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EXCLUSIVE: Ralph Bakshi Reflects On The 25th Anniversary Of ‘Cool World’

Twenty-five years ago this month, cartoon auteur Ralph Bakshi released his final feature, a live-action/animation hybrid called Cool World that seemed to be anything but.

Ralph Bakshi around the time of production of "Cool World."
Ralph Bakshi around the time of production of “Cool World.”

Plagued by production turmoil and harshly reviewed, Bakshi’s 1992 bow out of the big-screen animation business — which he evolved with transgressors like Fritz the Cat and Heavy Traffic, as well as mainstream influentials like American Pop and Lord of the Rings — was arguably more whimper than bang.

But time, as always, tells a different tale, as the clock ticks.

Animators that Bakshi mentored, even on Cool World, have transformed into Hollywood heavyweights in their own right, including one who recently released a corny blockbuster, The Boss Baby, co-starring Bakshi’s grandson, Miles. Filmmakers and fans, who weren’t even born in the ’70s and ’80s, when his charged fantasies like Wizards and Fire and Ice provided mature alternatives to Disney, are now packing screenings from Portland to Bakshi’s own New York.

“My mouth drops open,” a laughing Bakshi tells me by phone. “Now, I have all these kids who have just discovered my films calling me, and they all think I’m dead!”

Such a premature passing was similarly argued about Cool World, co-starring a young come-up named Brad Pitt, which seemed dead on arrival when it landed on screens in the wake of Who Framed Roger Rabbit. But like other Bakshi works, which wore their struggles and imperfections like badges of honor, Cool World remains an early, if imperfect, example of animation experimentation, whose rotoscoping anticipated the cgi revolution of the 21st century, much like its more accomplished predecessor, Lord of the Rings.

For these reasons, and more, its relevance has grown as these many years have passed, in a marketplace whose choices, but arguably not ambitions, have exponentially grown.

Cartoon Brew: Looking back from a newer, weirder century, what are your thoughts now on Cool World?

Ralph Bakshi: I have a few. First of all, over the years I may have acted certain ways about Cool World. But I think, in retrospect and after getting older, the thing that really happened, which I wasn’t prepared for and is not unusual, is that it wasn’t a Bakshi production. It was a Paramount picture, the first one I ever did. Even at Terrytoons, I was a creative director who pretty much had the run of things. I wasn’t used to people telling me what to do, which is what everyone else gets used to! [laughs]

So I couldn’t get the exact casting I wanted, and I got very frustrated by not being able to do what I always took for granted, by getting the freedom I had gotten. So it was a pretty bad experience for me, but then again I probably never should have sold a picture that way to a major company, because that’s what they all do. I mean, that’s how they operate. That’s their game, and everyone plays by it when they’re working for them. So, as a mature adult, I realize that my reaction to the film had to do with not understanding why no one was listening to the director. [laughs heavily]

Well, I mean, on the live-action end; on the animation end, I had a lot of fun with the guys. The cel animation was some of the best we’ve ever done. It was very slick stuff, a brilliant job by young animators, many of which went on to do great work at Pixar, Dreamworks, and others — including Tom McGrath, who directed The Boss Baby, which co-stars my grandson, Miles Bakshi. I’m very proud of that.

So on that level, I feel very good about Cool World, because I hired a lot of young guys out of CalArts. The animation was good, the guys were good, but story and casting were more due to Paramount, and I never really got over the shock of being told what to do. But that’s my fault, because that’s how studios work. I’ve been very lucky with the freedom I’ve had in the business.

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As time passes, the appreciation for Cool World as one of the early examples of live-action/animation hybrid seems to have grown…

Ralph Bakshi: Yeah, all of the stuff that we tried so hard to accomplish ended up being copied by computers. CGI is a very sophisticated form of rotoscoping, which I was ridiculed for using in Lord of the Rings. That film couldn’t have been made in any other way, and it still holds up pretty well.

But I had fun with the animators on Cool World, because I love animators, and I am an animator. That’s always a good sign. And because no one at Paramount knew what we were doing, because they weren’t animators. They couldn’t tell us what to do, because they didn’t know how to do it. And even if they told me, I did it my own way anyway. [laughs] They didn’t know what the hell was going on.

What do you recall about the complexity involved in merging animation and live-action?

Ralph Bakshi: Well, we had a budget that was modest for its day, and for what I was trying to do. So it felt like something of a breakthrough when we painted normal backgrounds on a desk, and then blew them up and pasted them on plywood sets that actors could walk around in. It was an amazing breakthrough because of the cost; I couldn’t afford to build real sets. So the idea of blowing them up to create all the buildings really worked, because it allowed me to proceed to shoot the film, without having to matte all the backgrounds in, which I couldn’t afford either.

A background painting from "Cool World. (© Bakshi Productions, Inc.)
A background painting from “Cool World. (© Bakshi Productions, Inc.)

