In the late '80s and early '90s, animation was undergoing one of its periodic booms. After bottoming out with Black Cauldron, Disney roared back to life spectacularly with Little Mermaid and a raft of critically revered blockbusters. The 1988 smash hit Who Framed Roger Rabbit? seemed to herald an exhilarating new age where animation and live action comfortably co-existed with unparalleled sophistication and wit. Ex-Disney animator Don Bluth, meanwhile, had transformed his homegrown studio into a legitimate threat to his old employers with hits like An American Tail and The Land Before Time, a series that's currently approaching its 700th direct-to-DVD sequel. On television, America had fallen in love with a gang of mustard-yellow, four-fingered misfits called The Simpsons and, to a much lesser extent, various Capitol Critters and Crime-Solving Fish.
In other words, the time was perfect for Ralph Bakshi–the bad boy of animation, the prince of perversion, the king of kink, the Disney of debauchery, the poet laureate of animated porn, and the Tex Avery of the trench coat set–to make a spectacular comeback after abandoning film following decades of disappointment, false starts, and studio idiocy. He'd even dreamed up the perfect vehicle for his return: a sexy, violent, R-rated horror cartoon combining live action and animation. In a fit of ambition, he sold his idea for a horror cartoon about a hip underground cartoonist stalked by the half-animated offspring of an ill-fated tryst with a cartoon sexpot to Paramount.
Bakshi was back! One of cinema's great bitter, jilted cranks was suddenly overcome with a tricky emotion I believe you earthlings call "hope." But if Bakshi's long and tortured career had taught him anything, it's that dreams exist to be crushed and hope is for suckers. Accordingly, the film's producer Frank Mancusco Jr., had the film rewritten without, um, telling Bakshi. Mancusco Jr., it seems, having produced the timeless gift to cinema that is the Friday The 13th series, was burnt out on horror and seemed to linger under the misconception that it was Bakshi's job to help realize Frank Mancusco's vision, not the other way around.
Bakshi was so enraged, he punched Mancuso in the face during a dust-up, but in one of those dark little twists that characterize Bakshi's surreal career, Mancuso Sr. was president of Paramount, so he had nowhere else to go. Beyond having his script taken away from him, Bakshi was thwarted on other fronts as well. He desperately wanted to cast a sexy young actor named Brad Pitt for the lead role of a hip underground cartoonist tempted by his own two-dimensional creation. The studio was having none of it. "Get us Byrne, dammit! Only Gabriel Byrne can play this role! Byrne is boffo! Byrne means box-office! Byrne will take us to the Promised Land! Byrne! Byrne! Byrne! Screw that no-charisma Pitt kid! He's on a bullet train straight to Nowheresville! Byrne is where it's at!" I imagine a red-faced, fat-fingered studio executive barking angrily into a phone between puffs of a Cuban cigar.
Middle-aged journeyman character actor Gabriel Byrne was consequently cast in the male lead while Pitt was relegated to the still-substantial part of a '40s gumshoe sucked into an animated universe and burdened with keeping humans and cartoons from having sex and, um, messing with the fabric of the universe. For the female lead, Bakshi wanted sexy young thing Drew Barrymore as his cartoon vixen, but was saddled with Kim Basinger, whom Bakshi derisively claimed would be the perfect choice to play a "49-year-old woman," but was far too old and gross for his film.
In a story that's far too ridiculous not to be true, Bakshi claims that halfway through the film, Basinger told Bakshi that she'd really like to be able to show the film to sick children in hospitals. In keeping with the warped way of American studio filmmaking, Bakshi's revolutionary, sexy, violent R-rated animated horror film had morphed into a movie Kim Basinger wanted to show cancer-stricken tots.
Not surprisingly, Bakshi's profound ambivalence towards a labor of love that steadily devolved into a black-comic nightmare bleeds into the film itself. The animated sequences ooze Bakshi's affection for the medium and his influences, especially Max Fleischer, but the live-action sequences feel stiff and impersonal, the work of a dispirited drone glumly going through the motions.
Hot young thing Gabriel Byrne stars as a popular underground cartoonist who uses an extended prison sentence for murdering his wife's lover to create a sprawling comic-strip universe called "Cool World." (Incidentally, there is nothing less cool than artwork that tells you in its title just how freaking cool it is.) Cool World seems to exist independently of Byrne, however, and its sexiest inhabitant (Kim Basinger) desperately wants to seduce her creator so that she can run amok in the real world. Pitt is hell-bent on stopping her, but he's got problems of his own, specifically a smoking-hot animated girlfriend he's duty-bound not to give the old Hong Kong Handshake.
After much writhing, giggling, and also wriggling Basinger escapes her animated purgatory and gallivants about Las Vegas causing mischief and generally behaving like a mildly retarded Marilyn Monroe. Basinger, it seems, is eager to access something called a "Power Spike" with the ability to unleash all manner of mischief.
In its largely animated climax, Cool World finally attains some of the Looney Tunes gang's gleeful anarchism, if not their wit and elegant fluidity. Bakshi fills his animated sequences with blackout gags, throwaway jokes, and goofy visual puns. He's scribbling happily in the margins like a juvenile delinquent doodling all over his Trapper Keeper and his affection for animation and his influences is infectious. Even so, Basinger's animated sexpot is little more than a half-formed rough draft, all pin-up poses, sexy vamping and ruthless ambition.
Byrne's character is even less developed. It's as if Bakshi couldn't get the cast he wanted and took out his frustration on his actors. Despite his tormented history, Byrne qualifies as a profoundly limp straight man. The Vegas live-action sequences are lifeless despite the mega-wattage star-power provided by Frank Sinatra Jr.'s cameo and the flesh-and-blood actors never seem to be acting opposite anything more than a green screen and a bunch of drawings. Cool World steals enough from Who Framed Roger Rabbit to suffer terribly by comparison. Of course, it didn't help that Pitt crowed that Cool World was like Roger Rabbit on acid when it was more like Robert Zemeckis' classic after years of paint-huffing had rotted its brain.
Bakshi's animated sequences can't begin to compare to Disney or vintage Warner Brothers, but there's a sense of craft and personality to them that's utterly missing from the live-action sequences. If Bakshi wanted to illustrate the superiority of animation to live-action, then he's succeeded to his film's detriment.
I suspect that if Bakshi had been allowed to make his animated horror film, I'd be writing about his woefully botched horror movie today instead of his failed Roger Rabbit knock-off. The grass always being greener, I'm guessing that if his horror film had failed, tongues would be clucking as to why he didn't just go for a commercial sure thing, like, say, a live action/animated mash-up centering on a super-sexy Jessica Rabbit-style sexpot. Instead, Bakshi was forced to make someone else's terrible movie–Mancuso Jr.'–instead of lovingly crafting a terrible movie near and dear to his heart.
Up next: 'tude week continues with Tank Girl.Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Fiasco