During production, Bakshi's original screenplay was scrapped by producer Frank Mancuso, Jr. and heavily rewritten by Michael Grais and Mark Victor in secret. Reviews praised the film's visuals, but criticized the story and characters, as well as the combination of live-action and animation, which some critics felt was unconvincing. The film would eventually gross only half its production budget.
In 1945 Las Vegas, World War II veteran Frank Harris returns from Italy with a motorcycle and reunites with his mother. However, Frank and his mother are struck in a traffic collision with a drunk driver while riding his motorcycle, resulting in the death of Frank's mother; Frank is transported to an animated realm named the "Cool World". Forty-seven years later, detained cartoonist Jack Deebs creates a comic strip named Cool World, which features the femme fatale Holli Would. Holli voices her desire to enter the real world, but is declined help from Frank, who is now a detective in the Cool World. After being released from prison, Jack is transported to the Cool World and is smuggled into a club by Holli. Frank becomes aware of Jack's presence in the Cool World and aggressively confronts him, informing him that Cool World has existed long before Jack created the comic series and warns him that "noids", humans from the real world, are not allowed to have sex with "doodles", the inhabitants of the Cool World. Holli brings Jack back into the Cool World and the two have sex, causing Holli to transform into a human.
While Frank attempts to mend his relationship with doodle Lonette, he temporarily leaves detective duties to his assistant Nails. Jack and Holli leave for the real world, causing damage to the interdimensional barrier between the real world and the Cool World. Frank discovers that Nails has been done away with and decides to venture into the real world to pursue Jack and Holli. While contemplating their situation, Holli tells Jack about the "Spike of Power", an artifact placed on the top of a Las Vegas casino by a doodle who crossed into the real world. When Jack displays skepticism about the idea, Holli abandons Jack to search for the spike on her own. When Frank pursues Holli on the casino, Holli kills him by kicking him off the building. Holli finds and takes the Spike of Power, transforming her and Jack into doodles and releasing numerous monstrous doodles into the real world. Fighting off an increasing number of doodles as a superhero doodle, Jack returns the Spike of Power to its place, trapping him, Holli and the rest of the doodles in Cool World. Since Frank was killed by Holli while she was in doodle form, he is reborn in Cool World as a doodle, allowing him to pursue his relationship with Lonette.Gabriel Byrne as Jack Deebs, the cartoonist seemingly responsible for the creation of Cool World.
Brad Pitt as Detective Frank Harris, a detective for the Cool World Police Department who is bent on catching Holli. Brad Pitt also provides Frank's voice in doodle form.
Deirdre O'Connell as Isabelle Malley
Frank Sinatra, Jr. as Himself
Michele Abrams as Jennifer Malley
Janni Brenn–Lowen as Agatha Rose Harris
Marilyn Monroe (archival footage)
Kim Basinger as Holli Would, a femme fatale doodle who wishes to be real in the real world. Basinger also portrays her in live action.
Charlie Adler as Nails, an anthropomorphic spider who serves as Frank's partner. He actually has four arms and two legs.
Joey Camen as Interrogator No. 1 / Slash / Holli's Door
Jenine Jennings as Craps Bunny
Michael Lally as Sparks
Maurice LaMarche as Interrogator No. 2 / Mash / Dr. Vincent "Vegas Vinnie" Whiskers / Super Jack Deebs
Nathaniel Luthor as Nash
Candi Milo as Lonette / Bob
Patrick Pinney as Chico the bouncer
Gregory Snegoff as Bash
In 1990, Ralph Bakshi decided that it was time to make another animated film. According to Bakshi, "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." Bakshi pitched Cool World to Paramount Pictures (where Bakshi had worked as the final head of the studio's animation division) as an animated horror film. The concept of the film involved a cartoon and live action human having sex and conceiving a hybrid child who visits the real world to murder the father who abandoned her. Bakshi states that Paramount Pictures "bought the idea in ten seconds".
As the sets were being built in Las Vegas, producer Frank Mancuso, Jr., son of Paramount president Frank Mancuso, Sr., had the screenplay rewritten in secret, and gave Bakshi a new screenplay by screenwriters Michael Grais and Mark Victor that "was barely the same". Larry Gross also contributed to the script, but his work would later go on to be uncredited. In interviews at the time of the film's release, Mancuso, Jr., who was best known for the Friday the 13th franchise, stated a desire to move away from horror films, and wanted to produce a film "about what happens when someone creates a world, becomes defined by it, and then can't escape [...] a film about being trapped by your own creation." Bakshi remembers that he got into a fight with Mancuso, Jr. and "punched [him] in the mouth." Paramount threatened Bakshi with a lawsuit if he refused to complete the film. "I thought if I did the animation well, it would be worth it, but you know what? It wasn't worth it." Bakshi also stated that 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." Bakshi had developed the film as a mix of comedy and horror that he described as "a hard R-rated story" but Paramount wanted a PG-13 film, one of the reasons for the doomed and angry relationship between filmmaker and studio.
