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A multi-layered satire of race relations in America. Live-action sequences of a prison break bracket the animated story of Brother Rabbit, Brother Bear, and Preacher Fox, who rise to the top of the crime ranks in Harlem by going up against a con-man, a racist cop, and the Mafia.Written by
Alan Smithee, Sr.
Man in Blue:
Man in Yellow:
Alright, I'm gonna give some example: I heard that 350 white folks committed suicide by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge. And out of the 350, there was two that was niggers.
Man in Blue:
And one of them was pushed.
Man in Yellow:
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The most enraged animated film I have ever seen in my entire life.
"WARNING: This movie offends EVERYBODY!"
That was what the cover of the first video release of this tape I ever saw said right on the front.
I first learned about this one over ten years ago, and was determined for the longest time to not see it. Being a sensitive animation viewer, I was positive that it would only upset me with offensive stereotypes and ugly pictures. But after recently learning that Ralph Bakshi had had nothing but the best of intentions when he created this film, curiosity finally overpowered me and I decided to rent it simply because I was curious to see what Bakshi really was attempting to say. If he had stated that he had made it merely as a sarcastic and mean racist statement against African Americans, especially since I am proud to say that I am one of the only two white members of a wonderful all-black church filled with beautiful and kind people who have shown me nothing but the most wonderful love and respect I have ever known, I would ***NEVER*** have watched it.
I was familiar with all of Bakshi's other works by then, many which I found unsettling, to say the least. Bakshi's biggest scream of pain that I had encountered up to that time was "Heavy Traffic", which had been to me his loudest and most disturbing contribution to the industry. The only thing I knew for certain about THIS film was that it had CAUSED a scream of its own, being picketed and disowned by Paramount almost immediately.
So what was my personal reaction to it?
Well, first let me start by saying that this is easily the angriest animated film I have ever seen in my entire life.
And believe me, I've seen hundreds of them from all over the world. I've seen all sorts of outraged statements on all sorts of subjects from the simple to the profound, but I have NEVER, EVER seen anything even remotely APPROACHING the sheer frothing-at-the-mouth disgust that emotionally bleeds off the screen here. Animation has caused joy, laughing, sorrow, concern and even grief, but very rarely can they cause rage towards a particular problem in the way this one does. As a result, it blares across your mind like an ambulance siren. I guarantee you right now that if you should ever choose to do what I finally did-- to prepare yourself the best you can emotionally and watch this film--I hereby guarantee you that you will never forget the experience.
It's very rare that a movie has the power to affect us so strongly. When I first saw "Heavy Traffic" in 1991, I found myself shrinking in my chair shaking because of all the powerful suggestions that Bakshi was showing me--all of his convincing arguments of what it can really be like to live in today's world for those less fortunate than myself. He was showing me how ugly and brutal an everyday existance could really be in the city, something which I had never known because I was born and raised in a polite suburb of the bay area where neighbors all got along cheerfully and everybody was innocently colorblind of each other's skin tones. While watching "Coonskin", I was shrinking in my chair shaking even worse--but this time it wasn't from the convincing arguments Bakshi was showing me, it was from the raw, ugly, horrifying attack that my senses were being assaulted with. Bakshi doesn't use metaphor or mere words here as he did in "Heavy Traffic", here he is instead more in-your-face that you could possibly imagine. This is a film that refuses to be ignored. It doesn't just drift by like most entertainment does on the TV, it grabs you and sinks its teeth into your throat.
Next, let me talk about the character design. The movie has, as has been pointed out by many out there, some of the most chilling animated sequences ever created here. I was repulsed and nauseated by the horrific looks of the characters. It's an all-too-powerful reminder of just how African Americans have been drawn and portrayed by Hollywood in the past, and that's exactly what it's meant to be--Bakshi exaggerates already-exaggerated stereotypes so strongly that he shows even the stonehearted just how cruel it really is.
