So once again we have survived.

Cool World

a survey of summer movies that just didn’t catch on

July 10, 1992

In the early ’90s, American animation was on the rise. WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT, THE LITTLE MERMAID and BEAUTY AND THE BEAST had birthed a new golden age for Disney. Other studios tried to ride their coattails with movies like ROCK-A-DOODLE, THE PRINCESS AND THE GOBLIN and ROVER DANGERFIELD. On TV, the massive phenomenon of The Simpsons had everybody else scrambling to put a cartoon in prime time even if all they could come up with was The Jackie Bison Show, Hollywood Dog or Fish Police.

But even amid this gold rush I don’t think anybody expected a new movie by Ralph Bakshi, the iconoclastic animation rebel best known for the x-rated FRITZ THE CAT. Having started in Heckle & Jeckle cartoons, he founded a studio to do Rocket Robin Hood and Spider-man episodes, then forged a completely new path with personal, idiosyncratic, adults-only features like FRITZ, HEAVY TRAFFIC, COONSKIN (a controversial blaxploitation riff on SONG OF THE SOUTH) and HEY GOOD LOOKIN’. He also had a fantasy period with WIZARDS, the abbreviated LORD OF THE RINGS and the Frank Frazetta collaboration FIRE AND ICE, which had been his last feature way back in 1983. Several years back he’d made a small mark in television with an influential Mighty Mouse update, but that’s about it. He was as unlikely a candidate as any to direct a major summer release starring Kim Basinger.

COOL WORLD is a live-action/animation combo clearly inspired by WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT, but ugly and suggestive enough to get a PG-13 and be marketed as edgy adult animation. Like the earlier, good movie, it brings live action actors from the real world into an animated world where they talk to cartoon characters.

Watching it now, the question of how the hell it got made is even more of a puzzler than it was back then. I seem to remember enjoying it at some point but jesus, is it hard to get through now. I have some pretty dodgy movies planned for this series, but I will be very surprised if this isn’t the worst one. The plot literally couldn’t fill a cocktail napkin, even writing with a fat marker. Most of the scenes do not seem to have been written or storyboarded in advance. The animation, except for Basinger’s character Holli Would, is not up to previous Bakshi standards, and many of her scenes just keep recycling the same rotoscoped loop of her doing a sexy dance.

The half-assed dirty-Roger-Rabbit world it takes place in doesn’t seem to be thought out at all. Instead of “toons” they call the cartoon people “doodles,” and that’s all this is: a random jumble of sexy girls, cigar chomping animals and twisted architecture that Bakshi liked to draw, barely linked together by story. There are constantly little guys running around in the foreground hitting each other with axes and shit, like the cartoons in the margins of Mad Magazine, except never funny. They don’t seem like they’re necessarily planned for the specific scenes or shots they appear in – they’re just slapped in the foreground wherever. The more things moving around the more production value, I guess.

Even worse are the pencil sketches of heads and things that keep floating by. It doesn’t even look cool at all.

In the cartoon hellscape called Cool World there are two of these noids. Brad Pitt (after THELMA & LOUISE but before A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT) plays Frank Harris, a detective for the Cool Police or whatever. Gabriel Byrne (THE KEEP) plays Jack Deebs, an ex-con famous for creating “Cool World” as a comic book while he was in prison. Both get warped here in unrelated, first draft type of ways. In a prologue, Frank returns from WWII, takes his mom for a ride on a motorcycle (?) and crashes. You think he’s going to die and Cool World will be the afterlife, but no… she dies. I don’t think the accident or death have anything to do with anything, but coincidentally at the same time a cartoon guy in Cool World is doing some kind of cartoon thing.

It doesn’t make any more sense when barely explained an hour later, but it zaps Frank into Cool World for some reason, and he decides to stay there living agelessly as a detective.

Then in 1992 Jack, who we have seen talking lustily while drawing Holli (“Oh yeah you look good tonight baby”), gets out of prison and then her hands come out of his drawing pad and pull him in and he’s excited to meet his characters.

There’s an evil baby named Nails, I guess because of Baby Herman. There’s a cigar smoking bug who is Frank’s partner. Bakshi likes to draw sketchy street people in a ’30s and ’40s cartoon style: funny animals, rubber hose limbs, white gloves, bowler hats, bow ties, pencil mustaches, zoot suits. He follows archetypes of tough guys and femme fatales from the stuff he grew up on, but the studio or somebody decided this retro world could be sold to the youths of the Lollapalooza era by throwing on some Ministry and some My Life With the Thrill Kill Kult. They also got David Bowie to record a song called “A Real Cool World,” which critics, biographers and Bowie himself often said was by far the most important work he ever had anything to do with and the key to understanding him because before he was a man, an artist, a father or a citizen, he was a COOL WORLD fan. Favorite movie of all time way better than the stupid man who fell to earth [citation needed].

