Ralph Bakshi’s “Cool World” is a movie without a specific audience in mind, and doesn’t seem to know who it’s appealing to. It’s too dark and adult to be considered another “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” and much too juvenile to be taken as an adult film. I vividly remember collecting comic books as a kid and seeing full page ads for “Cool World” in every single issue I bought, and yet the movie clearly was not intended for a nine year old, and was too underground for teenagers. In a decade where everyone was trying to be Disney, I doubt many audiences were in the market for a dark erotic animated neo-noir satire involving an animated seductress trying to have sex with her creator so she can become a human.
“Cool World” is just one of those movies that would probably have fared better in another period altogether, and still could use a twice over creatively. It was terrible in 1992 and it’s still pretty bad now. And that’s saying something for our current cinematic climate where audiences have begun celebrating flops like “Super Mario Bros.” and Joe Dante’s “Matinee.”
Bakshi’s film is a weird drama set in the forties where Frank Harris, played by an unpolished young Brad Pitt, is caught in a horrific motorcycle accident with his mother. His grief allows him to transport in to the magical “Cool World,” an animated landscape in perpetual forties ephemera where he’s a detective. Frank spends his days keeping violent toons in line, and chasing around Holli Would, a reckless but sexy woman trying to seduce Frank. Frank meanwhile struggles to keep relations smooth with his animated girlfriend Lonette, a long suffering woman who wants to sleep with Frank, despite it being against the law.Forty seven years later, Frank is a struggling comic book artist who apparently created the world Frank resides in, despite being born decades later. When he’s transported in to his world by Holli, he tries to foil her plans to turn in to a “Noid”; otherwise known as a human. I think. “Cool World” deserves a good watching by just about any movie geek, not because it’s a good movie. It’s not. It’s because it’s such a beautiful mess that you can barely look away from. Somewhere within the labyrinth of disorienting animation, and nonsensical story, there is a vision that was lost along the way.
While I love Ralph Bakshi, I’m doubtful his vision for “Cool World” would have amounted to much of anything cinematically, because Bakshi was never quite mainstream like Walt Disney was. He has a vision that subverts broad appeal and was always kind of a niche visionary for folks with particular tastes in the animation medium. He’s offered some genuinely stellar and important animated creations in the past. Watching it now, “Cool World” comes close quite often to being pretty good. Again, it’s a bad movie. Bad. Take it from me, I’ve seen it so many times since its release in 1992 and while I want to love it, I just can’t. It’s terrible.
The premise is unnecessarily difficult to follow, much about Cool World doesn’t make too much sense, and once Holli takes human form, “Cool World” just runs on pure fumes, sputtering to the finish line. Why is human and animation sex outlawed? How did Frank get to Cool World? Did Jack create it or curate it? If the latter, then who created it? If the world works like an animated movie then doesn’t that mean there’s no such thing as death? Why does Holli Would want to be human? What’s the benefit? What is the Power Spike? Why is the Power Spike?
If anything, “Cool World” does stand as a meaningful cautionary tale about how a creator can lose control of his own creation. Those themes are still very heavily represented in “Cool World,” where a creator is held hostage by his own characters, and is manipulated and exploited by the bombshell Holli Would. There are deliberately set scenes where character Jack Deebs is trying to work in his office which is incidentally a prison. And it’s also made plainly clear what inspired Cool World when Jack arrives in the murky depths of Vegas and begins loitering among a slew of colorful comic book lovers.
It’s very well known that Bakshi hated this movie, and hated what was done to it. He even hated casting from Gabriel Byrne in what was supposed to be a young protagonist going mad, to Kim Basinger who he remarked “would be a perfect choice to play a 49 Year Old Woman.” Granted Basinger has always been a doll, but her turn from animated Holli to human Holli is anti-climactic and—with respect to Basinger, the character is so much more enticing in animated form.
No one in the movie comes out looking good. Byrne is stiff and forgettable, his character is poorly developed and dull, Brad Pitt’s performance is often laughable, Kim Basinger is never sure if he’s playing a demented Betty Boop or a demented Marilyn Monroe, and Bakshi litters the screen with pointless animation, even during key moments of character tension, assuring a migraine for the viewer. As an added let down, even the animated characters are shrill. There’s spider cop and… uh… a blue baby thing with claws, and Lonette. To be fair, the latter is hardly Bakshi’s fault since, reportedly, the animation team didn’t have specific guidelines or ideas to work with for supporting characters.
“Cool World” is a mess, and a spectacle of a mess, to boot. It has some sentimental value from nineties kids, but it’s a movie that would be tossed away in today’s rapid fire movie releases. I would argue that Bakshi’s film wouldn’t have been any better, but a Bakshi dud is still Bakshi’s when all is said and done.