Monday, December 3, 2012

In Defense Of: Cool World

On my podcast, The Dirty Sons Of Pitches, we have a segment called Defend Yourself, where one of us gives our best defense of a movie we love that the majority opinion seems to weigh against. Because this is only one segment among many and I like a lot of movies that everybody else hates, I thought I'd bring the game to this blog as an excuse to take a second look at some older films that don't always get the fair shake they deserve. First up, the film that made cult animation director Ralph Bakshi quit making movies, a behind the scenes train wreck called Cool World

Cool World was actually the movie that introduced me to Bakshi's work. I probably saw it at a bit too young an age considering the content, but something about the twisted imagery in the context of an animated movie always appealed to me. Coming out only four years after Who Framed Roger Rabbit, a lot of people criticize Bakshi's film for not reaching the same level of technical mastery blending live action and animation, and while they certainly have a point, I think that deficiency is more than made up for in the unique style and interesting take on the concept. Drawing cartoon characters in the real world is one thing, but placing real life people into a cartoon world, blending both together and shifting between them with the immersive feel of a living painting is quite another. And while both films play in the genre of a noir detective story, for me, the darker material in Cool World fits a lot better in my opinion.

Cool World

The story and tone of Cool World almost feels like a deliberate counterpoint to the Zemeckis film, a dark and, weirdly enough more realistic take on this premise of these two worlds merged into one. By that I mean, if you really think about what it would be like if cartoons could interact with humans, it wouldn't be the wacky fun time of Roger Rabbit, where we find the antics of our cartoon neighbors amusing or at worst mildly annoying. More likely it would resemble the hellish nightmare land of Cool World. If you think of the spectrum of cartoon personalities as typified in Daffy Duck, maniacally insane to bitterly selfish, and imagine a world where all of these beings live together in an environment geared towards nihilism, where death, and thus life, have no meaning, you have a recipe for a society that is bound to degenerate into malice and anarchy which is only enhanced by the outlandish physics involved. Now merge that world with our own, and try to imagine any form of peaceful co-existence. It's not possible, and that's the premise of Cool World.

Cool World

I'm not saying Cool World is better than, or even as good as Who Framed Roger Rabbit in any dimension from story to technical expertise, but its more than just a botched attempt to ape a more successful film. Continuing on this comparison, Cool World is a brilliant deconstruction of our understanding of animated sexuality, as exemplified in the dichotomy between the much lusted after Jessica Rabbit, and the femme fatale antagonist Holli Would. In a world dominated by geek, it seems so natural to find a cartoon character sexy when talking about Jessica Rabbit that nobody ever really questions the insanity of that idea. Cool World does, presenting the concept of a man sexually obsessed with a fictional character who actually gets the chance to make his fantasy a reality, only to have the walls underpinning society literally break down around him as a result. Human nature vs. cartoon physiology is likened to a mutual sexually transmitted disease infecting both of them at the end and threatening to unleash the hordes of what is essentially Cartoon Hell (as opposed to the idyllic presentation of Toon Town akin to Cartoon Heaven) upon the world. How is this not awesome?

Cool World

And yet, according to Wikipedia, it could have been even awesomer. Apparently the original pitch for Cool World was a cartoon horror film about a cartoonist who mates with his character, producing a half human, half cartoon offspring bent on bloody revenge against the father who abandoned her. Whatever you think of this movie, are you telling me you don't want to see that? And I'd argue that this concept is sufficiently different from what ultimately became Cool World that it could still be done, but probably won't because of all the hate that's been heaped onto this movie. Supposedly the behind the scenes turmoil concerning the change from this idea to the bizarre cartoon noir piece led Bakshi to punch producer Frank Mancuso Jr. in the face before retiring from feature films. If there's one thing I can't defend, its the loss of an auteur, especially one who might have proved to be the only one crazy enough to keep working in traditional animation in a media landscape dominated by CGI.

Cool World

As with any film, it has its flaws. The two mediums don't always mesh well, and it isn't nearly as seamless as the aforementioned Roger Rabbit (though I would argue it is much more ambitious). And you can't get away from it without mentioning possibly the single worst Brad Pitt performance of the man's entire career, paradoxically in my favorite Brad Pitt movie. A lot of the story doesn't come together as well as it could, and the mechanics of this universe, and who knows what about how things work, needed a lot more emphasis than what we got. On the one hand, I liked the mysterious nature of the movie's physics, that certain facts were common knowledge and laws were in place, but ultimately the consequences of breaking them were unknown, but once you get to an unexplained magic spike and the sudden revelation of humans becoming toons under certain very coincidental circumstances, almost implying Cool World to be a sort of afterlife not unlike Jumanji, even I'm screaming for some much needed exposition.

Still, as far as I'm concerned, there's much more good than bad in Cool World, and for me it stands as one of Bakshi's better efforts alongside Wizards and Fire and Ice. Those who dismiss it due to one flaw or another that they exaggerate into a condemnation of the entire film do so at their detriment, ignoring a movie that despite its obvious creative cousin Roger Rabbit, is still unlike anything else you're likely to see. If only for the morbid and crazy visual panache of the film, I'd say its worth it, but beyond that, the problems with the storytelling only illuminate just how much there is to the world of this movie, even if it is often sadly untapped and never reaches its full potential. Overall, Ralph Bakshi's Cool World still earns a place on my shelf of classic animated features, warts and all.

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