The early ’90s was a phoenix-like ascent for animation, a time to rise from the grave of the ‘70s and ‘80s and flaunt the medium’s wares anew. Taking little time to clear its throat, a renewed Disney Animation huffed and puffed The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and the epochal The Lion King out into the world in a manner of years. In doing so, they blew down the house of their reputation as a failed, past-its-prime studio of has-beens. Meanwhile, Don Bluth, the rising star of the studio and its potential savior throughout the ‘70s, had jumped ship – firmly believing his clout was wasted on the irrelevant Disney old fogeys of the ‘70s – and by the late ‘80s, his own star was shining with works like An American Tale and The Land Before Time. Although both pillars of animation would struggle before the decade was out (Bluth faltering almost immediately upon the turn of the ‘90s), the landscape was hot for the moment, so hot that even animation’s famous bad boy (long dormant and lost in the fray) couldn’t miss out.
At his best raising a ruckus in the underground landscape of the mid-‘70s, Ralph Bakshi wasn’t exactly an easy fit for mainstream entertainment. His sharpest, most incisive works were unapologetic whack-jobs and frayed, savagely-howling expressions of social ennui and turmoil amidst the deadened, cynical ‘70s (his recent 2015 return to pure animation is an excoriating depiction of the frail, now-rotted Coney Island that makes the Warriors look like a church choir in comparison). His films are ugly and gloriously disreputable non-commentaries on a broken-down society that revel in grotesquerie rather than intelligent analysis, grotesquerie being Bakshi’s pride and joy, with common sense his prejudiced object to rebel against.
Again, though, it was in many ways the animation genre’s failing life force that afforded Bakshi the space to carve out his own sliver of genre dissonance in the first place, since no one was looking. With things looking up in the field in the late ‘80s, companies were keener on safeguarding the potential of their newest projects. So when Bakshi decided to gamble with the powers that be and pitch his long-gestating dream project, proposed as Who Framed Roger Rabbit? on a sugar craze and every drug it could find, things turned immediately disastrous as two deeply non-like-minded souls (Bakshi and producer Frank Mancuso Jr.) were forced into a deeply ambivalent, torrid bed together. Bakshi’ main wild man Brad Pitt stricken from his protagonist status and reduced to a side part in the film, replaced at the producers’ request by the prim and proper Gabriel Byrne, Bakshi watched as the flickers of his desire absconded to the realms of Hollywood hierarchy.
With almost Shakespearean irony, his attempt to return to the fold by showing the Hollywood mainstream just how nasty animation could be only placed him on a collision course with his mortal enemy: mainstream cinema. Ever the cranked-out malcontent, Bakshi was famously livid, but with deals done and opportunities clarified, he had seemingly no choice left but to slide into place and play the sycophant. Rather than stoking his film in the fires of mainstream money, he was to watch with little recourse as Hollywood’s warmth merely thawed his dreams out for him, and forced him to play along.
Play along he did, although not without his own form of clandestine hell-raising; by some accounts, he sabotaged the live-action portions of the film, but intent or not, they undoubtedly represent the most barren patch in his entire filmography. Gabriel Byrne, stranded in a role the film evidently hates, is left trapped in a prison cell writing about a demented comic book world – Cool World (hey that’s the name of the movie!) – that seems to come alive and ensnare him as Kim Basinger’s vamping animation vixen wishes to sex him up so she can … escape from the animated realm. Since it works like that, unless apparently puritanical live-action cop Brad Pitt can get in between them and protect the boundaries of human and animation and the demarcations of sanity.
The candy-coated remnants of the noir that Bakshi originally fantasized about were ripped to tatters when they were secretly rewritten by producer Frank Mancuso Jr.’s goons, resulting in a bizarre conflagration trapped in the liminal space between pornish adult force for terror and peevish, childish farce for good. With the non-animated bits a complete travesty of cinema, Bakshi’s heart was undeniably in the gutter and the animation realm, cranking cartoon devils out on the screen in a deviant childlike scrawl in stark disharmony with Disney’s then-respectable, renewed classical style. Bakshi, more of the Termite-Terrace crowd, strives instead for a slice of Max Fleischer-inspired sketch work, intentionally agitating and surreal in its refusal to fill-in its own lines and clarify its colors. Hardly indomitable, Bakshi at least comes alive in the trouble-making animation that reverberates with a squiggly ugliness that recalls his earlier days on the outskirts of the medium.
Unfortunately, Bakshi is plainly discomfited by the affair between live-action and animation he tentatively mangles every time the two realms must interact; hell, the practically Reaganite narrative is about the dangers of miscegenation, after all. Perhaps oddly, the film’s obvious disgrace at its narrative is, in a post-modernist way, representative of a certain self-hating, jaundiced anger at having been spit out by the animation realm. For the most part, rather than holy matrimony, Bakshi crosses the streams of live-action and animation, and not in a supple, fascinatingly devious way either; the film isn’t dissident enough to turn its discrepancies and failures into anything alchemical.
Mostly, it’s just alienating, and its occasionally joyous animation aside, the film is more exhausted than exultant. A younger Bakshi’s trickery knew no bounds, and his work here – which plainly requires either more life-affirming oxygen or life-destroying corrosive acid to function as anything – is too compromised to survive. It’s hard or damn near impossible to blame Bakshi for the film though; he certainly isn’t absolved of its errors, but the film rings out as a great victim of Hollywood circumstance. He lost his privileges once, and this glorious return to form that wasn’t ultimately buried his passion for animation, or his will to play the Hollywood game, almost as quickly as it was resurrected in the first place.