Every week this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: American animation has always been frustratingly unwilling to take on adult-oriented subject matter, a gap that Sausage Party means to address. There could be no better excuse to look back at the first time a filmmaker tried to use childish cartoon content in contrast with deliberately vulgar material.

It disappoints me that I don't like Fritz the Cat. I would like to like it very much, just as I would, generally speaking, like to like all the subsequent films of director and animator Ralph Bakshi, making his feature-length debut with this project, after years suffocating at Terrytoons, the most anodyne of all major American animation studios. God knows it's an important film, and not just for the trivial reason that it's the legendary first-ever X-rated animated feature (to those not in the know about the historical minutiae of the Motion Picture Association of America ratings system: "X" used to be an official category, the next step above the still-extant "R", meaning that under no circumstances would a minor be permitted to see the film. It was in all important ways identical to the present NC-17, which replaced it to do to rampant abuse by distributors which would claim "X" or even the non-existant "XXX" as ratings on pornographic films that had not been submitted to the MPAA. Fritz the Cat was officially rated X by the MPAA, but was beaten the theaters by a handful of animated films with these spurious pseudo-X ratings).

I should rather say, the film's importance is intimately related to what earned it that X, though the fact it was so classified is the trivial part. This was the first English-language animated feature of any note to deal in direct, explicit ways with sex, drug use, and politics, making it the first animated feature made in the United States for an expressly adult audience (I say "expressly" because despite Disney's reputation as a maker of children's entertainment, most of their features through at least the end of World War II were intended for the same general audience as every other mainstream Hollywood production of the era, and at least Fantasia and The Three Caballeros were arguably aimed more directly at adults than children). Certainly it is was the first American animated feature to engage in a meaningful, probing way with the culture as it was lived in more or less the same time as the film's production, and I think it's probably literally impossible for those of us who were not around in 1972 to rightly gauge what impact the film made when it was new. To read vintage reviews, which were predominately though by no means overwhelmingly positive, it apparently seemed like an staggeringly radical moment of infinite opportunity, as the unique tool set available in animation had been proven to be adaptable to questions of modern social import, and the promise of a new wave of serious grown-up animation was bright on the horizon.

In the end, for the whole of the 1970s, Bakshi was pretty much the only filmmaker to take advantage of the doors he'd just opened, and "adult animation" still seemed in every possible way like a farcical novelty and unsupportable animation in the English-speaking world until at the very earliest the 1989 debut on television of The Simpsons; in practical terms, I don't think it took root in television until the very late '90s or the 2000s, and as of 2016, it still hasn't in feature animation, given the boggle-eyed amazement so many people expressed at the fact that something like Anomalisa could possibly have even been made. So that is, through no fault of the film's, the first problem with Fritz the Cat: we can't watch it now with the same sense of "wait, they can do this now?!?" astonishment that the critics of '72 did. Bakshi's revolution failed. Hard. No matter how sincerely it was meant as a game-changer then, it's damn near impossible to consider Fritz the Cat anything but a curious novelty now.

Still, let us do what we can to meet the film on its own terms. And such very weird and unique terms they are - an after-the-fact analysis and dissection of the youth movements in America in the late 1960s made just a couple years later, Fritz the Cat is like a double-layer time capsule of attitudes in 1972 about the trends of 1968, all filtered through the mind of someone whose relationship to that era seems fraught. Not Robert Crumb, underground comic legend and original creator of Fritz: no matter how hard the animators worked to re-create the cartoonist's immediately recognisable style in motion, he disowned the movie almost immediately and has never really had a kind word to say about it. Nor, really, should he: the evidence of his subsequent filmography allows us to state with something like complete confidence that this is all Bakshi. Animation is one of the most collaborative forms in all of art, but my God, if ever a film felt like an act of solitary psychoanalysis on the part of its writer-director, Fritz the Cat is it. The whole film is an intensely bitter act of self-loathing: the protagonist, young Fritz the Cat himself (Skip Hinnant, cast because Bakshi thought his voice sounded inherently insincere - which it surely does), an NYU college student in the late '60s, contains a set of attitudes about society and the people within it that are largely equal to the ones expressed by the film's own representations, yet he is treated without fail as a scummy hypocrite and unlikable braggart. It's as though Bakshi wanted to embody all the things he like least about himself and his worldview, and assault them through ice-cold hip mockery for 78 straight minutes. It's ungainly and ugly as hell and really hard to turn away from, if only from the captivated horror of seeing a messy car accident.

Wherever the worldview on display here came from, it is a corrosive one. This is an angry movie, flashing its anti-mainstream bona fides right at the start, by depicting a blue-collar worker literally (if inadvertently) pissing on a hippie, and that sets the stage for a film that is entirely captivated by filth, though never again scatology. Bakshi's filmography cleaves into two halves: stone-faced high fantasy, and sarcastic, leering stories of life in New York City at its most unsanitary and vulgar (1992's abysmal Cool World describes a third kind of Bakshi movie, but since he hates it, let's not bother with it). The latter kind uniformly feel more passionate and desperate and horny and alive with manic energy, and Fritz the Cat earns all of those adjectives - it's a portrayal of New York squalor as both the worst thing in the world and the only genuinely true place that humanity can experience itself. Watching this film is peering into the heart of a creator for whom Giuliani's Disneyfication of Times Square must have counted as a soul-crushing personal tragedy.

