Ralph Bakshi, Heavy Traffic, 1973, color, 71 minutes. Right: Robert Breer, Fuji, 1964, 16 mm, color, 9 minutes.

IN 1962, animator Robert Breer observed that “there’s more to cinema than creating the illusion of psychologically anthropomorphic movements.” It may seem a bit nutty these days to suggest that animation could be anything other than anthropomorphic. As long as they can be cute, sassy, humanlike, and cross-promoted with McDonald’s Happy Meals, cartoon cats, donkeys, cars, and toys are all box-office gold. What a relief, then, that the Museum of Arts and Design’s Jake Yuzna has curated a program of adult avant-garde animation, reminding us that cartoons can be compelling without being firmly anchored to the anthropomorphic. Indeed, what animation often does best is enable experiences that the eye could otherwise never behold. This notion differs sharply from the ethos driving the cartoon storybooks dominating today’s theatrical marketplace.

In The Moschops (1999), for example, Jim Trainor animates his dinosaurs using paper and a Sharpie, and there is little attempt at three-dimensionality. A series of voice-overs explain in the first person what the animals do—fight, defecate, fornicate—the formal language at odds with the simple representations before us. If we end up feeling for the animals, it is not because the voices represent the true interiority of the beasts. The “I” is patently retrospective, a human imagining itself as an animal millions of years after its extinction. The visually simple film ends on a disconcertingly poignant note, as a creature slowly dies while the voice-over intones, “Nothing on earth has a right to live, only a chance. A chance.”

Breer’s work is even less “realistic” in its representational strategies. In Fuji (1974), he roughly rotoscopes a train trip past Mt. Fuji. Rotoscoping is a method of hand tracing (later, computer-enabled) live-action footage; it was famously innovated by the Fleischer brothers (creators of Betty Boop) to make KoKo the Klown look funny by appearing “too real” for a cartoon. But Breer undercuts the whole principle of the process by not striving for verisimilitude. Instead, he aims to express rhythm and kinetic energy.

While Breer began as a painter emulating Mondrian and Kandinsky, Sally Cruikshank emerges from a wholly different tradition, that of underground comics. Her wild, effusive characters sport breasts and beaks, wear miniskirts, and use cakes as bait to lure victims into holes in time. In Quasi at the Quackadero (1975), characters undergo a series of surreal experiences at a sideshow; when they peer into a mirror that depicts what they will look like in one hundred years, the reflection is of skeletons. One is reminded of the surrealism of Fleischer cartoons such as Bimbo’s Initiation (1931), and indeed, the episode is suffused with wild and eclectic dance music reminiscent of the 1930s.

Sally Cruikshank, Quasi at the Quackadero, 1975.

John and Faith Hubley also make unconventional musical choices. The Hat (1964) is set to an improvised sound track by Dizzy Gillespie, and The Tender Game (1958) features music by the Oscar Peterson Trio and Ella Fitzgerald, with an image track that may seem too “soft” to viewers accustomed to the hard edges and colors of so much contemporary animation. Cockaboody (1973), by contrast, looks like a conventional children’s book, but its radical impact lies in the fact that the audio consists of actual recordings of the Hubley’s children. Cartoons without tightly scripted “cartoon voices” were then—and remain today—rather unusual, even jarring.

Ralph Bakshi, too, is an innovator in the use of “real voices.” He is famous (or infamous) for directing Fritz the Cat (1972), the first X-rated theatrically released animated feature film. Among the best moments of that movie are the scenes that use real audio recordings of African Americans in a bar, challenging an entire tradition of whites supplying racist black voices for cartoons (Disney being a prime offender). Bakshi once again takes on racial taboos in Heavy Traffic (1973). Setting aside the film’s politics (feminist it is not), the visuals combine animation and live-action, often in wildly creative ways. Its aesthetics are patently avant-garde, and, notwithstanding the hefty dosage of sex and violence, it is rather astounding that such a strange film could receive a mass theatrical release. This perhaps speaks more to the radical climate in American filmmaking of the early ’70s than to any particular popular taste for radical animation per se.

Taken together, the widely varying program curated by the museum offers mostly hits amid a few misses. Birch Cooper’s I Was a Teacher and Peter Burr’s Alone with the Moon (2012) might be read by viewers as “computer art” rather than animation (though the distinction is admittedly a bit phony), and the wildly flashing images of these films seem designed less to encourage thought than to provoke throbbing eyeballs. David O’Reilly’s The External World (2010) features a weirdly flat yet mesmerizing aesthetic, at times evocative of a video game, but the characters are repeatedly sliced, diced, and exploded, and at one point a walking pile of shit gives birth to a pile of shit. The images, in other words, are designed to disturb, yet we are told several times that it is only a cartoon, which means that if we are offended we don't get the irony, or are just plain squares. I’d rather be offended by Bakshi; at least he has a clear point of view and no interest in ironic detachment. In any case, it seems that even the most abstract of avant-garde animated films have an implicit point of view: Don’t worry about the plot or characters—just let your eyes and ears do the work.

Heather Hendershot

Individual programs from “Adults in the Dark: Avant-Garde Animation” run through Friday, November 16 at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York.