For the past few years there’s been one animator who I’ve come to admire, the legendary Ralph Bakshi. Unfortunately, while I admire much of his work (for instance, Wizards was particularly influential on me and remains so to this day), I can’t exactly say the same for his last feature film, which was something of a legendary flop. Savaged by critics and gunned down in the box office, Cool World was intended to be an animated horror film, but it ended up being a cautionary tale about the horrors of executive meddling, and the disaster that ensued effectively drove one of the great geniuses of animation out of the business. If you ask me, that might as well be the film’s sole accomplishment.
Before I talk about what the film ought to have been, let’s look at the film as it is. The film revolves around Holli Would, a sultry cartoon temptress who resides in the eponymous Cool World, the realm of the cartoon characters. Holli wants nothing more than to be human, and she gets her chance when a cartoonist named Jack Deebs gets sucked into her world. The only way she can achieve her dream is if the two enter in carnal embrace with each other, thereby breaking the oldest law in Cool World (“noids and doodles can’t have sex”), and drawing the attention of detective Frank Harris, who wants to stop Holli.
Now I’m sure anyone looking at this will no doubt think of this as essentially a mediocre clone of the technically superior Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and they’d be right. The premise is much the same (Cool World is essentially a sleazier version of Toontown, but with original characters), right down to the noir-style detective story. To top it off, it uses the exact same combination of live-action film and hand-drawn animation that Roger Rabbit made famous. It’s as if the producers couldn’t think of anything better than a dumbed down version of Roger Rabbit, and compared to what Ralph Bakshi originally had in mind (which I’ll eventually talk about), it comes across as wasted potential more than anything else. The film also suffers from a disjointed plot broken up by the occasional antics of the minor toon characters, and the end result is a chaotic mess of film noir clichés and half-baked Looney Toons characters.
The acting isn’t completely bad. If anything, Kim Basinger, though not the director’s first choice, does a good job at conveying the intensely sensual character that is Holli Would. Brad Pitt, the man who plays the detective, spends the whole film pretending to be a 40’s gumshoe, complete with the obviously typical accent, but he’s not a very convincing character. The villain from Roger Rabbit was more convincing, and he was essentially a caricature of a villain. The rest of the characters are all unlikable, and everyone else is a background character. The film itself is often billed as a comedy, which I find ironic because the jokes are so dull that much of the laughs will probably be coincidental.
The animation style, as I said before, is identical to Roger Rabbit, with animated characters pasted into a live-action world, and vice versa. I actually like the way they’ve drawn Cool World. It’s a far more surreal counterpart to Toontown, and I personally feel that they could have done plenty with that sort of world. They certainly took the time to animate original characters, but the vast bulk of them are purely background characters that often whiz around the screen like wild spectres, and the end result feels unfocused. I kind of like the music they composed and selected (including David Bowie’s brilliant “Real Cool World”), though I think some of the songs they picked were selected just because they sounded trendy at the time, and don’t exactly sound right.
I can go on and on, but ultimately I would be saying the same thing. Cool World was ultimately a disappointment. Now the question is how exactly did we end up with this? I mentioned in the preface that Cool World is essentially a cautionary tale of the horrors of executive meddling, and that’s exactly how Cool World was made. In 1990, Ralph Bakshi began working an avant-garde animated horror movie which he pitched to Paramount Studios, who quickly bought Bakshi’s idea. The original Cool World was supposed to involve an underground cartoonist and a cartoon woman who have sex and produce an illegitimate hybrid child who hates herself for what she is, and visits the real world in order to try and kill him.
This version would have been a gritty, sex-laden horror film of an avant-garde breed, and if you look at the original storyboards, it seems as if it could have been a great work of art. For a time, everything seemed to be going well, but one of the producers, Frank Mancuso Jr., had the script completely rewritten without Ralph’s knowledge, and the two got into a fight. At this point, Ralph would probably have quit, but Paramount, which was run by Mancuso’s father at the time, threatened to sue him if he refused to finish the film. Added to that, Kim Basinger wasn’t even Ralph’s first choice to play Holli. He originally wanted the character to be played by Drew Barrymore, with Brad Pitt playing the role of the cartoonist. However, Basinger was cast, and she basically wanted to turn the film into a PG film (which ended up being rated PG-13) so that it could be shown in hospitals, and for no real reason other than it might further her career. Nonetheless, Mancuso agreed, and under threat of litigation, Ralph was basically forced to make a movie that, if I’ll be totally honest, probably wasn’t even his anymore.
Well, there you have it. Cool World may have been a disappointing film, but it’s not as if Ralph Bakshi could help it. After all, the film was practically forced from his hands. Had Ralph been left to his own devices, I’m sure it would have been a very good film, but sadly, that isn’t the case, and what we’re left with is a disjointed, mediocre clone of Roger Rabbit that embodies the twisted committee thinking of Hollywood.