Cool World (1992)

Before the CGI revolution, most filmmakers would combine animation and live action only sparingly, and usually in order to depict a kind of out-of-body purgatory (even the dancing-penguin alternate world featured in Mary Poppins (1964) would become tedious if Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke were forced to spend eternity there). Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) is the notable exception, as it portrays humans and “toons” living together (or at least nearby) in semi-harmony.

Otherwise, 2-D cartoon characters interacting with humans has largely been fodder for mid-1970s Disney movies and Paula Abdul videos. When filmmakers have occasionally given the combination a whirl, Roger Rabbit looks even more like an anomaly. One such experiment is Ralph Bakshi’s chintzy Cool World, now on Paramount DVD.

Cool World is the name of a comic book created by Jack Deebs (Gabriel Byrne) while in prison for the murder of his wife’s lover. Jack is released from prison at the beginning of the film, and soon he is (somehow; the movie doesn’t really explain) sucked into an alternate, cartoon universe run by his creations, where he cavorts with his favorite, the seductive Holli Would (Kim Basinger). Holli has an ulterior motive; shockingly, she is not attracted to Jack for his passivity or perpetual dazed look. She wants to be made flesh and travel to Jack’s world, which can (apparently) only be accomplished by human-doodle sexual relations, which are strictly prohibited. This law may seem arbitrary, until you see the shrill live-action version of Holli (Basinger in the flesh). By then, I hoped Jack would betray his creation and make a citizen’s arrest.

Yes, Jack and Holli have sex, and for all of Cool World‘s crassness, the movie leaves this excellent masturbation joke unchecked. That may be telling; it’s hard to have a joke at the expense of someone so ill defined as Jack is. Although he is an ex-con, Jack doesn’t seem to have been “hardened” by any of his life experience — his fantasies and downfall would make more sense if he were a teenager. A strong performance or screenplay could make us understand Jack’s desires better, but all we’re given are his wan masturbatorial fantasies.

As Holli uses him to enter the real world, Jack becomes more or less a patsy, and patsies aren’t much fun to be around unless you’re in the middle of a film noir. Noir patsies are essentially likable and/or fascinating losers; real-life patsies are just moodily obsessive. Byrne opts for the latter characterization here, playing Jack as quietly pathetic, a lethal quality for one of the story’s two major humans. The other human is Cool World‘s cop Frank, played by Brad Pitt in one of his junky pre-stardom roles.

All of this dreck is the work of celebrated animator Ralph Bakshi (of the famously X-rated Fritz the Cat) — although what he’s celebrated for will give anyone who sees this movie pause. Budget restrictions may be partially to blame for the full-motion but sloppily designed animation, but Bakshi seems completely unaware of how to find solace in simplicity. All of the goony “doodles” here look like just that: doodles. They’re all bulbous heads, puckered lips and low-slung Cro-Magnon shoulders. Bakshi seems to react against family-friendly Disney-fied animation by making characters as ugly, loud and chaotic as possible. But an anti-Disney sensibility is not adult by definition or default.

Similarly, “grown-up” elements do not an adult movie make. Holli’s seduction of Jack is certainly an image straight from the darker places American animation could, but rarely does, take us. Bakshi’s down and dirty impulses are understandable; animation could be a great medium for the world of dark alleys, detectives and femme fatales. But there are only touches of that here. After the umpteenth character zips across the screen in an incoherent blast of shrill cartoonishness, it’s hard not to think that, cost-cutting be damned, Bakshi is still indulging in the most expensive scribbling ever.

Occasionally, the movie comes to life. When the live-action and animated worlds begin to bleed together, there are some entertainingly surreal images (as Jack drives a car, his hands keep swelling into huge cartoon gloves). But any ground gained is lost again by Bakshi’s wooden, C-movie direction of the actors, who all seem to get progressively worse as the movie goes along.

Cool World‘s is one of Paramount’s no-frills DVD editions from its back catalogue, and so the widescreen presentation is the only “extra.” But extras don’t much matter here. Cool World is a “cult movie” without a cult, a curiosity that doesn’t inspire any. It’s also the rare movie that may not benefit from a DVD presentation — the marriage of live-action and animation is awkward at best, and doesn’t hold up to any kind of high-definition scrutiny. I’m still waiting for a “rebel” American animator to create something that can. Here’s hoping cartoons and noir will meet again on another, more auspicious, day.