(Check out my previous Bakshi review: Cool and The Crazy)
After the completion of his first live-action feature film in 1994, Bakshi went back to creating one-off animations for various companies starting with two short films for the Hanna-Barbera series What a Cartoon!. The animations were called Malcolm and Melvin and Babe! He Calls Me!, which followed a clown named Melvin who is also the biggest loser in the world. He meets a cockroach who plays a mean saxophone and the two team up to take the world by storm as Melvin books gigs and hooks chicks, as Malcolm plays sax from within Melvin’s mouth, making sure to keep himself hidden.
The What a Cartoon! series was really important culturally as it gave many animators their first chance to a break their own beloved properties in pilot form. Some shows that emerged from this series include The Powerpuff Girls, Dexter’s Laboratory, Johnny Bravo, Cow and Chicken, and Courage the Cowardly Dog. The quality of Bakshi’s shorts for the series was such that they could have been picked up for a long-running series of their own. However, Hanna-Barbera heavily edited Bakshi’s original cuts for his episodes of the series, and despite how good they turned out, he felt that Hanna-Barbera disrespected as an artist and butchered his original vision for the works behind his back.
two years later, Bakshi finally found a home for the kind of adult-oriented transgressive cartoons that he was known for making: HBO. They hired Bakshi to create six episodes of a series that would become the first animated series targeted specifically toward an adult audience (which beat South Park to air by a month). Bakshi assembled a team of animators and collaborators to write and create a Sci-fi film noir, or cyberpunk, animation series called Spicy City with a world visually similar to the dystopian, Metropolis and Blade Runner inspired one from his 1992 mixed media live-action-animation film Cool World. And unlike dozens of his past endeavors, he actually managed to exert the amount of creative control he desired to finally, once again, create what amounts to one of his final top-form works.
As on Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures, ten years prior, Bakshi split up the work of direction and gave each team creative freedom as long as the scripts were good and the animation was of the same style as the series. The three units that resulted from this process were headed by directors John Kafka, Ennio Torresan Jr., and Bakshi himself, and I feel that all three of these men created compelling work.
As for Kafka, he directed the first episode ‘Love Is a Download’ in which an attractive young woman with an abusive, gangster boyfriend retreats into the digital world to escape her troubles as a geisha avatar. There, she falls in love with a boxer avatar who, in real life, is a morbidly obese, one-armed, ex-military veteran who now works as a cybersecurity detective. Although the episode becomes a bit conventional toward its end, it was a good solid start for the series as it displayed all of the main influences on Spicy City including the spinners, smog, modernist architecture, and Vangelis-like chimes of Blade Runner, as well as a film noir look, technology influenced by the aforementioned film, and a dystopian city straight out of Metropolis.
Kafka’s second episode of the series was its final one, episode six, ‘Raven’s Revenge’ wherein the Elvira-Jessica Rabbit-like host of the series learns that she was not born, but manufactured by a giant global corporation called ATC and run by a man named Corbin who has created a virus to kill all ‘undesirables’ such as carnie mutants within the city and living beneath the city in its sewer system. Raven is a host for this virus and has spread it to a core group of inhabitants of Spicy City unknowingly. A man named Bird appears, who seemingly has ties to the giant Tyrell-like organization, and whisks away Raven and her Siamese twin ‘mutant’ friend to infiltrate the corporation and administer the cure to the world before its too late.
The second director, Ennio Torresan Jr., directed episodes three and four of the series, the first of which, entitled ‘Tears of a Clone’, is maybe the most emotionally affecting of the bunch. In this work, a rich elderly man’s young girlfriend runs away from home and attempts to leave him. But her beauty is of such a high caliber that she is taken off of the streets by human traffickers who sell her to a subterranean organization that creates clones of women, presumably for sexual purposes. The old man hires a private detective named Mr. Lowe and his robot partner (pictured above) to track down the girl. But the trip proves too difficult, and instead of bringing back Melissa, Lowe brings the old man a clone of the girl. The transhumanist message seems to be that a perfect clone will be the exact same person, but in this case, without the baggage of knowledge about the old man and Melissa’s failed relationship. The old man recognizes that Melissa may not be the original girl he came to know and love (and he suspects that she may be a clone, rather than merely brain-damaged into losing her memory as Lowe suggests), and yet he takes her in. But back at the corporation, the original Melissa remains a slave to the organization who will clone her until she is of no more use to them, and then will probably dispose of her as one more useless hunk of meat. Talk about dystopian, this episode would fit comfortably within the Black Mirror film series if live-action.
Ennio’s second contribution to the series was ‘An eye for an Eye,’ the tale of a hardened cop named Ernie who works to take down a corrupt fellow officer who works under deep cover and often brutally exploits her seemingly heartfelt relationships with down and out types in the city merely to make a quick buck on the side throughout their associations. Ernie turns over evidence on the woman, but even his police chief and the local judge are being blackmailed by this black viper police officer. It takes the death of Ernie’s own wife at his corrupt partner’s own hand to finally put her away for good, onto the prison colony of Alpha-Centauri where she is later subjected to death by dissection, and her organs are distributed to the world. In death, this femme fatale is, for the first time, an actual benefit to society.
finally, Bakshi himself directed episodes two and five of the series. The first of these two, ‘Mano’s Hands’ is the least effective of any of those within the anthology. a young bongo player’s hands are cut off by a jealous thug, one is later destroyed, and the other makes friends with the thug and eventually runs away with him into the sunset (to give him handjo…. Uh, I’ll stop there). It’s just an awful concept and it isn’t executed in a particularly compelling manner either. The second one, ‘Sex Drive,’ is, however, a great episode. A young police officer named Lolita is investigating the mysterious disappearance of prostitutes in the city just as a mechanical prostitute named Virus finds herself out of business with the advent of competition from virtual prostitutes who have the added benefit of being completely clean, unemotional, and thereby impossible to track by men’s wives. The company behind the creation and distribution of virtual prostitutes, M & G, has apparently created these women by collecting prostitutes and scanning their brains online for use as ‘programs’ in the virtual sex pods. Together, the two girls figure this out and bring down the company, free the prostitutes, then set up a legitimate prostitution business with real girls from atop the same headquarters that the immoral bastards of M & G once occupied. The episode has the added benefit of being extremely erotic, and if you think that sounds weird of me, just go watch it first.
Spicy City was a successful show for HBO and they ordered a second season of the show, but on one condition: that Bakshi fire his current writer’s team and instead hire on a professional team of writers from L.A. He refused and the projected second season was later cancelled. In retrospect, Bakshi probably could have found interesting writers with whom he would have gelled for a second season of productions, but his hard-headedness, his loyalty to his friends and to the teams he assembles, and his general need to get his own way are things that make him Ralph Bakshi, the imitable animator and director whose career has produced visionary work and pushed the medium of animation farther than almost anyone else, historically speaking, both technically (through rotoscoping and mixed-media approaches to the art) and topically (as the creator of the first R and X-rated Animated films that reflected life in urban America and served as social and political documents as well as works of entertainment).
But the story doesn’t end quite here. There is one more major production to discuss within the career of Bakshi, as well as the need to mention many more failed attempts at picking up his career in the twenty-one years that have passed between Spicy City and this, the moment of this review’s publication.
[Concluded here: Last Days of Coney Island]