THIS week on Film Torments, hastily sketched into the margin of Animation Month, Truan decided to take a look at an esteemed animator’s final trainwreck: The brutal assault of Cold World.
Cool World is a largely forgotten animated debacle of the early 90s. The film which finally persuaded director Ralph Bakshi – the famed creator of cartoon series such as Spider-Man (68-70) and Mighty Mouse (55-67) – to never make a picture ever again. Upon seeing the film, it’s not hard to see why.
To give Cool World its scanty dues, the acting and voice acting is only occasionally sub-par; a remarkable feat when you consider what the actors have to work with. The sets, though often rushed and under produced occasionally convey Bakshi’s distinctively chaotic, noir-gothic style. The fact remains that the film is an embarrassing mess from start to finish; an irritatingly monotonous tidal wave of nauseous befuddlement that the producers and actors have all striven to distance themselves from.
Bakshi played an important role in the development of new styles of Western animation in the 70s, seeking to defy the general conception that animation would always be a medium solely for children’s entertainment. He began making independent productions with adult themes and content beginning with Fritz the Cat (1972) and Coonskin (1975) among others.
These early pictures attracted a great deal of criticism for their sexual and racial exploitation – Coonskin was boycotted by the Congress of Racial Equality for its racially driven content, and Fritz the Cat was the first animated feature to receive an X rating – but they also gained a degree of praise for their unique style and daring and adult themes.
The more family-friendly successes of The Lord of The Rings (1978) and Wizards (1977) would help secure Bakshi’s reputation within the industry after his controversial early material, but a lack of breakthrough success in his following pictures saw him take a nine year hiatus from filmmaking. When he returned to the studio following the success of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988), it quickly became apparent that Bakshi’s style of animation was by now becoming very dated. A terrible working relationship with the film’s producer, Frank Mancuso, Jr. in mind, Cool World is a film that feels like it’s being pulled in too many directions and going nowhere as a result.
In many ways, Cool World has all the hallmarks of Ralph Bakshi’s early pioneering films. It makes extensive use of Bakshi’s filter rotoscoping methods, with animated characters spliced onto live-action film. But where, in the early films, this technique was utilised sparingly for dynamic scenes like Coonskin’s black power rally, or Blackwolf’s Nazi war-propaganda projector device in Wizards, in Cool World it never looks anything but embarrassingly incongruous.
While the superior Roger Rabbit also prominently features animation looking decidedly out of place in the real world, it was a particular and central facet of the plot – an analogy for the segregation which is the novel’s main theme. Moreover, it’s obvious that a lot of work went into how animated characters interact with their real-world surroundings, and vice versa.
In Cool World, animated characters dive right through live action surroundings, brushing past props and paraphernalia, as extras and actors alike look through them as though they weren’t there. They may as well not be, for all the point any of the animation has in this film. In a film about a fictional construct trying to become real through physical contact with a real person, it’s an enormously glaring fault.
The effects are equally terrible in live action-cartoon scenes. In a world called ‘the Cool World’ you might hope for something exciting and immersive. You’ll be disappointed. The titular land is a weird, confusing and completely arbitrary toon-town, full of random and pointless violence. We don’t know how or why anything happens here because it’s presented entirely without context. Everything about ‘the Cool World’ is so arbitrary that it’s impossible to care.
Once again, it’s hard to fault the actors for unconvincing performances. It’s difficult enough acting alongside convincing effects and animation, but Andy frikken Serkis couldn’t make this work. It’s like they deliberately set out to make the cardboard sets look as flimsy as possible. What makes it far worse is that none of the character’s motivations, especially Harris’ (Brad Pitt), make much sense at all. Which brings us to the second huge problem with the film: its plot.
Cool World begins with Harris flying in from military service in WWII to meet his special gal… that is to say, his mother. They share a weird flirt before he takes her out for a ride on a bike he ‘acquired’ whilst in Italy – presumably from a hapless blackshirt officer – before a collision with literally the only car on the highway. This, apparently, eliminates Harris’ only connection to the world and he is drawn through the portal to ‘the Cool World’ by the ‘doodle’ Doc Whiskers. Whiskers immediately decides that a dazed, crazed-looking Harris has all the credentials necessary to run the entire Cool World once Whiskers leaves.
So far, so meh, but the stupidity quota quickly begins its lofty ascent. In the present day, Jack Deebs is a comic artist, famous for creating a popular comic about the Cool World, about to be released from prison for murdering his wife – addressed once and never mentioned thereafter – who is fortunate enough to have a full artist’s studio… inside his cell. It’s never really clear whether the Cool World is his invention (which would be paradoxical since Harris clearly existed in the past) or whether he’s simply been seeing visions of it. Typically, the film never really feels like elaborating. Deebs is somehow suddenly dragged into Cool World by his drawing of (sigh) Holli Would (Kim Basinger), a femme fatale who wants to become ‘real’ by sleeping with a ‘noid’ (non-toon) and enter the real world.
This scene neatlys sum up the entire film for the viewer: it’s loud, stupid, annoying, goes nowhere, and is entirely reliant on tackily-animated beewbs to keep you watching. Harris is now Cool World’s policeman, and his job consists of ensuring Cool World’s one and only law isn’t broken: “Doodles do not! Sleep! With noids!” Why this should be an issue, or why anyone should care, is never explained. This in turn means his job consists of following Cool World’s resident hooker (I’m sorry, it’s literally all she does!) around and nagging her not to sleep with noid men like Deebs, despite doing approximately nothing to prevent this.
Holli’s plan reaches its cringing fruition when she and Jack return to the real world, where she promptly begins… attempting to seduce every man in sight, what a shocker. Quickly things start to go wrong however as Holli and Jack start turning into toon clowns, because… um, consequences, I guess? From there on in, the film continues it spiral into stupidity, as the shapeless, badly-drawn doodles begin to spray out in a wave of awfulness, reminiscent of the film’s own creative diarrhoea, over New York.
In Bakshi’s defence, his original idea and film script actually sounds far more interesting and better developed then the one the studio actually set upon. Bakshi had been working on the idea of Jack Deebs as an underground comic book artist who is somehow dragged into a world of his own devising, and becomes enamoured with his creation, resulting in a half toon/half human hybrid who grows up to despise what she is and her human father, returning to the real world and setting out to seduce and kill him; a sort of Roger Rabbit, Frankenstein tie-in by the sound of it.
Unfortunately for Bakshi, Frank Mancuso, Jr., a producer whose career was owed entirely to good ol’ industrial nepotism, had his own ideas about what he wanted to see in the film and completely rewote the script in secret. So, when you think about it, Cool World isn’t much of ‘a Ralph Bakshi film’ at all. Bakshi, for his part, claims that he was straight-up blackmailed by the studio lawyers into completing the film, after punching Mancusso in the face during a row, later stating: “I thought if I could do the animation well, it might be worth it. But you know what? It wasn’t.”
Cool World is a bloated pick-and-mix of terrible moments, sewn together with loose fibres of a plot and crappy animation, but if I had to pick one torment moment from it I’d have to go with the sub-ending. Just as Harris’ decimated corpse is returned to the Cool World by his irritating spider partner Nails (Charlie Adler) to his grieving doodle girlfriend Lonette (Candi Millo), you’ll find yourself thinking, “Wow, something in this film’s plot actually has some consequence for once.”
But then Lonette suddenly quips up: “But Nails! What happens when a doodle kills a noid in the real world? They become a doodle!” Ah. Right. Of course they do.