Monday, June 14, 2010

Cool World (1992)

The Movie: Frank Harris (Brad Pitt, you should know who he is) returns home from World War 2 to his loving mother (Janni Brenn). Unfortunately, when taking her for a ride on his new motorcycle, they run headfirst into some drunk drivers and Frank’s mom dies in front of him. His day gets even more complicated when an experiment in the dimension next door performed by Doctor Vincent Whiskers (voice of Maurice LaMarche) kidnaps Frank from our dimension. Frank finds himself in a world populated entirely by cartoon characters, and he Dr. Whiskers walk off discussing the matter.

Forty-something years later (contemporary to the when the movie was made); Frank is a police detective who tries to keep order in the Cool World, the official name for the cartoon dimension. The main point of this is to keep “noids” (flesh and blood humans, who apparently pass through while dreaming) from having sex with “doodles” (the cartoon inhabitants), because it somehow causes tears in the fabrics of reality. He is dedicated to his job, but this is at a personal sacrifice because the only thing that makes him happy is his doodle girlfriend, Lonette (voice of Candi Milo); and their inability to consummate their relationship is an endless source of frustration for both.

But Frank finds himself with bigger problems. Local femme fatale Holli Would (Kim Basinger) is determined to escape into the “Real World” at any cost. So far this hasn’t been a real problem, but ex-con cartoonist Jack Deebs (Gabriel Byrne) is just getting out of jail. While incarcerated, Deebs wrote a best-selling comic book on Cool World. Convinced that it is his creation, he is being drawn deeper and deeper in and giving Holli just the sucker she needs to fulfill her plans. Plans that could destroy both worlds….

The Review: Far more frustrating and appalling than even the worst straight out bad movie is the one that obviously could have, should have, been great; but falls far short of its potential. Ralph Bakshi, who directed and wrote the original screenplay, intended something very different. He had in mind an animated horror movie, something much darker. Unfortunately, the studio secretly rewrote the screenplay at the last minute, and the result was a mess where there probably should have been a masterpiece. There are still some traces of the original vision here and there, but it came out as something very different.

The best part about the movie is the Cool World itself. What we get looks like nothing less than a hybrid of the archetypal Naked City we see in noir combined with Dante’s Inferno; if Hell had been designed with the Loony Toons in mind. Nightmarish characters lurk in dark alleys, objects such as anvils and pianos randomly fall from the sky, doors and buildings have minds of their own. Also, I could swear that I saw Woody Woodpecker in one of the crowd scenes; as well as busts of Mickey Mouse and Daffy Duck on some of the delightfully twisted buildings that make up the setting.

Brad Pitt did a good job as Detective Harris. No big surprise; Pitt tends to be good when he’s given something significant to work with, and Frank Harris is the most developed character in this movie. He’s actually convincing and sympathetic.

Even when Frank came off as gruff and unfriendly, which he did when he first dealt with Deebs, I found myself on his side. Here is a man who has worked very hard for the gods only know how long (time seems to run very differently in the Cool World) to keep things together. And he’s no hypocrite, he knows exactly what’s at stake; but that means serious personnel sacrifice. Now, along comes this bitch who wants to bring it all down; along with this idiot who’s willing to let her use him to do it. I’d be cranky too. Frank does get rewarded at the end, and is probably the only main character whose reward isn’t very mixed. He’s also probably the only one who deserves it.

Byrne, as Deebs, does what he can; but he isn’t given much to work with. There are some tantalizing hints of what Jack Deebs was intended to be, or could have been. For example, he was in jail for killing his wife and her lover after finding them together. That suggests a much different man than the one in front of us. Aside from that one intriguing hint, the Jack Deebs in this movie is nothing but a passive and willing puppet for Holli to manipulate. Though he, too, gets “rewarded” at the end of the movie; it left me with the feeling that this was a reward he would tire of really quickly.

Holli Would is a mixed bag. I think she is wonderful as long as she remains an animation. However, she is much less so once she becomes human. This isn’t Basinger’s fault; Holli is supposed to represent the ultimate feminine desire. Basinger’s not bad looking, but there’s no way that she, or any other flesh and blood actress for that matter, could possibly match up to the sexy toon. It was a major mistake on the part of the scriptwriter to bring Holli into the Real World.

And there lies my major gripe with this movie. The Cool World is the best part of it, and yet the script short changes it. Some of it is due to the constraints of a PG-13 rating. To keep that rating, the script cannot show the true extent of the horrors and depravities of the setting. It can hint, but it cannot show, and this really cuts into the atmosphere.

The worst part, though, is that the movie spends too much time away from its wonderful setting. We catch a few tantalizing glimpses, but we never really get to know it. As a result, the major plot points never make much sense. How, exactly, does sex between a noid and a doodle disrupt the barrier between the two worlds? Why are noids able to travel here in their dreams? Though I think Frank Harris ultimately deserved what he got at the end, there was no real explanation for how he got it; Cool World just pulled it out of its ass as a convenient deus ex machina.

As I said earlier, there were a few hints of what Cool World was originally intended to be. There is definitely a good movie hiding in the mess that is the end result. Bakshi, if you’re reading this, please, try to get a new movie made of your original vision. Adult animation is more accepted these days, so you might get a better chance. I really hate to see a good idea get wasted, particularly in an age when any original idea at all is a rarity. Unfortunately, thus far that’s exactly what Cool World is; a good idea that got wasted.

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