Frank is obviously supposed to be a hard boiled noir type detective, and here’s the mystery he has to solve: will Holli fuck Jack? Apparently that’s super dangerous for cartoons to fuck real people, and preventing it is his #1 mission in life and primary activity every day as far as we are shown. He personally withstands seduction attempts by Holli as well as his girlfriend Lonette (Candi Milo), but also refuses to go back to the uncool world where he could safely get it on. I guess he’s sacrificing his sexuality, like a priest.

Holli, I have to say, is not what you would call a strong female character. In addition to the dancing one of her main achievements is graphic bed writhing, and she’s stupidly worshipful of Marilyn Monroe. In fact she gets to kill two birds with one stone, talking up her passion and making a suggestion by bragging that she’s wearing “an exact replica of the dress Marilyn Monroe wore in LET’S MAKE LOVE.”

When they do make love it’s a weird scene that seems like it’s supposed to be hot but also keeps cutting to other cartoon characters building a tower of junk to try to peep into the window. And please note that it is very sad to picture poor Gabriel Byrne laying on the bed by himself moaning.

I mean, Pitt was still working his way up the ladder, but Byrne had already starred in MILLER’S CROSSING, he shouldn’t have to play a role as pathetic as a dude who who’s horny for his own drawing. That’s humiliating!

Anyway, the forbidden sex turns cartoon Holli into live action Kim Basinger, who drags Jack back to his home town of live action Las Vegas and embarrasses him by being a weirdo. It’s like horny ENCHANTED. Then they start turning into cartoons and they have to find “The Needle of Power” on top of one of the casinos to get Cool again and I’m still not sure why Frank cared if cartoons and lives had sex just because Holli would turn real. Maybe he knew it sucks to go see an animated movie that saves money by not having any animation for long stretches.

The climax probly has the best animation, but makes as little sense as the rest of the movie. Jack for some reason becomes an animated parody super hero guy, and Holli kicks him in the nuts. Then various Vegas gamblers turn into cartoons and bounce around and there’s slime and stuff. Frank dies and everyone’s sad until they suddenly reveal that there’s a rule everybody knows that if a doodle kills a noid they come back to life as a doodle.

Bakshi had great designers and animators working on this, like Irv Spence (a veteran going back to the ’30s) and even Bill Melendez, genius director of the Peanuts specials. The most distinctive visuals are the apocalyptic background paintings, webs of warped, often half-destroyed buildings with menacing faces and neon lights.

Something about it remind me of the cover of Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde, but that was by a graffiti artist called Slick. This is the work of concept artist Barry Jackson, later a character designer for NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS. He also painted some movie posters you’ll recognize, including this one:

Unfortunately these talents are put into a slapdash production that feels not so much low budget as just cheap. A major aspect of Bakshi’s career had been inventing economical short cuts that tended to piss people off. The controversial rotoscoped (traced over live action) scenes of LORD OF THE RINGS and later AMERICAN POP started as a creative solution to a disastrous production, but that didn’t stop many people from hating it. For his poor man’s ROGER RABBIT here he saved money by filming the actors in front of giant blow ups of the painted backgrounds rather than compositing them. So you can tell they’re walking in front of flat cardboard cutouts. They’re noticeably pantomiming holding objects that are drawn in later (no fancy puppetry to help them out) and they seem to have a hard time looking their invisible co-stars in the eye.

This one is also padded with a minute and a half opening credits sequence over black. Before you’ve even seen a frame of footage you’ve already figured out how hard they were stretching to turn in something that would technically qualify as a completed film.

All this could be admirable if it was used in service of a strong story, but they were making shit up as they went along. According to the coffee table book Unfiltered: The Complete Ralph Bakshi by Jon M. Gibson & Chris McDonnell, Bakshi was originally hired to do “the first animated horror picture ever,” a “part CHILD’S PLAY, part Tex Avery” hybrid about a half cartoon baby coming to the real world to murder the live action father who abandoned him.

