There must have been something in the ink that started coloring the world of popular animation, because adult animation really took off in 1972, mixing sex, drugs and political messages with wild, eye-popping visuals. Fritz the Cat, a groundbreaking animated film made that year, kicks off Deviant Animation, a new series at the Sie FilmCenter, on Saturday, April 16. The series is hosted by local professor of fun Andrew Novick and leads up to a weeklong engagement for Belladonna of Sadness.
Eiichi Yamamoto’s Belladonna of Sadness was released in 1973; its tale — of a wife whose gang rape at the hands of a king’s court leaves her shamed by her husband and vulnerable to a deal with the devil to become a powerful witch — is told with exquisitely hand-drawn and watercolor images that reflect children’s animation styles of the time. But the film's themes of sexuality and revenge definitely aren't for the kids.
Belladonna had a successful run in Japan and America, but then the film disappeared, only occasionally emerging in poorly transferred and dubbed VHS copies. But now, 43 years after its original release, the sumptuous story returns to theaters in a newly restored version that hits the Sie on May 13. In anticipation, Deviant Animation will feature four stellar examples of grown-up animation that shocked audiences back in the day and continue to set tongues wagging.
Kicking off the series is the first of two entries from director Ralph Bakshi (Coonskin, Cool World): 1972's Fritz the Cat, based on the cartoons of artist R. Crumb. The movie follows oversexed college stud tomcat Fritz as he battles feminism and racial issues to keep on scoring and getting high. The other films that follow — Fantastic Planet (April 23), Heavy Traffic (April 30), Heavy Metal (May 7) — are prime examples of what happens when the message matures away from kids and grows up into more adult sensibilities. In advance of tomorrow's screening, we asked Novick six colorful questions to help paint a picture of what these devious stories have to offer your not-easily-offended eyes.
Westword: Have you always been a fan of animated films? What did you watch as a kid?
Andrew Novick: As a kid, I remember watching Animal Farm, Charlotte's Web, Wizards and Watership Down and being amazed by the somewhat shocking imagery and/or serious stories. When I was around eleven, I won tickets to a midnight screening of Heavy Metal on the radio, but my parents wouldn't let me go because of the adult rating. There's a way of storytelling and fantasy that animated films could represent that live-action films could not. For instance, live-action movies with talking animals were campy, but the animations could be political, violent and eerie.
Why is it so important that as we grow up, we don't outgrow animation as a storytelling tool?
The feelings evoked by classic animations can be powerful, and there's a sort-of 2D timelessness in the style. Modern computer graphics can "wow" us with the technology, but the excitation is not the same.
What is it about these films that makes them "deviant," and why is that a good thing?
On the surface, the nudity and sexual nature seem just a little deviant in this day and age, but the political and racial overtness are why they are still deviant now — perhaps even more so!
Which of the films in the series had a profound effect on you when you first watched it?
Some of these I have only watched just recently, but all of them are striking and unique. I think they will have an effect on people seeing them for the first time. They will be as polarizing to new audiences as they were originally.
Ralph Bakshi has two films in this series. Why is his political/racial/sexual message so interesting and necessary, and why do you think the message comes across stronger through animation?
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Heavy Traffic and Fritz the Cat are pretty different from each other, but similar in that they "go there" and way beyond "there." I think it's interesting that they do not hint at, or toy with, the deviant themes: They slap you across the face with them, over and over again.
Which “deviant” animation is missing from this series?
Ralph Bakshi's Wizards would be a logical pick, and we talked about it, but it wasn't going to be possible to get a good print of it.
Devious Animation kicks off at 10 p.m. on Saturday, April 16, with Fritz the Cat on 35mm film at the Sie FilmCenter, 2510 East Colfax. The series continues Saturdays through May 13, leading up to the weeklong engagement of Belladonna of Sadness. For tickets and showtimes, go to denverfilm.org.