Released 25 years ago yesterday, Cool World seemed to be aiming to accomplish two things: First, it was Ralph Bakshi’s attempt to make a big of dough by writing and directing another feature film; Second, it was an attempt by Paramount to create an adult-targeting version of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, complete with the hybrid animation/live action look of that movie. The movie did get made, but it failed to take off at the box office.
Cool World follows Jack Deebs (Gabriel Byrne), a cartoonist who created a fictional world called Cool World while in prison. After he’s released he’s pulled into the animated universe by Holli (voiced by Kim Basinger), a femme fatale type who wants to seduce Jack so she can cross over into the human world. The two are foiled by Frank Harris (Brad Pitt), a former soldier who’s been living in Cool World for 40 years and serves as a cop. Holli’s plans grow increasingly desperate and begin to threaten the division between the two worlds.
All of this is told with visuals featuring Bakshi’s trademark look and feel, meaning disproportionately-drawn females, dirty, cigar-chomping men and so on. These are not the clean-cut cartoons of Roger Rabbit, instead very much showing off the sensibility that made Bakshi’s Felix the Cat an underground hit years before.
(A personal note before we go further: While this is not a great movie – it’s actually stunning in its incompetence at times – it still holds a special place in my heart. That’s because months before it opened I was invited, by virtue of my working at a local movie theater at the time, to an advanced distributor screening. That presentation featured a lot of rough animation and even just pencil drawings in places. So while I understand there are plenty of areas on which to criticize the movie I’ll still feel fondly toward it.)
The theatrical poster works hard to sell the sex appeal. The animated Holli is shown walking through a door, pushing aside Pitt, who’s shown as some sort of noir-ish detective with his gun drawn, double-breasted suit and Brian Seltzer-like haircut. Below them are many of the supporting characters, all shown in Bakshi’s signature outrageous animation style. “Holli would if she could…and she will.” tells us she has sin on the mind and that she’s not the type of character to take “No” for an answer.
The trailer shows just what kind of mess the audience could expect. We start off by getting a bit of Jack Deebs’ backstory before he’s pulled into Cool World, where he finds his cartoon world existed long before he channeled it into his art. Frank warns him away from Holli but Jack ignores him and Holli makes it into the real world. We see how much mayhem she causes and how the characters start to switch back and forth from human to cartoon as the walls begin to fall.
Despite my stated affection for the movie, the trailer reinforces my notion that there’s no need to ever revisit it. You can see the clumsy filmmaking clearly here, including bad matching up of sightlines, wonky animation and more. Pitt’s performance is wooden, Byrne’s is apologetic and embarrassed. It’s hard to imagine how this would appeal to anyone or how anyone involved worked again.
The campaign is, as a whole, pretty much a mess. There’s little here that presented an appealing product to the audience, likely part of the reason it bombed at the box office. While it seems to have established itself as something of a cult hit among animation enthusiasts, it’s not being celebrated outside of those limited circles. That doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be the first movie I asked Pitt about if I were given the chance.