But producer Frank Mancuso Jr. (of the FRIDAY THE 13TH sequels) had Michael Grais & Mark Victor (DEATH HUNT, POLTERGEIST, MARKED FOR DEATH) secretly rewrite the script, and surprised Bakshi with it while he was already building the sets. That explains why the storytelling is even more unclear and unfocused than Bakshi’s haziest ’70s work. The book quotes storyboard artist Conrad Vernon (later the director of SAUSAGE PARTY) confirming that “We never knew what we were drawing, because no one ever read a script… Ralph would say, ‘Do a scene that’s funny, whatever you want to do!'”

It’s kinda funny that in both the original idea and the eventual one the main gimmick is about combining live action and animation – the thing they were least equipped to pull off. Maybe they should’ve just thought of an idea for a cartoon.

(Another sort-of-fringe animation director, Henry Selick, suffered a similarly disastrous mission-creep on his movie MONKEYBONE. Animation directors working on live action hybrids: keep track of what your movie is about!)

Stills of COOL WORLD always look layered like Viewmaster slides

The 1992 summer box office was dominated by LETHAL WEAPON 3, BATMAN RETURNS and SISTER ACT. It was also the summer of ALIEN 3, PATRIOT GAMES, RAISING CAIN, UNFORGIVEN (a best picture winner released in August!) and RAPID FIRE.

It’s a good thing they didn’t try to foist a ton of COOL WORLD merchandise on the world, or there would still be Sparks and Bash dolls collecting dust in arcade claw machines today. But they did have some video games, a prequel comic book series and of course the soundtrack album.

They made a serious attempt at advertising. Paramount paid to temporarily add a 75-foot-tall cutout of Holli to the famous Hollywood sign. Pissed off neighbors tried to obtain a temporary restraining order and hung up signs saying” Stop the Hollywood Sign Prostitution.”

Like those neighbors, but unlike me at the time, the world was pretty cool on COOL WORLD. On its opening weekend it made less money than A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN, UNIVERSAL SOLDIER, BOOMERANG, BATMAN RETURNS and SISTER ACT (and only UNIVERSAL SOLDIER was new that week). It eventually made back about half of its budget. Today it has a 4% on Rotten Tomatoes, which is pretty fair, actually.

It would be hard to argue that this was a breakout role for Pitt, but Bakshi claims to have shared the dailies with Robert Redford to help him get the part in A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT. So maybe it had an effect? I don’t know.

While researching this I came across some slightly unsettling COOL WORLD fan art, and that got me thinking. I wouldn’t say it’s an influential movie, but it might be accidentally ahead of its time if you think about the way the internet has led to subcultures of people who openly fantasize about sex with cartoon animes and ponies and shit. They sell anime sex pillows and even have a word, which I will not repeat, for your cartoon girlfriend. Of course this is not an entirely new phenomenon, and I believe I have already confessed to childhood feelings I didn’t understand about Penelope Pitstop. (That’s just between you and me.) WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT obviously fetishized the toon torch singer Jessica Rabbit, which surely warped infinitely more kids than COOL WORLD could’ve. But Bakshi did come right out and make it literal: a guy wants to fuck a cartoon. That’s pretty much the entire movie.

Of course the movie is very puritanical about doodle-noid relationships, and ends with Holli hating Jack and calling him “pencil dick.” But that’s not gonna stop anybody.

Bakshi hasn’t done another feature since. He did a few live action TV movies, an adult cartoon called SPICY CITY and a couple other shorts. I think he’s more into painting these days.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Monday, June 5th, 2017 at 11:21 am and is filed under Cartoons and Shit, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

27 Responses to “Cool World”

  1. Oh shit, I haven’t thought about ‘Cool World’ in like decades.

  2. I tried watching Fire and Ice recently and it’s completely unwatchable.

  3. I always kinda root for Bakshi, because I appreciate his moxie even if he never seems to have quite nailed what he was shooting for. But you’re right, this one’s a total mess, even if it’s not entirely Bakshi’s fault. Maybe he and Henry Selick ought to pool their resources and a do a mixed stop-motion/hand animation MONKEYWORLD where they can actually call the shots and get closure.

  4. Even as a kid, I recognized this as kind of a sad and desperate attempt at getting some of that Who Framed Roger Rabbit? money.

  5. I concur with Mr. S on Bakshi. I think it’s arguable that none of his films are good (though I will go to bat for a few) but dammit he tries and the fact that he got ANY of his movies made at all I think should earn a special badass auteur badge or something.

    I’ve always been really interested in the original horror version of COOL WORLD. No real plot synopsis or script has ever popped up. Bakshi has never really said much on it other than same information that Vern mentions. The only online evidence for us to see are these storyboards that were posted online:

    Story: Louise Zingarelli's Cool World Storyboards - AnimationResources.org - Serving the Online Animation Community

    Provides resources for self-study for animation professionals, students, educators and researchers.

