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Buried Treasures: Cool World

 

Sometimes what makes a cult film a classic is exactly how awful it is. A film can’t become cult without an (often dubious) reputation so sometimes, in retrospect, the qualities that make a film bad are also the reasons it is good. Look, Buried Treasures is a way for us to defend those that need defending, but let’s not mistake ourselves: Cool World is not a great movie. But what it lacks in…coherence…it makes up for in mind-breaking insanity; a sleazy/trashy-cum-escapism that, in this day and age, is something to be celebrated.

In 1992, it seems like the only people who actually saw Cool World were critics. And boy, oh boy did they not like it. Roger Ebert, in his one star review, stated that “Cool World is a surprisingly incompetent film” while Owen Gleiberman, in his review for Entertainment Weekly (a not entirely awful C rating), remarks that “the blend of live action and animation is too crude to enthrall us”. Lloyd Bradley, of Empire, in another one star review (of seemingly millions), remarked that “Cool World has nothing to recommend it. Hopeless.” So far you’re probably wondering why I am even bothering to recommend it. Well, the old adage applies: “time heals all wounds”. And time, in my opinion, has healed Cool World.

Because as Who Framed Roger Rabbit has entered the cultural canon, and deservedly so, as a classic of not just film but as a technical achievement, blending live action seamlessly with animation, any who try to conquer the concept and change it can now, years later, be looked at as revolutionaries. If Cool World were to come out today, there is no doubt it would be looked at as a cynical, fresh take on the Who Framed Roger Rabbit formula of decades past; a perverse look at all those unanswered questions that Who Framed teased but many sickos wanted to know: how does sex work in this world and, more importantly, where are the deviants? Where is the seedy side of Toon Town? What does Jessica Rabbit having sex look like? C’mon…don’t lie…you wanted to know! You still do! Cool World attempted to show this.

Brad Pitt stars in one of his lesser known movies, Cool World 1992

But, hampered by a PG-13 rating and a budget minuscule in comparison to an in-their-prime Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis production, there was no way, only four years after Who Framed, Cool World could convince you that the world presented was real. Who Framed was such a technical marvel that right out the gate it smashed all immediate challengers. However, decades later, we are more forgiving of films with lesser budgets and lesser effects. For some reason, and I am glad for it, we tend to look at the stories and intentions more than the technicalities because we know most films in a certain time period did not have the same access to funds and technology that the heavy-hitters did.

When it came to this “revolution”, no one was more suited to challenging, or should I say, perverting the formula of popular culture than the alleged creator/director/writer (more on that later) of Cool World, Ralph Bakshi. Bakshi has made a living off subversion, primarily by taking a medium often thought of as being for children, animation, and making it for adults. Be it the X-Rated Fritz the Cat, the provocative and racially charged Coonskin, the trippy and deadly serious historical epic American Pop or even his less adult but hardly kiddy fantasy tales like Wizards and Fire and Ice, there is nothing safe about his films. If Who Framed Roger Rabbit teased violence and sensuality, Bakshi’s films went into detail; you saw the blood and bruises, the juices and soiled sheets, the used condom and needle. Not all of it was displayed but it certainly was felt. And a motion picture succeeds by making you feel!

Cool World, thusis pure (and intentional) trash, like the living embodiment of a sexually transmitted disease. But what is it even about? Well, you got me. But I’ll do my best to explain:

Artist Jack Deebs (Gabriel Byrne) is the creator of Cool World, a comic book series that has only risen in popularity due to Deebs’ recent stay in prison. Cool World’s star character is Holli Would (Kim Basinger), a tireless sex kitten whose dress can barely stay on as she dances the night (and day and the next night) away. Whilst in prison, Jack is transported to Cool World itself where Holli tries desperately to have sex with him so she can become human herself. This concept is not explained in any detail folks so please don’t ask for further elaboration.

Since having sex with humans (or “noids”) is strictly forbidden in Cool World, the police force—led by Frank Harris (Brad Pitt), a World War II veteran transported to Cool World right after his return from that conflict—is constantly on Holli’s case, reminding her of this crime. Now that Jack has entered the picture, Frank has to keep them both in check and keep them away from each other as Jack is not exactly unwilling to consummate the relationship between creator and subject.

Holli’s goal, as Frank suspects, is not a simple carnal endeavor, however. She not only wants to become human by using Jack physically but she also wants to go to the ‘Noid world and unleash Cool World into that realm through the dubious and unexplained McGuffin, the Spike of Power. As Jack slowly discovers, Cool World is not simply his creation limited to the extension of his imagination…it is a chaotic world that Jack just happened to tap into, with no limits and no borders, save the ones keeping it away from Earth. And he might merely be a means to an end in bringing those borders down.

