Because Ralph Bakshi was a pioneer in adult-oriented feature-length American animation, he made his own rules for what these kinds of movies should be. This sometimes worked to his detriment, in that even Bakshi’s best films tend to be a hodgepodge of brilliant ideas and crude missteps. Hey Good Lookin’ is one of Bakshi’s best, and it’s far from a smooth ride, partly because of how it came to be. Bakshi finished his first version of this ’50s period piece in the mid-’70s, following the midnight-movie successes of his controversial Fritz The Cat, Heavy Traffic, and Coonskin, and he reportedly meant Hey Good Lookin’ to be a hybrid of animation and live action, with only the lead characters depicted as cartoons. But the studio, Warner Bros., rejected the picture, and Bakshi subsequently moved away from outrageous satires and toward grown-up fantasy stories, while working periodically to “fix” Hey Good Lookin’.
When the film was finally released in 1982, it had been transformed into a fully animated feature—save for a few scenes where the characters are drawn over live-action footage of New York street life—and its retro-rock soundtrack had been replaced by a more ’80s version of the ’50s. The compromises don’t always suit Hey Good Lookin’: The slick music clashes badly with the material’s grubby tone, and the plot plays out as a kind of “Bakshi’s Greatest Hits,” mixing sharp social observations with broad ethnic stereotypes and trippy setpieces. In his heyday, Bakshi was a world-class provocateur, but his more out-there moments are often head-scratchers that play best after the fact, when described to the incredulous. (As in: “Hey, there’s a scene in Hey Good Lookin’ where a three-testicled dude jumps around on a giant pair of breasts.”)
But the essence of what Bakshi intended with Hey Good Lookin’ survives, and constitutes the majority of what the finished product actually is. Always meant as an anti-nostalgic sketch of racial conflict and clumsy mating rituals in 1950s Brooklyn, Hey Good Lookin’ remains loveably scuzzy, even when the characters are hurling vile epithets at each other on the way to a rumble. Never one to romanticize the past, Bakshi conjures up an ugly New York populated by thugs and racists; even in his occasional flights of animated fancy, Bakshi gets a lot of the rhythm and flavor of real life into this cartoon.
Much of the credit for that is due to top-notch character actors Richard Romanus and David Proval, whose voice work as the film’s two greaser heroes was largely improvised, giving their scenes together the feel of a John Cassavetes or Martin Scorsese movie. The guys sound natural and funny whether they’re talking about girls or standing up for the honor of their gang—or even when Romanus’ would-be lothario tries to put the moves on a hooker by sidling up to her at a bar and boasting, “I’m assuming my Alan Ladd position.” It’s been argued, persuasively, that Bakshi’s career-long attempts to skewer racist and sexist attitudes are themselves just as racist and sexist. But context matters, and any movie that opens with a talking heap of garbage shouting, “Fuck this city!” is a movie with a point of view—one that’s top-to-bottom corrosive, not meant to skewer any one group. The unruliness of Hey Good Lookin’ is essential to what Bakshi was trying to do with his medium: to present a personal vision of the world, warts and more warts.
Key features: None, as is common with Warner Archive’s MOD discs; but it still would’ve been nice to have seen some the footage from the earlier version from the film, if not the complete original cut.