The Undeniable Energy of Ralph Bakshi’s COOL WORLD

Bakshi’s fascinating box office bomb, coming to Blu-ray from Shout Select, is worthy of cult appreciation.

Cool World will release on Shout Select on Blu-ray September 13.

For the longest time I never liked Ralph Bakshi — he’s something of an acquired taste. His grotesquely stylized caricatures, use of rotoscoping, and subversive grit have always felt jarring and off-putting (I also confused his work with that of his contemporaries Rankin & Bass, on account of their combined effort to create the Lord of the Rings/The Hobbit animated trilogy).

It was only much later in reading about his struggles as a low-budget independent filmmaker, someone who generally worked outside of the mainstream (and of the margins of “good” taste), that I started to really appreciate his work as singularly expressive outsider art. He’s had to work furiously hard to push his vision and make a career out of his underground fare, and it’s astounding that he’s been able to create so much.

Cool World is one of the most unique and paradoxical films in Bakshi’s ouevre. On the one hand, it’s a big studio film. With Paramount footing a comparatively huge $28 million budget, he could go wild in ways previously impossible, such as realizing the concept of a tangible, live-action version of an animated world, with elaborate, fantastically painted real-world sets. Bakshi has always played with mixing elements of animation and live action in interesting ways; Cool World represents that impulse at his most unfettered.

However, working with the studio system also presented big challenges for Bakshi, filtering his more extreme vision down to avoid an R rating to play better to a mainstream audience. This producers’ initiative failed in pretty much every respect: The film bombed, Bakshi’s vision was altered, and the resulting movie is still overtly sexual, pushing the PG-13 rating so absurdly far that it’s virtually indistinguishable from an R-rated film. They might as well have let Bakshi do everything his way — it probably would’ve still bombed, but at least he would’ve created the film on his own terms.

In retrospect, had the film come a few years later, Paramount might’ve employed the soon-to-be-common technique of extracting a theatrical edit and keeping the uncut version on hand for a home video release. Unfortunately, we’ll never see that uncompromised version of whatever madness Bakshi had in mind, but the cut we got is still pretty weird and fascinating.

Doubtlessly egged on by the success of Who Framed Roger Rabbit a few years prior, Cool World similarly envisions a universe where humans (“noids”) and cartoons (“doodles”) can interact, although in this case these realms are separate and crossovers are a very rare anomaly — with dire consequences if the inhabitants interact in ways that push the limits of their respective realities (put succinctly: sex and murder).

Comic book creator Jack Deebs (Gabriel Byrne) is the mind behind the hit series Cool World, or so he believes. It turns out his visionary illustrated world actually exists, and his subconscious glimpses into it have inspired his work.

While the director behind X-rated films like Fritz the Cat and Heavy Traffic was clearly no stranger to raunchy animation, Bakshi still seems to have taken notice of Roger Rabbit’s flirtations with seedy and noirish elements, including the strange sexual tension between human detective Eddie Valiant and voluptuous toon Jessica Rabbit. Bakshi promotes the relationship to the “A” plot of this darker, weirder tale. Kim Basinger was cast as the femme fatale Holli Would, and is a terrific choice, able to pull off both the live-action and animated versions of the character with aplomb.

Holli’s dream is to become “real,” which can only happen if she makes it (pun intended) with a noid. That’s not happening with Cool World’s sole human resident Frank Harris (young up-and-comer Brad Pitt), an emotionally scarred detective who militantly enforces the law of “no sex between noids and doodles” — despite the fact that he’s fallen in love with a cartoon woman. So Holli pulls lonely Jack into the world he thinks he created. The resulting crossover creates unexpected challenges for everyone as the boundaries between the different realities start to deteriorate. A memorable scene turns Las Vegas into a cartoon playground with an animation-over-live-action style reminiscent of some of Bakshi’s older films such as Coonskin.

Cool World is a totally strange and sometimes surreal trip, and in my opinion not at all deserving of the critical drubbing that it has generally received. It lacks the expert visual continuity and interactive effects work that made Who Framed Roger Rabbit such an incredible viewing experience, but that’s a feature rather than a bug: Bakshi’s style is intentionally crude and off-putting, a punk-rock sensibility that shouldn’t be compromised.

While the tactile interactions of animated and live-action elements aren’t entirely convincing, I can’t say enough about the art and production design. This is a movie with “world” in the title, and they really deliver on that promise by creating a space that truly is iconic and otherworldly.

Cool World’s incredibly detailed and stylized matte paintings and painted sets really mesh beautifully into a world that looks like an insane cartoon backdrop, playing with 3D and planar 2D space in visually interesting ways. Many physical set elements are painted onto flat boards, giving off a movement that’s similar to parallax animation.

This image is a live-action set.

Even though studio constraints ultimately tempered his vision for the story and approach, it’s undeniable that Bakshi’s push to create a live-action animated world pays off big time. Cool World may be tacky and off-putting, but it’s undeniably fascinating.

The Package

Cool World finally comes to Blu-ray as Spine #138 in Shout! Factory’s Shout Select collection. It’s a pretty standard “blue case” Blu-ray package (no slipcover or reversible art as sometimes seen on Shout Factory releases).

Special Features and Extras

The Wild Minds of Cool World (21:58)
A wonderful exploration of the film and its making with director Bakshi, star Basinger, and producer Frank Mancuso, Jr, who share fondness for the film and seem pleased that it has attained some cult caché. Among the subjects discussed is the regime change at Paramount mere weeks before the film’s release, which abruptly cooled the studio’s support for the movie. Also of particular note is that Bakshi shares some amazing concept artwork from the development.

Theatrical Trailer (3:49)
Although it’s not listed on the cover, the disc also includes a theatrical trailer.

A/V Out.

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Except where noted, all 16:9 screen images in this review are direct captures from the disc(s) in question with no editing applied, but may have compression or resizing inherent to file formats and Medium’s image system.

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