Brad Pitt and a cigar smoking toon in Cool World

Cool World was a tortured property from its inception. Originally pitched as a twisted family drama/horror in which a human and cartoon mate and produce a hybrid baby, Paramount studios, in the last days of the Mancuso era (Frank Mancuso Sr was president and Mancuso Jr, his son, was a powerful producer) essentially stole the script from Bakshi and told him to make their less extreme (aka, PG-13) version of the film instead. Allegedly, Bakshi responded by punching Mancuso Jr directly in the face. Mancuso denies it but needless to say, Bakshi was not happy (and, as of 2019, has never made another feature film, from a studio or independently). He finished directing the film and was able to have complete control of the animation aspects. Per Bakshi’s interview with Cartoon Brew, “on the animation end, I had a lot of fun with the guys. The cel animation was some of the best we’ve ever done. It was very slick stuff, a brilliant job by young animators, many of which went on to do great work at Pixar, Dreamworks, and others”. He added in regards to the studio itself, “They couldn’t tell us what to do, because they didn’t know how to do {animation}. And even if they told me, I did it my own way anyway. [laughs] They didn’t know what the hell was going on”.

Regardless of the percentage of Bahski’s true input into the live-action part of the project, his instincts in some areas were spot on. Though he wanted Brad Pitt for Jack originally, his idea of having Pitt at all was good forward thinking. Only known as a shirtless heart-throb at the time due to Thelma and Louise, Pitt brings a lot of his intensity to the role of Frank. He is still a bit green at times and he is done no favors with having to act amongst virtually nothing but when Frank is required to get mean, angry, or angsty, Pitt nails it. His unrestrained hyperactivity here would eventually be fine-tuned in other films but here, it adds to a bit of the manic flavor of the piece.

Not much can be said for the two other ’noids in the movie. Kim Basinger, as she is in many a film, is fairly wooden. Her delivery given as if read from a cue card. She fares much better in cartoon form and does add sexiness to Holli that does make you feel a bit guilty. Gabriel Byrne is utterly wasted and barely even a character in the film. Though he is the focus of Holli’s goals, he is introduced later in the film (Pitt’s Frank gets to open the picture and be a part of our introduction to Cool World itself), and he has nothing to do but occasionally run into Frank and other psychotic Cool World characters. I honestly can’t even remember what happens to his character come films’ end.

Gabriel Byrne in the 1992 film Cool World

The artwork is obviously where Cool World shines and where most of my recommendation comes from. Ignore the rough blending of cartoon characters with real actors. That technical failure is something you just have to accept for this movie. However, the endless background designs, cartoon character creations, and non-stop, LSD-like intrusion of seemingly random cartoon events in the middle of the story-proper makes for constant head shaking and rewinding.

For example, a scene of standard exposition and character development may be infiltrated by a flying, Easter-Island like head or a number of cartoon characters running across the screen trying to kill each other. The main characters provide no reaction to these events, as if the intrusion of ghouls, killer rabbits, and peeing baby creatures is just part of everyday life. This seems to be a specific artistic choice. In Ranker’s review of Cool World, in which they quote from the Ralph Bakshi book Unfiltered: The Complete Ralph Bakshi, Bakshi “never gave the animators a copy of the screenplay”. Instead, he told them, “Do a scene that’s funny, whatever you want to do!” He then incorporated their work into the final film”.

crazy goings on in Cool World, with Brad Pitt and Kim Basinger

Of all the complaints centered around the film, the animation seems to be the one constant center of praise, though Nathan Rabin of the AV Club may have put it perfectly, by saying “If Bakshi wanted to illustrate the superiority of animation to live-action, then he’s succeeded to his film’s detriment”. And the background animation is where this film sets itself apart from traditional animation, providing M.C. Escher-H.R. Giger hybrids and vast vistas of insanity that give the film an air of gravitas and menace not afforded many films of this ilk.

Cool World’s legacy is hard to define now. Unlike a film that made some sort of cultural impact, Cool World has basically been lost in history. It is barely cult enough to thrive on that circuit or get fancy 20/25/30th anniversary editions. And though Bakshi has often had better feelings about the film as time passes (see, it heals wounds!), he isn’t out there trying to get it recognized as his lost masterpiece.

Cover to the Soundtrack for Cool World

It does boast a killer soundtrack, especially if you are into the more electronic offerings of David Bowie, who wrote a new song for the film, or other EDM-centric bands (groups?) of the era. While it is not my kind of music exactly, I do listen to it if I want to feel like I want to be in a Cool World space. And sometimes real life is odd enough that entering Cool World can be an escape, if only so you can say “what the…” and try to understand what is clearly a misunderstood and underappreciated filmmaker like Ralph Bakshi.


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Written by Will Johnson

Will is the author of the little read book Secure Immaturity: A Nostalgia-Crushing Journey Through Film. Seriously, I think only his mom read it. Will contributes articles to 25YL on horror films, pop culture, books and comics. Will loves his hometown Buccaneers, the MCU, and his two nerdy daughters. He lives in Phoenix, AZ, USA.

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