Review by: Mountain Monkey
SCUM Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
To commemorate (cash-in on?) the 40th anniversary of Heavy Traffic‘s 1973 release, Shout! Factory recently released the movie on Blu-ray. The re-mastered picture and sound quality of the new disc is a decent step-up over the DVD released by MGM back in 2000, so if you haven’t seen Heavy Traffic, the Blu-ray release is a good choice given its comparable cost to the DVD. The new Blu-ray release unfortunately contains no special features.
Despite its age, Heavy Traffic still packs a punch in terms of originality, when compared to the animated features being released by American studios these days. It’s inconceivable that an animated feature like Heavy Traffic would obtain funding from a present-day Hollywood studio and enjoy the mainstream box office success that it did back in the early 1970s.
Heavy Traffic was director Ralph Bakshi’s second major feature after the success of the equally offensive Fritz the Cat (1972), which was a box office hit despite earning the ridicule of Fritz creator, Robert Crumb.
Heavy Traffic centers around the life of a white, underground cartoonist Michael Corleone, who appears as a live-actor (played by Joseph Kaufmann) at the beginning and end of the movie. As the live-action morphs into animation, we learn that Michael is unemployed and lives in a crummy New York apartment with his constantly bickering Italian father and Jewish mother. Drowning out his grimy surroundings with his cartoons, Michael prowls the seedy city, seeking inspiration, which he eventually finds in the form of a beautiful black bartender, Carole. The two hit it off, and we follow their adventures in a wonderfully gritty 1970s New York. The movie ends as it begins, in an arcade with Michael playing a pinball machine that is perhaps a metaphor for his drifting life.
The animation in Heavy Traffic is very fluid, with several scenes that are simply quite trippy. At times, Bakshi interjects live-action footage as background in the animation – this was innovative back in the day and heightens both the realism and experimental nature of the movie. Needless to say, there are several naughty x-rated scenes in the movie, but they’re presented in a playful manner. The soundtrack for Heavy Traffic is top-notch, with a very Latin ‘Scarborough Fair’ (played by Sergio Mendes and Brazil ‘66) appearing as a recurring motif.
Bakshi went on to release the excellent Coonskin in 1975, and started working on another ‘street’ movie, Hey Good Lookin’. Unfortunately, there was a backlash by the Congress of Racial Equality against Coonskin, which meant Hey Good Lookin’ was only released in 1982. This quadrilogy of movies spelt the end of Bakshi’s focus on ‘street’ themes and he went on to release more mainstream fantasy features such as Wizards (1977), an adaptation of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (1978) and Fire and Ice in 1983. While his latter output has its fans, these movies are perhaps outside the scope of this blog.
Bakshi is currently working on a kick-starter funded feature, Last Days of Coney Island, which looks like a very promising return to his gritty roots.