There’s a romantic notion that “there’s someone for everyone,” and it isn’t just for the lovesick or lovelorn. This very much applies to the arts where something you create may not be for a wide audience, but that doesn’t mean that there’s no audience at all. Sometimes it’s just a matter of (a) time and/or (b) finding your people. In the case of writer/director Ralph Bakshi, he found his people in the underground art scene, making animated features like Fritz the Cat (1972), Wizards (1977), and the widely appreciated take on J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (1978) (a film still considered as good or better than Peter Jackson’s approach due to the artistic strength on display). Given this clout, it makes sense that Paramount Pictures would jump into a project with Bakshi that would pair his artistic vision with some of the moment’s best or up-and-coming actors: Brad Pitt (off Thelma and Louise), Kim Basinger (coming off Batman), and Gabriel Byrne (Miller’s Crossing). Despite many problems behind the scenes that would eventually deliver a rather uneven film, Bakshi’s resulting project, Cool World (1992), continues to find its people and is now honored with a brand-new collector’s edition from Shout! Factory featuring a 4K scan of the original negative and 20+ minute featurette.
Artist Jack Deebs (Byrne) is about to finish his jail sentence and be free to enjoy life without bars and restrictions. There’s just one concern: his creation, a character called Holli Would (Basinger) from his comic named “Cool World,” is calling out to him, pleading for him to come to her. What seems like a wild hallucination ends up becoming all too real as Deebs finds himself magically transported from his world to Cool World, surrounded by the very things he pulled from his mind. What he realizes too late, however, is that Cool World didn’t spring from his mind. Holli would do anything to cross over to the real world, and Deebs is just the sucker to help her do it, damn the consequences to both worlds.
Even without the uncompromising retrospective “The Wild Minds of Cool World” confirming the behind-the-scenes complications, the final project is a series of narrative disorganization and desynchronized tones. The animation is very adult with the hypersexualized and violent inhabitants of Cool World engaging in all manner of ridiculousness, and the set designs support a gritty, nearly demonic realm. This works for establishing Cool World as a place ruled by the pursuit of desire, except there’s a pervasive silliness from the presentation of the inhabitants as they engage with each other and the world which implies a certain level of emasculation. That is, the world is all talk and very little action. In one scene, for instance, eagle-eyed viewers will notice a murder taking place in background, something which should be of great concern, but it’s treated as commonplace. There are even randomly occurring animations which flutter in and around the characters that depict gruesome or violent objects (even by suggestion), yet none convey a sense of terror or disquiet. Because of this, the character of Frank Harris (Pitt), a human who came to Cool World by accident in 1945 post-World War II and who now serves as a member of the Cool World Police Department, is entirely unnecessary in a world where deviancy is unremarkable from any other moment.
Not helping matters is the story itself, which skips over some important beats and narrative details in its race to the end. The film starts on Harris, introducing him as a soldier returned home from war, who endures a terrible tragedy moments before he accidently gets zapped to Cool World. The story then shifts to present day and introduces Deebs, seeking to create mystery as to why the artist would be contacted by Holli. The ideation of the three characters makes sense — cop, femme fatale, and patsy — but the execution doesn’t. We know what Holli wants. That’s made very clear. So the wildness that occurs as it relates to her, no problem, it’s all in line. However, the idea of Harris as a PTSD-suffering individual is never explored nor is the idea that if he dies at the hands of a Doodle (the name for Cool World inhabitants), he’d become one himself. That seems like a real easy fix for his dilemma as a Noid (name for human in Cool World) who can’t properly invest in a relationship with his lady love Lonette (voiced by Candi Milo). Harris opting to die so he could become a Doodle would make a particularly fascinating arc as it would mean he could never return to Earth, a place his pain keeps him directly connected to. Instead, Harris is treated as a general gumshoe for whom the audience is supposed to root, except we have zero vested interest. Similarly, Deebs is given a complex background as a man who went to jail for killing his wife’s lover (a comment mentioned in passing to him for the audience’s sake) and who can somehow communicate with Holli. The idea that his brainwaves can somehow pick-up on what’s happening at Cool World is subtext that, if interrogated properly by the text, would make his character arc (that of a man who was betrayed by his partner and who seeks a new start with a trusted love) not only more compelling but a tad bittersweet given his character becomes a hollow-headed do-gooder superhero type that Holli becomes stuck with. Unfortunately, as we learn in the featurette, what Bakshi wanted to do with his story versus what producer Frank Mancuso, Jr. believed they could do with Paramount Pictures resulted in an animated adventure that’s very on-target for Bakshi’s vision and a live-action aspect that is not.
Credit where it’s due, the featurette isn’t the usual collector’s edition PR-fest one might expect as a bonus feature. Constructed as one piece, home viewers are told the behind-the-scenes story of the making of the movie from concept to completion via interwoven talking head interview segments from Bakshi, Basinger, and Mancuso, Jr.. It’s candid in that none avoid discussing the things that didn’t work or that were shifted from conception to execution. Even if his original horror story idea didn’t come to fruition the way he imagined, Bakshi is very appreciative for being able to hire the artists he wanted, that their work turned out exactly as he hoped, and even shows off some concept production design pages that he still has. Basinger continues to speak fondly over her experience on the project and the audience’s continued growth, and offers stories about how she influenced many aspects of Holli. Mancuso, Jr. confirms Basinger’s heavy contributions for making Holli what audiences know (from performance, to costume, and more), shares stories about the conflicts between ideation and execution, and discusses the original reception to the film. In brief, if you’re a fan of Cool World, there’s some interesting stories within that you may not have heard with materials you may not have seen.
But, truth be told, chances are, if you’re interested in Shout! Factory’s collector’s edition of Cool World, it’s because you’re a fan of the film and want to know about the restoration. There’re no liner notes that go into depth on the restoration process (who oversaw it, who executed it, how long it took, etc.) which is included with restorations from other boutique home video operators, but the press notes indicate that the restoration was approved by Bakshi himself and that it was done via the original camera negative. With the case in-hand, I can tell you that the audio options are English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and Stereo and the video is 1080p High-Definition. Watching the film for review, I used a 43in LG 4K UHD television, Xbox One, and 5.1 Yamaha surround stereo, and the film looks and sounds brand-new. The balance in sound is exactly what you want in order to feel like Cool World is a real bustling (albeit surreal) place to exist. Dialogue comes through clearly, even Basinger’s coos as Holli. When compared against the footage used in the featurette, you can see the differences between older footage and the 4K restoration: Holli’s dress is a sharper white and her skin tone is more realistic; there’s more depth of color in all the inhabitants of Cool World; and the animated sequences that occur as Cool World slams into Earth possess a little more pop.
As someone who takes great pleasure from films like Meteor Man (1993), Batman Forever (1995), and American Outlaws (2001), I’m quite familiar with being a minority fan. Not everyone has to like everything, no one has to have the same opinion, art is not for everybody. Despite its many missed narrative opportunities, tonal inconsistences, and the general WTF of it all, Cool World has amassed a following that would do anything for Holli. If that’s you, then snagging this collector’s edition from Shout! Factory is a no-brainer.
Cool World: Collector’s Edition Special Features
- NEW 4K scan of the original camera negative, approved by director Ralph Bakshi
- NEW “The Wild Minds of Cool World” – A retrospective look at the making of the film including brand-new interviews with director Ralph Bakshi, star Kim Basinger, and producer Frank Mancuso, Jr. (21:58)
Available on Blu-ray from Shout! Factory September 13th, 2022.
For more information, head to the Paramount Pictures Cool World webpage.