How Ralph Bakshi Reinvented Children’s Animation By Accident

Animation legend Ralph Bakshi talks about creating 'Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures', changing everything, and his linger disappointment.

Ralph Bakshi's Cool World

In 1972, Ralph Bakshi made a racially frank X-rated film about a cartoon cat who swears and has copious amounts of graphic sex. Fritz the Cat, based on a character by R. Crumb, was a massive hit, grossing over $100 million on its way to becoming the most successful indie animated movie ever released. The film made Bakshi pseudo-famous—renowned among the sort of people down to watch pig cops getting peed on by a bunny during a filthy bathroom orgy—and opened doors for him in Hollywood. It wasn’t long before he slammed them shut and returned from whence he came, to children’s animation. It was at his eponymous studios that Bakshi would build a legacy. His short-lived show Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures, which debuted in 1988, may be the least-famous, most important animated program ever aired.

Why did Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures matter? Because Bakshi changed the TV animation game in a way he couldn’t change the movie game. He hired young artists from the California School of the Arts, let them get weird, and launched the careers of the animators who would go on to make Animaniacs, Ren and Stimpy, Futurama, Batman: The Animated Series, Wall-E, Zootopia, and Wreck-It Ralph. He basically relaunched the entire children’s animation industry from a packed studio of 35 animators that was thrown together in a matter of days.

Predictably, Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures was dogged by a controversy. In one episode, directed by Ren and Stimpy creator John Kricfalusi (known to fans as John K.), Mighty Mouse crushes a flower and sniffs the petals. That sequence caused religious conservatives to clutch their pearls and cry “cocaine!” Bakshi edited the episode to remove the sequence but swore it was unintended. Alas, a reputation can cut two ways. Mighty Mouse only aired 19 episodes and Bakshi never returned to kids animation, the field he’d efficiently and thoroughly upended.

Today, Bakshi is a not so avid consumer of children’s cartoons. A profoundly, maybe even aggressively, frank man, the 79-year-old animator doesn’t mince words about the many kids shows that he feels are purpose-built to frighten their audience. He spoke to Fatherly about the evolution of children’s animation, how it differs from adult animation, and why John K. is such a disappointment.

Considering your massive influence on kids cartoons, how do you feel about the current state of kids animation on TV?

I’m not exactly the biggest fan of children’s animation. Not because I don’t like kids–I have four of my own–but because of some of the horrible stuff I have seen throughout the years.

What little kids animation I’ve seen recently has been turned on for my grandkids to watch. There it was in the kitchen just blasting away. The kids were eating and running around but no one was really looking at it. What I saw was horrifying screaming and yelling. Everyone has absolutely no morals, parents are nothing, and the characters were horrible people. Everything is schizophrenic. There is no magic. I don’t understand why anybody would allow their kids to watch this stuff.

So what did you allow your kids to watch then? After all, by the time your kids showed up, you’d been in the business awhile. When they wanted entertainment, what were you showing them? Were you showing them books? Films?

Tons of stuff. Dr. Seuss and all of his stuff. The Fleischer Cartoons like Popeye are all very warm, funny, and wonderful. They were imaginative and had wonderful songs. They weren’t gritty. They were earthy with character. Disney films like Pinocchio and Snow White. I showed them anything that had imagination and wasn’t ugly. They weren’t disappointed. I didn’t see them missing anything.

Sometimes I said, ‘Listen I know you’re going to hate me, but you’re not going to watch it because it’s sleazy and it’s stupid and it’s ugly.’

My kids grew up on Sesame Street, which I thought was great. My kids grew up on Mr. Rogers. Then, the screaming, the yelling and the horrific colors. All the crap began to show up and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.

I find my kids like the old Fleischer animation too, they seem to really enjoy it. Those shorts were popular during your postwar American childhood. What else spoke to you as a kid? What ultimately influenced your work?

First of all, I grew up in a different time. I was an immigrant. My parents came to this country after escaping the Nazis in World War II. We came to Brooklyn as refugees and didn’t have much, but that doesn’t mean that I felt like I didn’t have much. On radio, by the bedside, you could hear these great half-hour programs like Superman. We had to imagine what was happening and that was very beautiful.

Comic books were very big and had just started. I fell in love with all that material and wanted to spend my whole life doing it at a certain point. I realized this was a great way to live and something I could afford to do because you just needed a bottle of ink. You are born with something that makes you gravitate towards what you like. In the spare, dark, quiet ghetto where we lived it was a moment of light.

We’re a parenting site, so let’s talk about parenting. You became a father at 21. Did having kids also influence or change the trajectory of your art?

No. Who I am as an artist has nothing to do with who I was as a father. I knew what to show my kids, but my own art was my own art. That’s what I lived for. I raised my kids to the best of my ability. My wife had more to do with raising my kids that I did. She read them books all the time because she felt reading was better then having them watch all those stupid TV shows. There’s enough stuff from my wife and me to show them, I didn’t have to make it for them.

