#7 in my ranking of Ralph Bakshi’s filmography.
There were production troubles with Cool World, and some of that blame can be placed on Kim Basinger. Reportedly, Basinger approached Ralph Bakshi and the producer, Frank Mancuso, halfway through production saying she wanted to make a film that she could show to sick children in hospitals. I mean…she’d at least heard of Fritz the Cat before she signed on, right? Still, Bakshi’s fingerprints are all over the weirdness of the film, right down the central conceit. An artist draws his ideal woman who draws him into her world and by having sex with her she becomes real? Yeah, this is entirely the culmination of Bakshi’s work, and it’s awful. Nothing Bakshi had made up to this point has ever indicated to me that he had it in him to make quality work, particularly when he was writing from his own id.
In 1945, Frank Harris (Brad Pitt) comes back from the war direct to his mother and a motorcycle he won at cards in Italy (eh…whatever). They promptly get into a car crash that kills her and leaves him sprawled on the ground when a scientist from a cartoon dimension, Dr. Whiskers (Maurice LaMarche), opens up a portal using The Spark (fantasy mumbo-jumbo that is pretty much no more than a MacGuffin) and brings Frank over. He keeps him there and makes him the first cop of Cool World. Skip ahead fifty years and Jack Deebs (Gabriel Byrne) has written a series of best selling comics called Cool World starring his fantasy woman Holli Would (Bassinger) while in prison for killing the man he found in bed with his wife some years before. The night prior to getting out of jail, Holli reaches across the dimensions and through his drawing paper, bringing him into Cool World, but only for a moment. Why is the Cool World comic so well beloved? I dunno. Something about women seeing themselves as Holli, or something.
Okay, so Who Framed Roger Rabbit? gets brought up a lot when discussing Cool World, and it’s part coincidence and partly an effort by Paramount Pictures to take advantage of the good press of the Robert Zemeckis film. This really feels like the sort of thing that Bakshi would simply have in his back pocket for years (especially considering the original version of Hey Good Lookin’ which included cartoons in the real world), so drawing direct comparisons feels unfair to Cool World and Bakshi. This wasn’t his effort at an imitation. It was just coincidence. However, I do think a comparison can be helpful, mostly in two things. The first is the matter-of-fact way that Zemeckis’ film just creates the world against the over-complicated, weird attempt to create something like dual realities together. The second is the nature of the plot. Zemeckis’ film plays out in some pretty standard detective tropes that audiences could easily absorb while letting the zany cartoon antics play out around it. The plot of Cool World is unnecessarily opaque and over-complicated, in comparison.
So, Frank gets notified every time a “noid” comes into Cool World, and he has to investigate. I guess that’s the only law-breaking he investigates because he never investigates anything else. Also, when he does track down Jack on his second trip into Cool World, Frank doesn’t arrest him or anything. He doesn’t kick him out of Cool World, even though it’s later shown to be a largely voluntary action that can just happen. Instead, he just tells Jack to not have sex with Holli because that’s the only forbidden thing in Cool World, noids having sex with doodles. Why? Well, we’ll figure out eventually, but Frank explaining to Jack right then that it would turn Jack into a doodle and *checks notes* end the universe? Nope. Doesn’t need to be explained to him.
Needless to say, after some comic happenings (and Jack going back and forth from the real world and back for little reason) Jack and Holli do have sex, turning Holli into a real woman, and the two are off to the real world because Holli wants…it’s not entirely clear what she wants to be honest. To be real? Well, according to Dr. Whiskers at the beginning of the movie, Cool World is the only reality these people know, so they are real in their own minds. To have what’s in the real world? She says that, but she never specifies about what it is that she could have there instead of what she does have (seemingly a whole lot) in Cool World. Seriously, specify this stupid stuff so that she has a real reason to latch onto and want. The generalizations are trite, and the whole third act is built on it.
In the real world, Holli gets her moment in a club to sing before she starts turning into a clown cartoon version of herself, and she decides that the only solution is to find The Spark, which is surely there in Las Vegas on top of a hotel. There’s a pursuit that, of course, ends with Holli getting to the Spark and the terrible animation taking over Las Vegas. It’s largely incoherent.
There’s been an issue going on through Bakshi’s work that is incomprehensible how it’s a problem: his framing. Animators have complete control over what they show, and they spend hours and days on single shots, so frames should never feel incoherently crowded or pointlessly off-center. It happens several times through Cool World, and I should reiterate that this is Bakshi’s ninth feature film. There’s a shocking amateurishness to so much visually that it’s just amazing that Bakshi had been working in the industry for so long.
