick in cartoons. It also made the reputation of director Ralph Bakshi, who adapted three of underground comix artist Robert Crumb’s stories to the screen.

Nearly 30 years later, “Fritz,” which is being released on DVD today ($20), looks considerably tamer and would probably qualify for an R. (Curiously, the packagers at MGM Avant-Garde Cinema have kept the “X-rated” tagline on the cover but altered the famous poster, moving Fritz’s hand out of his girlfriend’s cleavage and onto her shoulder.)

Cartoon characters who swore were novel and scandalous in 1972; Fritz and his friends were caricatures of stoned college students, and the dialogue, much of it lifted verbatim from Crumb’s original comix, reflected their speech patterns. In recent years, the cast of “South Park” has used profanity more frequently and self-consciously. Indeed, after “Mr. Hanky the Christmas Poo,” that show’s production number featuring a dancing piece of excrement, the occasional swear word in “Fritz” sounds almost prissy.

Like Beavis and Butt-head, Fritz was a lecher, but he wasn’t a loser. In the comix and the film’s better sequences, he’s a sharply observed portrait of a supercilious college student who poses as a poet and a member of the counterculture to hit on girls. “My soul is tormented” ranks as his favorite pickup line. Beavis and Butt-head were never more than leering adolescents, and the icy cynicism of Mike Judge’s dimwitted duo makes the egotistical Fritz look like a humanitarian.


Similarly, the sex and violence in recent anime releases, from “Akira” to “Wicked City” and “The Legend of the Overfiend,” have eclipsed the gropings and shootouts with pig-policemen in “Fritz.” Bakshi grafted the graphic violence, depictions of characters injecting drugs and some tasteless ethnic stereotypes onto Crumb’s relatively innocent stories.

Although he’s been criticized for his depictions of women and African Americans, Crumb caricatured blacks as crows to expose Fritz’s superficiality. In the original comix, Fritz visited a Harlem-style pool hall and struck up a conversation with a crow, complaining about his guilt (“my kind have brought suffering on your kind”) and the agony of his poetic soul, “stifled by the organization.” In the Bakshi version, he calls the bartender “boy,” precipitating a fight that ends with a murder.

Crumb despised the film. In response, he drew Fritz as a drunken, debauched Hollywood star who was ruthlessly exploited by “Ralphie” and “Stevie,” caricatures of Bakshi and producer Steve Krantz. A disgusted ex-girlfriend murdered Fritz with an ice pick.

Crumb later wrote, “He’s definitely better off dead. Another casualty of the ‘60s....”

Contemporary viewers are more likely to find “Fritz the Cat” a mildly amusing period piece, as dated as a Nehru jacket. Was 1972 really that long ago?