I really enjoyed that part, and I’ve often thought about it. That simple process afforded me a certain degree of control, and helped me complete the production. I wasn’t sure it would work after we built the first one. My mouth dropped open, because suddenly there it was. The cameramen would light the backgrounds in a certain way, and it would have depth to it.

I enjoyed that a lot, especially while working with the guys from CalArts, because it was all new to them, and I could watch them grow. The hand-inking and coloring, especially on Holli Would, was superb. I enjoyed being able to at least get the quality I wanted on the cel animation, which I hadn’t been able to do on my earlier films, because of money. I have a lot of those cels at home, and when I look at them, I’m really quite pleased with their quality.

But the casting was so off-base for what I wanted. I think Kim Basinger is a great actress, but she wasn’t the kind of girl that Tex Avery had. Again, all very good actors, but some were not believable for the film. And the scene with Frank Sinatra, Jr. didn’t sit too well with me, because I originally wrote it for a dirty western bar.

Kim Basinger in "Cool World."
Kim Basinger in “Cool World.”

The extras that were in the film were all cleaned up, and I didn’t understand how that was possible, that Paramount didn’t see the righteousness of my ways. [laughs] You know, that’s a hard blow. How do they do that to a guy who made Fritz the Cat, Coonskin, and Heavy Traffic? Why did they hire me? But I had a good time, and I’m very happy with it now.

Frank Mancuso, Jr. — son of Frank Mancuso, who ran the [Paramount] studio — was disliked at the studio before I even showed up. I’m not saying they were right or wrong, but everywhere I went, they disliked the boss’ son — maybe because he was the boss’ son. That may have been reason enough. Mancuso Jr. got fired a couple of months before the film was finished; they went after him with a sledgehammer, and the distribution on the film was destroyed. But every time I turn around, I get those kinds of breaks. That’s what bothered me in the early days, the horror of it all, but now I’m glad I worked on it.

It fits within the continuity of struggle you’ve had making films throughout your career.

Ralph Bakshi: It’s interesting, and I’m not bragging, but there was a beautiful vinyl soundtrack recently released for Wizards, and the film is screening in Portland. They’re screening Heavy Traffic in New York next month, and Fritz the Cat is screening in Los Angeles soon. My pictures have not stopped playing, and these are low-budget films. My mouth drops open. Now, I have all these kids who have just discovered my films calling me, and they all think I’m dead! [laughs]

Cool World was your last feature. Any thoughts on another?

Ralph Bakshi: I don’t want to direct another feature; I can’t. Although, I have just written a musical, and I’d also love to drop off some ideas at animation companies, maybe work as a mentor for young animators. Because I do miss the animation studio, although I hear things are not the way they used to be, so I may be in for a shock when I show up.

But I do have some ideas to pass onto the studios. I miss hanging around with animators; it’s rare for me to talk to anyone in the animation business, because everyone I knew there has died. I’m the last man standing.

Recent paintings by Ralph Bakshi, above and below, show new directions that he is exploring as a fine artist.
Recent paintings by Ralph Bakshi, above and below, show new directions that he is exploring as a fine artist.

I listed all of the animators who worked for me, who I loved very much, at the end of The Last Days of Coney Island, as an homage. Every one of those guys is gone. Some of the greatest animators to walk the Earth, who worked on shorts for Warner Bros., Disney, and MGM, are all gone, and I’m not sure some of these new kids know who they were.

It’s a pretty rough road. I loved them very much, and they were so professional. The work they did with no money and no pencil tests, which is how all those early films were done, is unbelievable. And they wanted to do it; they went right to camera without pencil tests. But look at their work! What they did is so much a part of what is still playing out there. It’s amazing. They were brilliant short animators: Virgil Ross, Bob Carlson, Manny Perez, and more. My films would be shunned today if these guys didn’t animate them. Whatever luck I’ve had in this business has to do with my animators.

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  • rainkaimaramon

    I would rather have a hundred cool worlds then one more marvel/dc/superhero film.

    Yeah I love this movie.

  • Anonymous

    I finally realized why we are celebrating the anniversaries of these movies, albums and whatever. It’s because everything today is really crappy.

    • Blue Folio

      Says everyone who was a teenager in a different time. In twenty years, people will be screaming how “movies of today aren’t as good as The Hunger Games!”

    • Pinkie-Dawn

      That’s because you haven’t dug enough to search for the good movies, albums and whatever.

  • skent

    I like Bakshi’s style in these drawings. I thought they might’ve turned into what some would disparagingly call ‘old man drawings’, but there’s the same raw vitality that shines through all his work. It’s never been the most concise, coherent vision, but never boring; always bursting with a mess of interesting ideas.

    I recently stumbled upon what must be one of Bakshi’s most impressive cartoons by far. Malcolm and Melvin, which is about the most existential 8 minute cartoon I’ve ever seen. Full of all the anxieties and despair of the modern world, where a person can be a nothing, at constant risk of ridicule, can be dehumanized into a pervert sex fiend, where art can make the difference between life and death, and the constant struggles to connect, to find love, to perform sexually, to be a somebody. Through it all, the innocence of the clueless child walking around in a man’s body, a gentle nature at the mercy of instincts and desires, longings and fears.