Bakshi had originally intended to cast Drew Barrymore and Brad Pitt in the film's leading roles. Brad Pitt was cast as Frank Harris instead, with Gabriel Byrne as Deebs and Kim Basinger as Holli. The film's voice cast includes Maurice LaMarche and Charles Adler. According to Bakshi, Basinger had attempted to rewrite the film halfway into its production because she "thought it would be great [...] if she would be able to show this picture in hospitals to sick children [...] I said, 'Kim, I think that's wonderful, but you've got the wrong guy to do that with.' [...] [Mancuso] was sitting there with Kim [...] agreeing with her."
The visual design of the live-action footage was intended to look like "a living, walk-through painting", a visual concept Bakshi had long wanted to achieve. The film's sets were based upon enlargements of designer Barry Jackson's paintings. The animation was strongly influenced by Fleischer Studios (whose cartoons were released by Paramount) and Terrytoons (where Bakshi once worked, and whose Mighty Mouse character was also adapted into a series by Bakshi). The artwork by the character Jack Deebs was drawn by underground comix artist Spain Rodriguez. The film's animators were never given a screenplay, and were instead told by Bakshi to "Do a scene that's funny, whatever you want to do!"
A soundtrack album, Songs from the Cool World, featuring recordings by My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult, Moby, Ministry, The Future Sound of London, and others, was released in 1992 by Warner Bros. Records. It included the track "Real Cool World", a David Bowie song written for the film. The soundtrack received stronger reviews from critics than the film itself, including a four-star rating from Allmusic. Mark Isham's original score for Cool World, featuring a mixture of jazz, orchestral pieces, and electronic remixes, and performed by the Munich Symphony Orchestra, was released on compact disc by Varèse Sarabande, and in complete form in 2015 by Quartet. It also received positive reviews.
As part of the film's promotion, the Hollywood Sign was altered to include a 75-foot-tall cutout of Holli Would. The alteration angered local residents. In a letter to the city's Recreation and Park Board, commission officials wrote that they were "appalled" by the board's approval of the alterations and that "the action your board has taken is offensive to Los Angeles women and is not within your role as custodian and guardian of the Hollywood sign. The fact that Paramount Pictures donated a mere $27,000 to Rebuild L.A. should not be a passport to exploit women in Los Angeles." Protestors picketed the unveiling of the altered sign. The promotional campaign was focused on the sex appeal of Holli. It was considered by some experts as misaimed, with Paramount's marketing president Barry London saying "Cool World unfortunately did not seem to satisfy the younger audience it was aimed at," and designer Milton Knight recalling that "Audiences actually wanted a wilder, raunchier Cool World. The premiere audience I saw it with certainly did."
Several different licensed video games based on the film were created by Ocean Software. The first game was developed by Twilight and released in 1992 for the Amiga, Atari ST, Commodore 64 and DOS. Two different games were released in 1993 for the Nintendo Entertainment System and Super NES, alongside a Game Boy version of the former. A four-issue comic book prequel to the film was published as a miniseries by DC Comics. It featured a script by Michael Eury and art work by Stephen DeStefano, Chuck Fiala and Bill Wray.
Cool World opened at sixth on the North American box office, with $5.5 million. Its lifetime gross was $14.1 million, a little more than half its reported $28 million budget. The review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes collected a sample of 45 reviews and judged 4% of them to be positive. Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times wrote that Cool World "misses one opportunity after another", describing it as "a surprisingly incompetent film". Deseret News reviewer Chris Hicks described it as "a one-joke movie – and it's a dirty joke. [...] And much of what's going on here seems more angry and nasty than inspired or funny." Variety reviewer Brian Lowry compared the film to an extended music video, praising the soundtrack and visuals, but panning the story. Leonard Maltin described the film as "too serious to be fun [and] too goofy to take seriously", and the lead characters as "unlikable and unappealing". The Washington Post reviewer Hal Hinson wondered "whether Kim Basinger is more obnoxious as a cartoon or as a real person," and felt that the combination of animation and live action was unconvincing. Contributing to the low box office was the fact the studio withdrew all advertising support after the opening weekend.
In 1997, John Grant wrote in The Encyclopedia of Fantasy that Cool World "stands as one of the fantastic cinema's most significant achievements, an instauration fantasy that reveals greater depths with each viewing." Animation historian Jerry Beck described the film as being "for adults and Bakshi completists only," writing that the film "has a great premise, a great cast, and the best animation he's ever been involved with," but critiquing it as a "pointless rehash of many of Ralph's favorite themes, and the story literally goes nowhere." The film garnered a Razzie Award nomination for Worst Actress (Kim Basinger; also for Final Analysis).