(Check out my previous Bakshi review here: The Butter Battle Book)
From the 1988 Mighty Mouse so-called cocaine fiasco onward, American animator and creative pioneer within the medium of cartooning, Ralph Bakshi, had a very difficult time getting anything greenlit. When he did have the opportunity to direct a new project, it was often compromised by producers or by an apparent diminishing ability of Bakshi’s own to develop compelling, or even interesting, ideas. By 1990, this downward spiral would almost never again contain within its trajectory an occasional upward momentum or peak of creative work.
After directing the short films Christmas in Tattertown and The Butter Battle Book, in 1988 and 1989 respectively, Bakshi was given a chance to direct a pilot episode for a projected series called Hound Town. The work is relatively easy to track down online and is worth watching if you are a devout Bakshi fan. It contains moments of slight subversion within the dialogue and animations of the episode, which are uniquely Bakshi and become the norm for many later productions by figures like John Kricfalusi and Tom Minton who studied under Bakshi’s wing on Mighty Mouse before leading the creator-driven animation revolution of the 1990s and early 2000s. Unfortunately, the pilot has little redeeming quality artistically speaking, and it plays like a sappy 50s sitcom, of the most part. Bakshi himself called Hound Town ‘an embarrassing piece of shit.’ Enough said.
By early 1990, Bakshi was itching to get back into feature film-making as he had been out of the game since 1983 when he directed Fire and Ice. When he approached Paramount with an option on a script for a feature mixing the mediums of animation and live-action, they apparently bought the idea within three minutes and offered him a $30 million USD with which to work. The plan, in the studio’s eyes, was seemingly to capitalize on the popularity of this mixed media approach, which was previously a hit in 1988 on the classic film Who Framed Roger Rabbit?. Bakshi’s artistic interest in this approach extended back as far as 1974 when he began directing the film Hey Good Lookin’. However, the funding and backing for that project dried up and was not released for almost another decade, and only because Bakshi put his own money into the project and managed to animate over the old live-action stills.
On this new film project, entitled Cool World, Bakshi initially intended to craft a story of a young cartoonist who becomes ensnared by the world he animates, falls for a toon of his own creation, and sires a child to who subsequently grows into a real menace to both worlds. Unfortunately, his producer on the picture, #1 POS Frank Mancuso Jr., had the script rewritten without Bakshi’s permission or knowledge and presented a totally different story to the director together with the threat that he would fire Bakshi if he didn’t direct it. Bakshi not being one to wage war with producers in the same manner of an Orson Welles or Terry Gilliam, or to give up a project on which he might still make the best of it, he went ahead with the script and began to craft with his team the tale of an ageing cartoonist ex-convict named Jack Deebs (Gabriel Byrne) who creates an animated world called Cool World. And of a young G.I. named Frank Harris (Brad Pitt) who returns from war, wins a motorcycle in a game of poker, and takes his mother out on a ride, which ends in her death and his own retreat through some unexplained machinations of world-altering pain and grief to this animated world.
Inside Cool World, Harris becomes a detective and the film becomes a mixed-medium film noir. The imagery of the film is replete with visual icons reminiscent of the architectures of sci-fi worlds from Blade Runner, to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, and even Osamu Tezuka’s Metropolis. There is a Debbie Harry-like seductress and femme fatale in Cool World named Holli Would (har har har), played by Kim Basinger, who wants to bone a real human being. It is Frank’s job as a cop and general buzzkill to prevent this union between cartoons and human beings, a job he seemingly invents with no real reasoning or precedent in the laws of Cool World. But the artist who created her, Deebs, has schizo-mystical experiences in which he is somehow transferred into Cool World, and he has no qualms whatsoever about laying pipe, whether the chick is biological or iconographic-hentai in nature.
The result is that Holli becomes a real woman and leaves Cool World with Deebs to track down something out in Las Vegas called the Spike of Power, supposedly left behind by a cartoon who previously became human, entered the real world, and proceeded to buy up casinos and make himself super rich (still getting all of this?). It is the job of Frank to get out of Cool World, return to the real world for the first time in 15 years, find a man called the professor (a toon animated in a manner that makes him a dead ringer for the professors of Osamu Tezuka manga and anime productions) with the help of his friend Neils (an animated spider visually similar to the titular protagonist of the Fleischer Brothers early animated feature Mr. Bug Goes To Town), and stop Holli before she uses the power for ill gain or disrupts the balance between the Real World and this new world of Deeb’s creation: Cool World.
The film is all kinds of confusing, making almost zero narrative sense, and the acting from its live-action characters is not particularly good either. On its $30 million USD budget, it grossed a mere $14 million USD at the box office and was likewise critically reviled (and stands at a mere 4% on Rotten Tomatoes of this posting). Despite this, and I say this with some deep self-loathing and questioning of my own critical faculties, also recognizing my growing enjoyment of almost all things Bakshi, there are moments of great fun throughout the film and the animation is top notch. Some of the characters, with their combination of traditional and modern styles, who populate the dense noir sci-fi dystopia of Cool World come closer to Rintaro’s masterpiece Metropolis than any other animations I’ve seen within the medium of anime. Because Bakshi knew the thing was going to terrible, he told his animators to throw everything but the kitchen sink at it and to develop any ideas they had visually. The end result being that within Cool World, there is the kernel of something greater, of something better that could have been. If only studio execs would mind their own damned business and let the artists do the creating, while they handle the distribution, marketing, and production schedules. Mancuso, however, was not interested in these latter problems, which is why the film took two years to complete and release and made less than half its money back for his studio. Hopefully Sr. demoted the kid after this flop.
[Next film: Cool and the Crazy]