One of my kids came home from school once saying that they were talking about ‘Fritz the Cat.’ They asked, “Did you make that Dad? Did you make that Dad?” But we tried to keep them out of the Hollywood experience as much as possible. They probably thought I was animating for PBS or something.

But at the same time, your kids grew up and eventually discovered your art. At least one, Eddie, took up animation started working with you. What’s it like now working with him on projects?

Eddie started a huge animation course. He is very much involved in animation. He makes films. He’s a producer and animation teacher. He’s doing quite well.

How much credit do you give yourself for teaching Eddie the art of animation? What’s it like to teach your kid to do something you’re already a master at?

The most important thing to do with young people is to give them responsibility. Even though they are scared, you tell them they can do it. The best way to teach young kids into throw them in the water and let them swim. I’m a great believer of that. I’m a little difficult in that area. I believe responsibility will make people grow up, except when it comes to Trump, and if you voted for him, I’m hanging up.

Don’t worry. So after a life in making these adult films with such a singular vision, why did you come back to Saturday morning cartoons in the 80s? Was it wanting to relive your youth? Work with younger animators?

It was for many reasons. First of all, I had to earn a living for my family. Number two, absolutely nostalgia. Because of what I didn’t like on TV. I didn’t like all the crude stuff they were showing for kids. I thought a good wholesome Mighty Mouse would be great. Also, I thought it would be good for television.

The young animators that you hired to work on that show would go on to steer and create a ludicrous number of successful franchises. Did you have the sense that you were creating a farm system for the animation industry? Were you sort of preaching a gospel that these young artists help spread? How do you account for the outsized influence of a Mighty Mouse reboot that wasn’t necessarily destined to be groundbreaking?

First of all, I am very very good at picking artists from a portfolio. I have a good eye. The odds of them doing a good job for me are good. Secondly, I teach the fundamentals of honesty. I teach them how to approach their stuff as an art and not be kowtowed by Disney. That’s the road to creativity at Bakshi productions. The ones who get it, really get it.

What happened on Mighty Mouse with John Kricfalusi, makes me disappointed with him, and what he did, and how he hurt the series. I have always done very outrageous stuff, but I had a rating to back me up. Anyone who tries to sneak stuff into a series because they think they’re cool is a total outrage to me. I’d never do anything to harm kids by trying to sneak something in. We were doing a kids series on a Saturday morning.

Sure. But while you denied that the scene depicted cocaine use, you also allowed the network to cut the scene from the master. Was that the de facto admission of guilt that some think it was?

At the time I backed everything. I took the hit. But at this point in my life, I have to let you know it cost me the show. It was ugly and not right. And what network was saying it was, it was. There was no mistaking what the attempt was on that show.

So, if you look at a project like John K.’s Ren and Stimpy which I also grew up with, and I found ….

I’m not going to talk about John K’s stuff. He’s a tremendous disappointment to me. He destroyed ‘Ren and Stimpy’ too. So I just don’t want to talk about it.

Okay. Let’s switch gears. You brought up this group of animators who would later influence others. Do you still have a stake in animation anymore? Do you have hopes and dreams for what animation looks like in the future, whether for adults or otherwise?

No. I did my thing. It is time for people to do their thing. I had a very good time and I got to make whatever I wanted to make. A lot of it was difficult and I had a lot of fights. But, I’m not looking to tell anyone what the future should be like. My concern for the future is for America. The world is dumbing down and the planet is burning up. My concern is for the Western democracy. If we aren’t careful there won’t be an America to worry about for animation.

Do you think artist can help at all in this situation? Can their work be powerful and help change people’s minds?

I’ve been thinking about that a lot. In my day, artists could. They changed music—Coltrane and Miles Davis. They changed art—Jackson Pollock, Willem De Kooning. Authors were out there. There were great voices. Today, everyone is selling out for money more than ever. You see everyone accepting the kind of horrific imbalances and lack of democracy and not doing anything. That’s my concern. But I won’t be around that much longer.

But you’re here now and you have a distinct, powerful voice and style that continues to affect and influence people. How do we make sure there will be people like you in the world? What do you think dads can do to give kids a shot of becoming strong individuals and creative thinkers?

If parents abdicate their responsibilities the children make the wrong choices. The respect we had for our parents, and the respect they had for us, seems to be slipping away. We are letting television babysit our kids. Let them know the masses of the people aren’t always right. Just because something is hip doesn’t mean it is right. Talk to them about racism and inequality. Those things have to be discussed with children or else they get very confused. It’s not easy being a parent and that’s not easy to do. You get very hurt making your kid do something they don’t want to do. I’m not saying any of this is easy. That’s the best I got to offer. That’s old school. New school I don’t like. I don’t know where old school went.