Cool World

Cool World
Director: Ralph Bakshi
Screenplay: Michael Grais & Mark Victor
Stars: Kim Basinger (Holli Would), Gabriel Byrne (Jack Deebs), Brad Pitt (Det. Frank Harris), Janni Brenn-Lowen (Mom Harris), Michael David Lally (Sparks), Michele Abrams (Jennifer Malley), Carrie Hamilton (Comic Bookstore Cashier), Maurice LaMarche (Mash / Dr. Vincent Whiskers / Super Jack), Gregory Snegoff (Bash), Candi Milo (Bob), Charles Adler (Nails)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Year of Release: 1992
Country: U.S.
Cool World

Ralph Bakshi’s live-action-and-animation-mixed spectacle Cool World was in the unfortunate position of following just a few years after Robert Zemeckis’ Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988). Therefore, it was immediately written off as a sorry imitator, as if Bakshi (or anyone else, for that matter) had never mixed live action and animation before. In fact, his raucous and racy socially prescient films of the 1970s, most notably Heavy Traffic (1973) and Coonskin (1975), were quite audacious in their mixing of live action and traditional hand-drawn animation. In this sense, he wasn’t doing anything he hadn’t experiments with before, and to criticize Cool World for tracking in Roger Rabbit’s footsteps is to ignore the bulk of Bakshi’s fascinating, if uneven career.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to defend much else about Cool World because, quite frankly, it’s a mess. Sloppily produced, confusing, and unfunny where it should be hilarious, it’s a major misfire from a deeply gifted filmmaker and artist whose career was already on the rocks. The 1980s was a hard decade for Bakshi, as each of his films—American Pop (1981), Hey, Good Lookin’ (1982), and Fire and Ice (1983)—fizzled. He found success on television with The New Adventures of Mighty Mouse, launched in 1988, and Cool World was poised to be his major re-entry into feature-length films. Unfortunately, it was a dud, both critically and commercially, and Bakshi has been largely absent from cinema ever since.

The script for Cool World was penned by Michael Grais and Mark Victor, who had previously worked together with Steven Spielberg on Poltergeist (1982). Their story posits the idea of two parallel worlds: the “real world” inhabited by humans, otherwise known as “noids,” and the “Cool World,” inhabited by cartoon characters known as “doodles.” In the film’s prologue, set in Las Vegas in 1945, a young returning soldier named Frank Harris (Brad Pitt, before his superstardom days) is brought into the Cool World after a tragic motorcycle accident that kills his mother. The film then jumps ahead almost 50 years, where we meet Jack Deebs (Gabriel Byrne), a cartoonist in prison who draws “Cool World” comics and is under the belief that he has created that universe (the potentially fascinating chicken-and-the-egg conundrum introduced here is unfortunately left dangling) .

Jack soon learns all about the extent of Cool World when he is drawn into it by his central creation, a slinky nymphet named Holli Would (Kim Basinger). Holli longs to be real, and apparently the only way for a doodle to become real is to have sex with a noid, which is why she brings Jack into her world. Meanwhile, Frank, who was become a film noir-esque police detective in the Cool World universe, tries to stop Holli because her actions have dire consequences for the entire universe. Apparently, it also has dire consequences for the movie, because once Holli is in the real world, it really starts to come apart narratively, as it bogs down in a subplot involving a Spike of Power that is never clearly explained, but has something to do with keeping the two worlds separated.

Cool World has myriad problems beyond the narrative level, though. As he had primarily worked in the animated medium, Bakshi was not very experienced in directing flesh-and-blood actors, and it shows in the performances. Pitt is charming enough, but Byrne is completely flat and Basinger is utterly annoying. In her animated form, she pulls off a kinky sensuality with her coy vocals, but when she becomes a real person, she plays Holli like an awkward bimbo trying desperately to channel Marilyn Monroe; any trace of sexiness is lost in bad dialogue and Basinger’s inexplicable tendency to slip into a southern accent.

One of the chief criticisms leveled at Cool World is its manic visual style, but anyone familiar with Bakshi’s previous work will immediately recognize it as the real calling card of his directorial presence. In fact, I would argue that the design of Cool World itself is one the film’s central strengths. Drawing on his experiences growing up in Brooklyn, Bakshi clearly influenced the design of Cool World as an urban fantasy world of impossibly twisted skyscrapers and loop-de-loop highways. In a particularly crafty twist, Bakshi mixes painted backgrounds with flat setpieces to constantly confuse the division between live action and animation. The animation itself has often been written off as crude, but again this ignores Bakshi’s background and his fascination with underground animation. No, it doesn’t have the voluptuous three-dimensionality of Roger Rabbit’s digitally enhanced characters, but there is something unduly fascinating about Bakshi’s cornucopia of oddball cartoon denizens.

It is also a world that is unmistakably violent in a way that goes beyond cartoonish hilarity into downright nastiness (it immediately brings to mind the wicked-funny domestic violence of Heavy Traffic). Bakshi is insistent on filling the edges of the frames with strange doodles going after each other with axes and frying pans, and he often segues from scene to scene by showing us some random form of antic cartoon violence. It’s not hard to read into these manic sequences Bakshi’s critique of animation as a medium, where violence of the most grisly sort—think of Tom the cat being smacked with a frying pan or Wile E. Coyote taking one of his many skydives off a cliff—is routinely played off as comedy. The violence in Cool World is darkly funny, but it gnaws at that division between the disturbing and the hilarious. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t have much else to offer beyond narrative incoherence and bad acting.

Cool World DVD

Aspect Ratio1.85:1
AudioEnglish Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround
English Dolby 2.0 Surround
French Dolby 2.0 Surround
DistributorParamount Home Video
Release DateNovember 11, 2003

The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer of Cool World is good, but not great. The source print used was clean, although there are a few barely noticeable traces of grain and a bit of dirt here and there. The transfer looks somewhat dark, which is likely in keeping with the film’s original look of film-noir-meets-Looney-Toons-gone-crazy. The animated segments are bright and lively, with good color saturation.

The soundtrack for Cool World has been given the Dolby Digital 5.1-surround remix treatment, and it sounds pretty good. The surround speakers are effective in opening up the soundtrack and creating a few nifty effects. The thumping, jazz-influenced musical score has a good deal of punch to it, and dialogue is clear and natural sounding.

No supplements are included, which is not surprising given that most everyone involved with this movie probably wants to distance him- or herself as much as possible (although it is surprising they couldn’t have at least tacked on a trailer).

©2003 James Kendrick

Overall Rating: (1.5)

James Kendrick

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