But around midway into the film, I discovered something--EVERYBODY is drawn this way, not just the African American characters! For example, I had first gasped in horror at "bottle-shaped" heads of the women characters here because I had thought that the shape was meant to be a cruel and grotesque "parody" of the African skull's natural shape. But then I later encountered white boys with THE EXACT SAME DESIGNS! In other words, NOBODY gets out of this film in one piece--but the MOST horrifying design of all here, one so hideous that he singlehandedly makes all the others in this movie look gentle and affectionate in his shadow, is the ITALIAN GODFATHER! When I saw him, I nearly lost my stomach he was so horrendous. I'm serious, I was positive I was going to throw up. For Pete's sake, he even makes Jabba The Hut look downright cuddly! Even the most "normally designed" character, Miss America, is so obviously a symbol of ugliness that has haunted the USA that she comes across as disgusting and a plague to our country.
The main three though (Rabbit, Fox and Bear) gave me a different reaction: Rabbit I thought looked cool except for those awful exaggerated lips (but I wish to state that he looks absolutely tame compared to other characters you encounter later on), Fox looked alright although I kept wondering where his tail and ears were, and Bear...I liked his appearance the most. His looks genuinely flattering and gives a great impression of a well-meaning "loveable lunk" guy (and I don't mean in the stupid Archie comic "Moose" sense either). Unlike all the others, he would have looked outstanding in any cartoon. All three were genuinely likeable characters who had gotten themselves into far worse trouble than they were prepared for.
The voice talent behind all three was absolutely spectacular. Philip Michael Thomas has such a--there's no other word for it--COOL speaking voice that he fuses Rabbit with a slickness and attitude reserved only for the best cartoon characters. Charles Gordone is a natural match for Fox and sounds like he had a lot of fun voicing his part in quite a few scenes, and Bear is voiced by one of my all-time favorite talents, Barry White! In a way, it was good for me personally that White was in the film as one of the "heroes" here because his familiar deep voice which has always sounded so gentle in his wonderful music gave me a comforting little something from my own life--a mental "security blanket" to hold on to during the movie, if you will--that helped a bit to cushion the concussive force of this film.
And that was a good thing for me. I actually started to cry watching this film. It upsets and enrages you so much with the sheer injustice and cruelty that is prejudice that I couldn't help but break down as I watched it (it also made me more thankful than ever that my OWN family's relatives came to America AFTER slavery was done away with, so I can honestly say MY family had nothing to do with any of that!).
This is, in short, a film that is meant to be seen by bigoted people who hate others just because of race--that is the film's target after all. Bakshi obviously never intended for his film to be yelling at an audience already on his side concerning this issue.
But even though this is a movie I would never personally buy or want to watch again, I have to tell you: for what it's created to be, this is an excellent movie. It succeeds all too well in delivering its message, and the creepy visuals make it all the more effective (I have the feeling that people would have been less offended if the characters had been drawn like, for example, the appealing character designs of Filmation's "Fat Albert and The Cosby Kids" instead of the nightmarish ones we see here). Why is it so extreme? Well, that's because this is a movie made in sheer justifiable rage, and that's not the sort of emotion you can keep carefully under control very well when art is concerned.
The movie has forms of icy attempts at gags which are so sharp and revealing that (for somebody like myself) they seem more an example of daring rather than good judgement. That's not meant to be a criticism towards anyone who does find it hilarious, as I know people out there do, but I didn't laugh much. But that's only because I found the film so strong and vicious that I couldn't laugh. The few scenes where I really did laugh came out of the few traditionally cartoony gags that added fun personality to the three main characters, such as the scene where Fox almost carries off the tombstone from the graveyard ("Put him back, Fox!") and the clever tar baby sequence.
As for the animation itself, its movement and craft are superb. No matter what one's opinion of everything else here, one is still forced to admire the skill in putting it together.
While a part of me is relieved to see someone attempt to make such a powerful statement about such a terrible wrong, at the same time I can't really recommend the film. I doubt very much I would ever recommend this film to anyone...except to some jerk I might encounter someday who loves to badmouth people of other races. I personally doubt I would ever watch it again because I didn't "enjoy" it or "like" it but very much admire what it attempts to do all the same. And even if one attempts to put all the most controversial elements of it aside, it *still* carries a huge weight of violence and profanity guaranteed to offend a lot of viewers. But even so, it is a strong and bold movie. One that deserves applause for pointing out injustice.
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