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DIRECTED BY: Ralph Bakshi

FEATURING: Kim Basinger, Gabriel Byrne, Brad Pitt, voices of Charlie Adler, , Candi Milo

PLOT: Cartoonist Jack Deebs finds himself magically transported to the universe he thinks he has created, the Cool World, where sexpot doodle Holli Would is scheming to transform herself into a humanoid.

Still from Cool World (1992)

COMMENTS: The notion that Ralph Bakshi was ever going to make a four-quadrant, people-pleasing mainstream Hollywood smash seems utterly ludicrous. But damned if people weren’t thinking he would back in 1992. By all accounts, animation’s enfant terrible rode the Who Framed Roger Rabbit wave, selling on the spot his pitch for a horror film in which the half-toon offspring of an absent-father cartoonist seeks revenge. Then, a phalanx of studio executives, producers, and screenwriters set about methodically dismantling that initial pitch, to the point where Bakshi was handed an entirely new script just prior to the start of shooting. Perhaps he can be forgiven for losing some of his enthusiasm for the project.

The result is two different kinds of hybrids: a mix of live-action and animation, and an unholy mashup of a Ralph Bakshi film and the kind of movie that everyone else in Hollywood was looking for. (Supposedly, halfway through filming, Basinger told the director that she wanted to make a movie that could be shown to sick kids in hospitals, betraying a total lack of familiarity with his c.v.) In either case, the mix never really takes. The visual combination is surprisingly terrible, resembling Pete’s Dragon rather than the more recent achievements of Roger Rabbit. The interaction is sloppy, the eyelines are all over the place, and the physical sets are rendered two-dimensionally but without any sense of cartoonishness. As for the tone, it’s as schizophrenic as you might imagine. This may be one of the worst-edited films I’ve ever seen, with scenes covering different plotlines and delivering dramatically contrary emotions intercut and slammed together almost randomly, as though assembled by a hyperactive chihuahua. At any moment that you think you’re watching one storyline, you’ll need to brace yourself for an awkward and illogical transition, with the likelihood that you’ll soon be zipped back to the previous thread without warning. The best thing that can be said for this approach is that it neatly conceals the fact that Cool World is equally as incomprehensible as a linear story.

Part of the challenge is to figure out exactly whose movie it is. Are we watching the tale of an artist who is suddenly confronted by his work? (Practically no time at all is spent on Byrne’s backstory as the ostensible creator of this cartoon universe or on reactions to his predicament, so no.) Or perhaps it’s the artist confronting the unaddressed trauma from the incident that landed him in jail. (The revelation that Byrne was accused of murdering his wife for cheating on him is casually thrown away, left unproven either way, and never addressed again. Probably not that, then.) Okay, forget the artist. Could it really about the poor World War II veteran suffering from both PTSD and the tragic loss of his mother and now finds himself in a world beyond all understanding? (All that is jettisoned approximately two minutes after Pitt is transported to the Cool World, so no again.) Then surely it’s about the Machivellian efforts Holli Would expends in pursuit of her quest to become human. (Honestly, we don’t really know why Holli does anything she does, except that it involves a lot of rotoscoped dancing, so… maybe?) The story is so confused that late in the third act, someone entirely new tries to sneak in, a neighbor about whom we know exactly nothing but who is positioned as a possible love interest and as a foil for Holli, but is then almost comically ignored in the conclusion. Cool World is in the remarkable position of having only irrelevant characters.

The cast flounders amidst this mess. Basinger never seems to know which emotion she’s supposed to play (not entirely her fault), so her sex-kitten allure fails to jibe with her madness for power, a dynamic most evident in the inexplicable scene in which Holli sings a duet with Frank Sinatra, Jr. in which she barely seems to acknowledge the man’s existence. Pitt seems thoroughly embarrassed in every scene he’s in. At least he has an extended introduction to try and make something of himself; Byrne has no character at all, and the film knows it, since he’s barely onscreen for 30 seconds before yanking him into the animated universe, and then isn’t even remotely like himself once he is transformed into his cartoon avatar. Even the voice actors struggle, such as Adler’s choice to play Pitt’s dimwit partner with a voice that suggests Ed Wynn by way of Dom DeLuise.

I honestly can’t say enough bad things about Cool World, but for the purposes of this forum, I must offer this final condemnation: it’s not anywhere near as weird as it wants to be. At its best, Bakshi has littered his animated landscape with an unending supply of throwaway gags and random images, sometimes even overlaying them atop the main action, as if the spirit of Max Fleischer was perpetually trying to break out of the film. These adjunct characters capture Bakshi at his wildest, but those treats are fleeting. The core story is little more than warmed-over rabbit, garnished with sex jokes that don’t even have the guts to be proper smut. Holli Would? You’d best not.


“… the animation here is really impressive and while a tighter plot and better storytelling definitely would have helped, Cool World winds up being weird enough in its own right to make it worth seeking out for fans of cult cinema or Bakshi’s unique visual style.” – Ian Jane, Rock! Shock! Pop!

(This movie was nominated for review by Claudia V. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

Where to watch Cool World


    1. I have mixed feelings about the quality of the movie “Cool World”.

      I do not have mixed feelings about the quality of David Bowie’s track “Cool World”.

  1. Thank you, Shane, for taking this turkey off the queue and saving me having to watch it! 🙂

    I owe you one now, so my next video review will be reader-suggested Dick Tracy.

    1. Somebody dragged me to a theater to see it. It was the most expensive 90 minute nap I’d ever taken. All I had to hear was Danny Elfman’s Batman theme with some notes crossed out in No. 2 lead pencil, and discover this would be about Little Orphan Tracy more than a 1990s noir plot, and knew I wouldn’t miss much. I had to rewatch it on Internet Archive just to review it.

      You want a real Dick Tracy, here you go:

      For that matter, just watch Dark City, because that’s almost “updated 90s Dick Tracy done right.” Or watch Burton Batman again, because that’s what half of Beatty’s Canaryman even is.

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