I love it to bits, but this isn't a popular opinion.
It's Ralph Bakshi's only feature film since Fire and Ice
in 1983, unless he manages to make Last Days of Coney Island with the help of that Kickstarter campaign he launched last month. That would be something. Anyway, back in 1990, Bakshi decided to make another movie. To quote him: "I made 1,500 bucks in 10 years of painting; I thought it would be nice to pick up a piece of change. So I called my lawyer, who was still speaking to me because no one ever leaves Hollywood, and asked him where I should go to sell a movie."
His pitch was, um, a bit different from the finished product. He hoped to make an animated horror film about a cartoon and human who'd had a baby together, only for their girl to visit the real world to murder the father who'd abandoned her. Paramount "bought the idea in ten seconds" and then discarded almost all of its contents.
This was four years after Who Framed Roger Rabbit, you see. Paramount saw dollar signs. Frank Mancuso Jr (son of the studio's president) had the screenplay rewritten in secret, then gave it to Bakshi as a fait accompli. Bakshi punched Mancuso in the mouth. He wanted to quit, but Paramount threatened him with a lawsuit if he backed out. Thus Bakshi's "hard R-rated story" became a PG-13. Paramount watered down his disturbing concept art, apparently not dissimilar to Frank Miller's in Sin City, which also started around then. Furthermore after they'd cast Basinger in the lead role, she started trying to rewrite the film during production. Bakshi says that this is because she thought it would be great "if she would be able to show this picture in hospitals to sick children. His response was, "Kim, I think that's wonderful, but you've got the wrong guy to do that with."
Unfortunately she didn't. She had the right guy, i.e. Frank Mancuso Jr.
So, what happens? Brad Pitt is a young man coming back from World War Two in 1945 when a bad thing happens and he's sucked into the Cool World. Bakshi makes it way more disorientating than that sounds, by the way. This film has more than one death scene and every time there's something wrong about it. It doesn't have the weight you'd expect, or else we're about to get whacked by a jarring tone shift. I like this. It meant he surprised me every time. There's a narrative rhythm to important deaths in TV, movies, etc. and Bakshi tramples all over it.
The Cool World is a cartoon world, of course. Toons are "doodles", while humans are "noids". Pitt finds himself a niche there and learns how to handle the local wildlife, of which the most uncontrolled specimen is Holly Would (Basinger). She's insanely gorgeous. You've never seen animated women this sexy. There's plenty of cartoon nudity in other films, obviously, but Bakshi trumps it all. That introductory dance is particularly distracting, if only because you can't believe she's not about to fall out of that top. However she's also a dangerous man-eating fantasist who's obsessed with sex with a noid (banned in Cool World) and shouldn't be touched with asbestos gloves.
The storyline is messy. It's built on unexplained McGuffins ("doodles and noids don't have sex together", the Spike of Power) and I didn't have a clue what was happening during the finale.
However everything else about it I loved. Firstly, the animation. It's got that Bakshi edge. There's a skyscraper with a mouth and teeth, while at one point there's a golden shower. I'm surprised at the MPAA letting that one through. Water Sports Monthly is a children's magazine, is it? However the important thing is that this is art with a personality that's not even on the same planet as the cartoons in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. It's even further from realism than that film was, which is saying a lot. The evil wooden nickels, the nightclub wolves, the cigar-smoking spider called Nails (based on Sidney from Bakshi's earlier Christmas in Tattertown
)... I ate it up with a spoon. The eager telephone? It made me laugh. The evil knuckle-dragging baby? Freaky. The floating ghosts? Didn't understand what they were doing there, but I loved them too.
According to Bakshi, he "had a lot of animators there that I'd brought in and I thought that maybe I could just have fun animating this stuff, which I did." He never showed them a screenplay. He just said, "Do a scene that's funny, whatever you want to do!"
Next there's the acting. Brad Pitt I thought was great, but handicapped. Bakshi's slapdash with his doodle-noid interactions, doing work that's quite a lot cruder than Zemeckis or even the similar decades-old work of Disney films like Mary Poppins. In particular the eyelines aren't always perfect, which can make an actor look stupid. Pitt suffers from that. However that's not his fault and once you've made allowances for it, he's really going for his role and taking it more seriously than you'd expect. He's going for all the energy and zest that the role demanded, given his co-stars (i.e. lots), yet he's also taking his scenes seriously and creating a real character with pain underneath the flash. I thought he was bloody good, actually.
I even liked Basinger, who struck me as almost suicidally brave. A lot of people will have thought her awful. Even Roger Ebert hated the scene where she turns up in a real world bar. It's true that she's entirely unconvincing as a real person... but (a) that's the point and (b) she then scales it back it as her character acclimatises to reality. Watch her. She has ridiculous body language in the scene where she's only just become human, but it's exactly the body language she had as a doodle and she'll quickly stop being so weird in that way. Similarly the bar scene will make you cringe. It's meant to. She's a monster and I'm in awe of Bakshi and Basinger for pushing the boat out that far. Maybe they didn't mean to? Don't know. Don't care. What hits the screen is what counts.
Basinger got Razzie-nominated for Worst Actress, for this and Final Analysis. I understand where the opinion comes from, but I think it's cinematically illiterate.
Did I mention Gabriel Byrne? He's here. He's great too, obviously.
There's a sweet romance, with genuine emotion. There's some poor compositing of the animation and live action, but the animation itself is so great that I don't care. I don't think there's a single minute with which I didn't have a ball. I think the film manages to make something surprisingly worthwhile from what could have been a shallow and gimmicky starting point (doodle-noid sex). Bakshi is scathing about this film, but that's not surprising if one bears in mind what he'd been wanting to make instead. "I thought if I did the animation well, it would be worth it, but you know what? It wasn't worth it." Obviously I'd have loved to see the full-bore Bakshi Unleashed version, but I love the actual film too.