Shout! Factory // 1973 // 77 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // June 25th, 2013
More spice...from the makers of Fritz the Cat.
Animation today has to contend with its reputation as "kids' stuff." Even studios like Pixar whose work obviously assumes adult viewing are still aimed largely at the younger set. But it wasn't always that way. Some of the most avant-garde experiments in Modernist cinema were animated, and the underground comix movement birthed several artists whose aspirations went far beyond the printed page. One of those genre breakers was Ralph Bakshi, who came to prominence with an adaptation of R. Crumb's Fritz the Cat that was famously given an 'X' rating (the first for an animated feature). His follow-up to that film was 1973's Heavy Traffic. Though it's of limited appeal to mainstream viewers, those with an interest in drug culture, the history of animation, or Bakshi specifically will appreciate Shout Factory's new Blu-ray release.
Heavy Traffic opens with a live-action sequence featuring Michael Corleone (Joseph Kaufmann, Johnny Got His Gun), a young man at a pinball machine. The film's narrative begins when he transitions to an animated story, where he is an animator. To escape the constant bickering of his parents, Michael retreats to the big city, meeting with numerous colorful characters on his journey.
I don't usually talk about the Blu-ray disc first, but in this case it illuminates the larger issues with Heavy Traffic. First, it should be said the 1.66:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer does a great job with the existing elements. Because the film combines live-action and animated material, it required optical printing. By nature, optical printing degrades the image, first by photographing the live material and then overlaying the animation before filming again. As such, we can see the live material is a copy of a copy. Add to that 40 years of degradation and we don't have the cleanest print. That said, the deterioration is well presented, with detail level being strong throughout, showing the grit that's creeped into the frame. Colors and contrast are a bit off here and there, but overall this is a solid presentation of a problematic set of elements. The DTS-HD 1.0 Mono track has the same issues. Bakshi elects for a very busy soundfield throughout most of the picture, with people talking over one another while music plays, meaning it's often difficult to separate distinct elements. Some of the music and dialogue sound really good, but things do get a bit muddy at times, especially in the mid-range.
Sadly, there are no extras on this set, which brings me to the comparison between the film and this release. Both are technically accomplished but a bit lacking in substance. There's no argument that Bakshi is a talented animator. His blending of live-action and animation has few precedents, especially for adult material. The technical level of the animation here is impressive, and the obvious debt it owes to psychedelic culture gives the film a vibe few other animated tales can approach.
On the flip side, there isn't much meat to Heavy Traffic. Despite the inventiveness and technical competence of the animation, the film doesn't actually serve a story that viewers care about. The narrative is basically an excuse to have Corleone meet a bunch of really weird characters. That's not necessarily a problem, but the combination of urban decay and bizarro people doesn't sit well together. The serious stuff is too serious to laugh at, and the weird stuff is too funny to take seriously. As it stands, the film is more of a historical curiosity than the kind of most viewers can appreciate.
Some of this might have been alleviated by a killer Special Edition on the part of Shout! Factory. A commentary from Bakshi would have helped shed light on some of the more idiosyncratic elements of the story. A few featurettes about the history of animation at the time or the difficulties the film suffered (especially in comparison to Fritz the Cat) would help as well.
Ralph Bakshi is an important figure in the history of animation, but Heavy Traffic is far from his best or most interesting film. Fans of his work may complete their collection with this decent Blu-ray release, but it's more likely that a rental will satisfy the curious.
Perhaps a little too heavy, but not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Shout! Factory
* 1.66:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 77 Minutes
Release Year: 1973
MPAA Rating: Rated R