There are disappointments and there are disappointments. And then there is "Cool World."
Much ballyhooed, much-advertised, the live-action/animation feature is much disaster. Not even an animated Kim Basinger dancing the hoochie-coochie can save it from its own death-wish combination of outsized ambition and undersized budget.
Starring (sort of) Gabriel Byrne and the real Basinger, the movie is equally notable as the platform for the return to film of the beloved counterculture animator Ralph Bakshi, who had an interesting run in the '70s with such films as "Fritz the Cat." He proved, with his X-rated "Fritz," that animation didn't end with Disney.
Here he proves that animation did end with "Who Framed Roger Rabbit."
Like "Roger," "Cool World" plays with the notion of an alternate, animated universe and takes off from the possibility of transference between the two. Unlike "Who Framed Roger Rabbit," it never seriously establishes the ground rules of the principle of transference or the relationship between the two of them, and so what follows is gibberish.
As "Cool World" has it, real-world cartoonist and jailbird Jack Deebs (Byrne) has carved a niche in the marketplace with a series of comic books set in Cool World, a hyped-up, ultraviolent urban fantasyland that draws its visual inspiration from the look of film noir. It's like "Night and the City" on PCP. His heroine in Cool World is an amoral, busty tootsy named Holli Would.
What Jack doesn't know is that the place exists, that he hasn't been "creating" so much as transcribing. On his last day of jail (he was in the slammer for killing the man who seduced his wife, though the movie never says why and never makes anything of this), as he sits drawing Holli, she reaches out of the picture and yanks him into Cool World.
"Roger Rabbit" was able to sustain the illusion of live and animated interaction by the application of world-class technical skill: Its artisans managed to suggest that their animated creations were three-dimensional, occupied space, threw shadows. Bakshi's animators don't get this: Cool World the place is resolutely static, and its inhabitants are one-dimensional figures on elaborate but uninvolving matte paintings; one never believes Jack is there because one never believes there is there.
Anyway, Holli sets about to seduce Jack and in that way achieves transfer to reality -- well, to Las Vegas, not quite the same. For some reason (the movie is really sloppy in the explanation department) this throws everything out of whack so Cool World's resident '40s gumshoe, a pouty Brad Pitt (from "Thelma and Louise"), has to go after her. Much loud incoherence ensues.
It's a great disappointment that the real-life Basinger isn't nearly so scorchy a presence as her animated analogue. As for Byrne and Pitt, nothing much can be done to them to create the semblance of animation, live-action or not. Worse, Cool World the place is so jammed up with loud and obnoxious creatures of unimpressive charm that it becomes the mesmerizing spot it was intended to be. It's to Toon Town what Golden Ring Mall is to Oz. When at long last the film ended, I felt no sadness at all at saying, "Good-bye, 'Cool World.' "
Starring Kim Basinger and Gabriel Byrne.
Directed by Ralph Bakshi.
Released by Paramount.