Blink and you’ll miss the big moment in Ralph Bakshi’s Cool World, the scene the teenage males in the audience — which is to say, most of the audience- have been sweatily awaiting. Here’s the setup: Jack Deebs (Gabriel Byrne), a famous comic-book artist, has been sucked into the middle of his own creation, a funky back-alley dreamscape known as Cool World. Once there, he comes face to face with his heroine, Holli Would, a go-go bombshell who looks as if she just stepped off a pinball machine. With a cooing voice provided by Kim Basinger and a face and body that suggest Basinger redesigned by Alberto Vargas, Holli is meant to be male fantasy incarnate — a willowy vortex of legs, lips, and boobs.
In Cool World, sex between cartoons and humans is strictly forbidden — at least, I think it is (it’s often hard to say what, exactly, is going on in this movie). Nevertheless, after much friendly teasing, Holli gets Jack just where she wants him, flat on his back. (The teens in the audience have now stopped munching their popcorn.) Hiking up her skintight minidress, the hot-to-trot Holli leaps onto the bed and begins to straddle her creator. At which point the scene ends, and Bakshi cuts away to less risqué matters (as the teens resume their munching). Ah, the perils of PG-13!
The ”underground” comics of the late ’60s and early ’70s fused psychedelic imagery with hippie-porno sleaze — they were like an explosion of the countercultural id. Bakshi, in his X-rated 1972 animated feature, Fritz the Cat (an adaptation of R. Crumb’s satirical comic strip about an insatiably horny feline), pretty much ditched the psychedelia and retained the sleaze. The movie was funny and genuinely outrageous. By depicting wisecracking kitty cats engaged in truly animalistic behavior, Bakshi seemed to be subverting several decades’ worth of anthropomorphic cuteness. Fritz was like a Disney cartoon remade by a dirty-minded schoolboy.
For a flickering moment, Bakshi’s outré vulgarity was cutting edge. Before long, though, his gift for going too far began to lose its charm. With movies such as the X-rated Heavy Traffic (1973), also about an animator marooned in cartoonland, and Coonskin (1975), which featured shockingly demeaning stereotypes of ghetto blacks, Bakshi started to seem less like an innovator and more like an old-fashioned lout peddling ”hip” stereotypes — Archie Bunker in bohemian drag. His movies, with the exception of Fritz, were no longer fun. They were rambling and shrill, feature-length doodles that seemed to make themselves up as they went along.
Cool World, while fun to look at, is more of the same. The movie would like to be a down-and-dirty Who Framed Roger Rabbit, but Bakshi isn’t up to the task. He introduces two rather glum heroes: Jack, the comic-strip Pygmalion who tries to bring Holli, his baby-doll Galatea, to life, and Frank (Brad Pitt, the young hunk from Thelma & Louise), a zoot-suited detective who has been stuck in Cool World since 1945. There are also some nattering hyperkinetic beasties who are continually bouncing in from the sidelines. Bakshi, though, can’t seem to keep his mind on track for more than 30 seconds, and his ”streetwise” vision — the anonymous porno chicks and grinning pimps — has really begun to look threadbare.
More important, the blend of live action and animation is too crude to enthrall us. After the painstaking technical bravado of Roger Rabbit, it’s no longer possible to get away with scenes in which a cartoon has obviously just been pasted onto an actor’s wooden movements. It takes far more craftsmanship — that, and a sexier imagination — to convince us the two have touched flesh. C