Fritz the Cat is madly in love with how repulsive it can depict the city. Bakshi's style, in part enforced by his film's minuscule budget, is full of crude sketches and line drawings - the backgrounds are simply tracings of photographs, colored in as thick splotches - with characters who exist as simple lines and jabbing, repetitive movement - it is the primitive, artless Terrytoons style, doused in acid and dogshit and pools of stale human urine. Without finding it in any particular way pleasant to watch, I will unhesitatingly concede that Fritz the Cat has a perfect aesthetic to go with its attitude, crude and rough and devoid of any sort of polish or smoothness. Especially the coloring: sometimes, it looks like the cels were inked with smeary felt-tip markers. The aesthetic is profoundly unlovely and it has an immediacy that is not found anywhere else in animation of that era: even in Disney's Xerox years, with their visible pencil marks and scruffy drafting, there's not such a potent feeling of the animators trying to present their art without any adornment or mediation. The whole thing feels like it has been assembled as a first draft, with sequences and shots pieced together in a messy flurry, as though trying to think it through would rob it of its vitality.

It's striking - God knows it's striking. But it is also amateurish and sloppy and chaotic in ways that are hard to follow, almost physically unpleasant at times. And all of this is in service to a rotten core. Fritz the Cat is a singular, cohesive, and powerful vision, but it's also an alarmingly toxic one. Fritz is a callous womaniser, prone to hypocritically going on long rants that he doesn't understand or even remember about society this and culture that, is obsessed with African-American culture in way that zips madly from appreciation right past overweening white guilt into straight-up fetishisation, and even while presenting all of these as the terrible characteristics of a terrible person, the movie largely replicates them. Especially his views on women. Say whatever else one can about everything in the movie, Fritz the Cat showcases some astonishingly deep-set misery about women. They are flirty airheads, defined only by their capacity to have sex (frequently by being fed a line of obvious bullshit); they are joyless ball-busters; at their most positive, they're big, hefty earth mommas who feel more like self-employed prostitutes. And they are constantly bare-breasted - the film's obsession with depicting plump breasts and erect nipples goes beyond "we're an X-rated cartoon, whoopee!" into something pathological, at least by the time that the hissing lizard-woman leading a fascist desert cult leans so far forward that her breast flops out of her top (yep, her reptilian, presumably non-lactating breast; but then, Fritz the Cat has virtually no interest in pretending these animals aren't everyday humans). It's downright sordid, really.

To watch Fritz the Cat is to be assaulted by the firm, fired-up belief that the world is a shithole and that all of the good people trying to make it better are little more than dupes. For all it's blustering comedy, it's ultimately a satire, and a deeply enraged one, at the failure of the hippie movement to make good on its optimistic hopes for bettering the world. Hell, for all I know, this might even be the first "the '60s failed" movie on the books. And I suppose it's even successful at pursuing its goals, granting that the successful expression of a toxic worldview isn't really something to get all excited by. Besides, for all that the film captures with rotting majesty a certain dark, pathological view of New York as a physical space and as a cultural mindset, where all kinds of human beings smash together in violent, hateful ways, it collapses really quite terribly when it leaves the city in its second half. There's never anything particularly sophisticated or mature in the film's snotty look at the world, but at least in the first half, it's grounded in Bakshi's incredibly precise and idiosyncratic vision of the city he knew best. The second half is just mindless blather. I frankly don't know that it makes me like the movie less, but it certainly makes it much worse, dysfunctional in ways that feel like accidents and not the free-form narrative experiments of the barely-connected anecdotes in the first part of the movie.

Anyway, I think it would be wrong to call Fritz the Cat a "failure". The ending sequence is awfully hard to defend, but till that point, I'm pretty sure that it's exactly what Bakshi wanted it to be. It's just that the thing he wanted it to be is so unpleasantly and artless and airless: the film's evocation is grimy misery is skillful and aesthetically revolutionary, even, but it's also emblematic of a worldview in which grimy misery is all that there is. And I honestly don't know that I see the point. Even granting that Bakshi's best leaves me feeling pretty ill-tempered, not always for reasons he intended, it's absolutely the case that he did better than this. I would like to offer the final words to the great animation historian Michael Barrier, who wrote in 1973, as he was in the process of helping to inventing the discipline of animation criticism:
"The animated feature that emerged from all this travail is one of the most important cartoons ever made. In it, Bakshi established himself as almost the only cartoon director whose current work is worthy of serious attention.

"This is so even though Fritz the Cat is, in many respects, a pretty bad movie."