Another thing is that this is probably the greatest mixed back of animation in Bakshi’s career. Holli is the best, fully-animated character he’s ever had. It’s obvious that he hired some real talent and placed that talent on the most important animated character. However, the complete lack of any shading or shadow work (wait, there are maybe a dozen shots with animated shadows, so its an improvement, I guess) creates a pervasive two-dimensional effect that keeps them very flat, especially in shots shared with real people. It’s really noticeable when someone like Brad Pitt is lit dramatically on set while all of the animated characters around him are just a single, sold shade. I understand that the budget for the film was way lower than what Bakshi considered worthwhile, but he couldn’t control himself anyway. There are hosts of looped characters in the foreground of exterior shots that could have been simply not animated, using those resources to make the key animations more dimensional and feel like they occupy the same space. I also have to note the set design. It looks theatrical rather than cartoonish, especially when the camera pans around and we see that they’re all supposedly two-dimensional, which makes no sense since the characters never just fold into thin lines depending on which direction they’re facing. Once again, bringing up Who Framed Roger Rabbit? is instructive. The animated world in Zemeckis’ film was nearly completely animated, making it feel like Bob Hoskins was really inside a cartoon, as opposed to here where it feels like Brad Pitt and Gabriel Byrne are on theater sets while flat animation that never feels like its in the same place or interacts realistically with them is there.
There is one moment where there’s real interaction, though, and it’s kind of hilarious. When Holli and Jack are getting ready to have sex, Holli uses her gloved hands to unbutton his shirt, but the animated hands are weirdly large. It’s because they rotoscoped Bassinger’s (or some stand-in’s) hands, and that process made her fingers look hugely fat, which is funny especially when the very next shot is of Holli taking the gloves off of her very svelte fingers.
Really, this movie is a total mess. Any reappraisals you find on this being some kind of hidden gem are delusional. The animation is largely bad (save for Holli, of course). The story is a complete mess. There’s nothing approaching even a main character. It’s incoherent, difficult to look at, and just kind of confusing. It is one of Bakshi’s worst efforts.
3 thoughts on “Cool World”
I honestly and sincerely that this is the most honest, autobiographical movie in Ralph Bakshi’s filmography. A hack cartoonist with violent tendencies gets to go live with cartoons and bang that hottest cartoon girl in Cool World. Actually, there’s two author inserts here (I don’t recall if this is yet another movie where Bakshi appeared on camera as well), as the final fate of Frank seems to be Bakshi’s idea of heaven.
Ok, let’s talk about Cool World. This is clearly an Idea movie (in the M.I.C.E. spectrum), with a touch of Milleu added in, as an ‘animated world’ setting/genre. Who Framed Roger Rabbit came out 4 years before Cool World and the influence and contrast is….interesting. But it has a lot of failures. Starting with the protagonist/author insert #1, Jack. Gabriel Byrne is an amazing actor who is mis-cast an alarming number of times in his career. Jack is relegated to a side character in Cool World, as much a McGuffin as the AllSpark….sorry, wrong McGuffin…The Spark. Brad Pitt’s Frank is on the cover art instead of Jack. Frank is also more active, has more personal stakes, makes a greater sacrifice. The writers are, like Bakshi and Jack, basically hacks who had one big credited hit and coasted on that until Cool World also marked their creative end. Like with Poltergeist, I strongly suspect their contribution was basically to ‘screenplay’ what the director is actually going to create on set. The story is unfocused but…there are a couple of standouts.
First is Frank himself. Brad Pitt is playing a hard boiled tough and honestly…he’s pretty great. His loving relationship with Lonette is a marked contrast to the lustful Holli and Jack attraction. Even his writing and dialog is good, especially in comparison to everything else.
Next is Holli Would. Now, I’m not saying she’s a great character but…she does stand out. She’s memorable. She’s a sleazy cow but…she’s memorable. She’s maybe the second most memorable cartoon femme fatale since Tex Avery stopped working, number 1 being Jessica Rabbit.
I don’t know if this movie merits any more attention and time, but I’m tempted to do a more in-depth comparison between ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’ and ‘Cool World’ WFRR did almost everything right, CW did almost everything wrong. But Jessica is THE toon girl. Where Holli looks realistic (because rotoscoping), Jessica is impossibly hot. Both are/want to be torch singer. Both are objects of desire and that desire drives the plot. The difference is that Jessica, despite being the kind of girl who will play pattycake on the side, truly loves her husband. While Holli loves only herself. Jessica is supportive, Holli is destructive, Jessica helps the protagonist while Holli is the antagonist.
I’d say this is ‘peak’ Bakshi….though Lord of the Rings had more overall quality, it didn’t feel like a Bakshi film. This is. And Bakshi has no one but himself to blame for the failure of Cool World and his career.
Honest art isn’t always good art. Sometimes it’s just a bad artist talking about himself.
I don’t think I agree with you about Pitt. He seems out of his depth and not really understanding what he’s doing. He feels like a boy playing a man. Pitt was never a bad actor, but he didn’t have the direction he needed, I think, to capture Frank and that general 40s, noir vibe. Put someone like Glenn Ford in this instead, and I think that side plays a bit better.
But the rest around him is awful. It really feels like Bakshi, after twenty years of making films, still had no idea what he was doing, that he had learned not a thing.
I also don’t think Holly is rotoscoped. She just feels like Bakshi hired a good animator to manage her character design and execution. So, maybe he did learn something after 20 years: he’s a terrible animator and he just needs to hire better animators.