    I’d like to see Bakshi’s tv work get remastered and released on bluray as some of his feature films have been. We’ve been watching these in bootlegs and VHSrips for long enough.

  • Scott Malkinson

    The original concept of the film with the murderous cartoon-human cross-breed sounded interesting and felt like something in the vein of the early issues of The Mask or the Pink Rabbit stories from Dylan Dog. Shame it was dropped. The final product was lackluster, but it still has several entertaining parts.

  • Marc Hendry

    I love Bakshi’s gushing about the animators. In what way is Cool World am “early example of live action/animation hybrid”? The live action/animation mix in “You ought to be in pictures” from 1940 works better than some of the stuff in Cool World, IMO

  • Bea

    I can remember when I feel in love with Bakshi’s work, I had seen it before but then I was just a little and didn’t even care to remember the names of animators and directors. But I had a vhs that had a trailer for American Pop and I was intrigued, then weeks later I hunted through my tapes just to see that trailer again. I replayed it over and over again until it became warped because I was in awe of this animation.

    Then I realized that we actually had Wizards somewhere in our massive collection of VHS tapes. Yeah I watched it and was mesmerized and horrified at the same time. There was something about it, like there was this blend of smooth and jagged, and raw. I loved it. Couldn’t wait until I was old enough to watch the more mature ones.

    Which reminds me is Spicy City going to be on DVD anytime soon?

    It’s then that I started to pay attention to the names and appreciate their work and style. Still working on my collection though.

    • Inkan1969

      I saw “Wizards” when it was recently on TV. Now there’s no way around the awful reuse of out-of-context live action footage; that makes the movie hopeless overall. But in the animated sequences, I could still see Bakshi’s unique pacing and his sense of humor, the same sensibilities I saw in “Fritz the Cat”. For that at least, “Wizards” is worth watching.

      • Bea

        I wasn’t overly impressed with Fritz which is weird because that had always been like some sort of mythical beast of movies for me. Everyone always talked about it but didn’t say much, at most summed it up as a cat who did bad things (from adults to the me who was a kid at the time). By the time I got around to watching it the Fritz the Cat in my head had been built up too high, my expectations were greater than what the film was. I don’t hate it but I don’t like it either, just mildly disappointed.

  • StephaneDumas

    We should also mention Bakshi’s work with the assistance of John K in the Rolling Stones clip “Harlem Shuffle”.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nAkMTu6q2pY

    And also his work in season 2 and 3 of the 1967-70 Spider-man cartoon. We could wonder what if Bakshi got an higher budget for the psychedelic seasons of Spidey, how much further he could had done using Spidey and the rogue gallery of Marvel’s villains like Green Goblin, Electro instead of green skin bad guys like the Sky Master, Master Technician rechrestined later as Dr. Atlantean and Radiation Specialist? Althought I have a guilty pleasure to enjoy the recycling the use of 2 villains from the cartoon Rocket Robin Hood, Dr. Manta and Infinita going against Spidey and Mysterio being green skinned even if Spidey still refers him as “Bowlhead”. ^_^;;
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nNYAi-2q3ts

  • Tony

    The best parts of Cool World are peripheral, all the side characters and background gags outside the main storyline, which was convoluted almost to the point of incomprehensibility. The world of Cool World is indeed cool; too bad it’s wasted on a bad screenplay.
    That’s the thing about great artists like Bakshi. Even their misfires are intriguing and have something to offer. A Bakshi cartoon looks and feels like no one else’s. Even his general-audiences works (Mighty Mouse the New Adventures, Tattertown, The Butter Battle Book) are more intriguing conceptually and visually than the average commercial cartoon.
    How refreshing for Bakshi to be introspective when he would have every reason to be bitter. And it’s great that he gives credit to the animators that worked for him. That’s class.

  • Jack Rabbit

    I hope he keeps producing footage, but not just straight-ahead animation. His work is so urban, I hunger for it. Get yourself a good assistant Ralph. Somebodies got to be worthy of following you up.

  • Cameron Ward

    There is definitely a style and personality to Cool World that is definitely and undeniably his. If Paramount didn’t screw it over, there could have been a real unique movie. Unfortunately, with the meddling and so on, the film is a giant mess. It’s a shame Bakshi couldn’t stand up to them more back then, but I’m glad there are things to admire about the movie.

    It’s still not a good movie, but considering what happened, even with the shenanigans, it’s hard to be truly angry at it.

  • warnwood

    Hard to believe that Cool World was twenty-five years ago. That movie was my own private “Moby Dick”, in which the captain was mad, the voyage was doomed, the final product a disaster, and yet it was the most fun I ever had in the animation business. Go figure. Thanks for the memories, Ralph.