One of the reasons that I started a full retrospective on Ralph Bakshi’s feature filmography is that I find his films intrinsically fascinating whether they succeed or fail. I am, to put it bluntly, invested in his work to a greater degree than I am in most others’. Every Bakshi film is clearly and emphatically the result of a peculiar production process, from conception to final edit. Ever restricted in budget and aggressive in ambition, Bakshi was not afraid to do his best with what he had and still leave ragged edges. His professionalism, hard-won during his TV animation work, inoculated him against toxic perfectionism. Which leaves his films as unapologetically animated and artificial artifacts of human effort. If part of the utopian fantasy of a film like Pinocchio is the magician’s sleight of hand (how did they pull off that long multilayered establishing shot?) combined with an apparently unforced naturalism, Bakshi’s films are forcing, making one conscious of their own limitations and yet––at their most successful––communicating their core ideas well inspire of these boundaries.
All of which is to say that it’s not hard to tell that Cool World was a tough project to finish. It would not shock the otherwise naïve first-time viewer if, after sitting through this mostly bewildering picture, they were told that the animators never got a good look at the script. Or even that the script was entirely rewritten behind the director/writer’s back and forced on him under the threat of legal action. Nor, I would wager, NOR, would the viewer express anything other than the most contented confirmation of prior knowledge if I told them that this was supposed to be a horror film about the diabolical love child of cartoon and human.
They might flinch a bit if I told them I still thought it was pretty good, though.
To put it bluntly, the final version we have seems like nothing more than an adult.swim redo of Roger Rabbit. We have Bakshi’s favoured 50s nostalgia setting, the femme fatale, the put-upon detective, a device uniquely capable of destroying “doodles” (cartoon people), etc. etc. The trouble with Paramount jerry-rigging Bakshi’s ideas to be more like Roger Rabbit, though, is that they were unwilling to put up enough cash to make it a worthy competitor. Beyond that, they did not have the immense prestige of the WB/Disney crossover nor the exacting artistry of animation director Richard Williams. Roger Rabbit is noir and has a grimy cutting edge to it but Bakshi was never going to give the studio a cash-minting facsimile. Richard Williams would never tell animators who had never seen a script to just “draw something funny” as Bakshi did here. Again, the appeal of that earlier smash hit was both its alliance of corporate brand names and its flawless, expensive integration of animation and live action. In that respect, Cool World is only marginally more convincing or natural than the photo backgrounds in Coonskin.
When we look at a given sequence in Cool World––for convenience, let’s pick the scene where 50s cop Brad Pitt picks up his animated girlfriend under a streetlight (recall Hey Good Lookin’)––we are confronted with images that clearly don’t inhabit the same space. Pitt looks stunned and acts near catatonic through the whole movie, blandly reciting his lines and flailing about with all the natural grace of a porcupine. When he bends his arm stiffly around the shoulders of his significant other, the mismatch is more than obvious. Seamlessness was beyond this movie’s capability, and unfortunately it’s been weighted with a plot and emotional beats that require seamlessness to really work. At no point do the character’s emotions, audience expectations, the script, and the animation synchronize or find any rhythm. At least, not in character-driven moments. In the hands of a different director and a less talented team of animators, the result would be an uncoordinated, gangly failure of legendary proportions. As is, the seemingly improvised chaos and sheer effort put into the visuals do some great work redeeming this symphony of discord by pushing the dissonance to the nth degree.
During a relatively serious dialogue sequence between Brad Pitt’s character Frank and Holli Would (Kim Basinger’s voice and live action performance), for example, the frame regularly swarms with complete non-sequitur chaos. Cartoon mayhem encroaches on the frame at regular intervals––i.e. whenever they had to fill time or space––and the effect is what I would describe as “maddening relief.” Every time an unannounced gag about a bunny losing at craps to a bunch of goons happens or a senseless mallet-smashing vignette plays out in bottom corner of the screen, it cements the fact that Cool World is at war with itself. Its creators are at war with a production alienated from them by their producers, and though their weapons are only of the artistic variety, they are strong. Every time there’s some trite plot business going on, you can just watch the other five animated shorts happening in frame at the same time. All of it is animated beautifully and flaunts common sense and spatial logic so thoroughly that the film’s awkward attempts to smash live action and animation together seem almost inevitable in a world as demented as this.
However, the only unalloyed pleasure the film has to offer is Cool World itself––no italics. Barry Jackson’s background art is detailed and twisted full of grungy gothic architecture, cartoon mouths, and impossibly tangled roadways that carry the film’s wonderful car chases. Every backdrop is sheer perfection, a hint, perhaps, of what a fully horrific Cool World might have offered.
As the matter stands, however, Cool World is a failure of a film that is nonetheless stuffed with brilliant animation and artwork. A portfolio more than a real movie, one might say, not to mention a platform for awkward sexual encounters and some truly inane plotting. It’s unfortunate that Bakshi’s last feature, which destroyed his will to try to work in Hollywood ever again, had to be just as mangled and compromised as it was. But I would argue it’s probably the most technically advanced and aesthetically complete of his films even if it’s one of the most narratively scatterbrained. And that’s including Fritz the Cat.