    What Vern doesn’t mention is Bassinger’s hand in derailing the thing. Sure Mancuso deserves the lion share and FRIDAY THE 13TH fans I think should maybe be a little sympathetic. He was trying to show he wasn’t just the Paramount horror guy and just got through killing Jason for good (at Paramount) and then he was assigned to a cartoon horror movie to cash-in on ROGER RABBIT. Still fuck him for completely changing the script behind Bakshi’s back. Anyways, Bassinger helped because she signed on to COOL WORLD because it was a cartoon and post-BATMAN she was really into visiting children’s hospitals so she wanted to do a kids movie. So she signed on and tried to get them to turn it into a kid’s movie apparently and changing it from R to PG-13 was to appease her (while attempting to keep what the movie was about). I’m not sure I can name another PG movie that so desperately wants to be an R-Rated movie and that’s including PG-movies that were cut down from an R.

    Even though this movie is border-line unwatchable it naturally has a cult following of people from my generation who insist it is good because they saw it when they were 8 or some shit.

    Sternshein: You are right, FIRE & ICE is pretty bad. I mean I’m glad it has it’s little cult following but other than Frank Frazetta’s design work the movie has nothing else to other (unless you stroke it to cartoons in which it has two things to offer potential viewers).

  6. Bakshi has always been hit or miss, sometimes even in the same movie, but this one here is definitely his biggest miss. I have no idea how COOL WORLD ever made it into theatres. And even weirder is that it’s mostly forgotten these days! I mean, SUPER MARIO BROS, HOWARD THE DUCK or WILD WILD WEST (which I all like btw), are still used as “worst film ever” punchlines, but COOL WORLD totally totally out-WTFs all of these movies on a never seen level of incompetence in an actual Hollywood Studio movie!

    The biggest headscratcher of the movie was a scene, where Brad Pitt walked through a soundstage that had street lights, which were painted in a forced perspective or something. Don’t know exactly what the reason for it was, but obviously to make them look like real street lights, you had to position your camera at a certain point. Only that Bakshi didn’t give a fuck to do that and so we have a scene with street lights, that are painted in a weird angle on the ground and a wall.

  7. One Guy from Andromeda

    June 5th, 2017 at 1:59 pm

    Never got through this. As far as i know Bakshi is working on a movie version of his 80s video game “Dragon’s Lair” now.

  8. What a fascinating movie. I don’t know what the general awareness of Cool World was in 1992, but as a guy who went to the movies every week and saw trailers, my friend and j couldn’t wait to see it.

    I don’t think we were disappointed either. The strangest thing was how the trailer made it seem like Cool World was Byrne’s creation but in the movie it always existed and I guess they gave him the inspiration to draw them.

    I think I also picked up a theme where the reason Frank stays in Cool World is that the real world is pain and Cool World is pleasure. That’s why Frank screams when he has to go back. Certainly an idea 14-year-old Fred related to but not sure there’s actually anything to that as an adult. Weirdo drawings who don’t fuck don’t sound like much fun. I’ll take Trump’s America where there’s still a possibility I can catch a break.

    I had a Cool World video game for my computer but it didn’t look like that. I think it was Frank running around Cool World punching and kicking like Double Dragon.

    Excellent find with the Hollywood sign pic.

    One Guy, isn’t Dragon’s Lair Don Bluth? Or was Bakshi also involved?

  9. I watched this on video cause I always enjoyed the aesthetic of Bakshi’s work. Like a more grown up Don Bluth approach. That and the trailer was nuts and back then I like every other kid thought Kim Basinger was hot as fuck. When I finally saw it though it bored me to tears. Tried rewatching it again a few times years later and I couldn’t finish it. One of those movies were the ideas trump the execution.

  10. david j. moore

    June 5th, 2017 at 3:34 pm

    I saw this theatrically as a preteen kid, and I always felt like I got away with something for doing so. Fun memory.

  11. Whoa, I literally just got done looking at discussion of COOL WORLD on The AV Club and click over and see this.

  12. A Kilmer goes for Blondes but a real rabbit prefers red.
    I still have some shady memories that i rented COOL WORLD back in the days as a double feature with the COOL WORLD Super Nintendo game (which played more like a pile of junk than an actual game..like 99% of those “moviebased direct to cartridge”-games did in the Nineties…but my former 9 year self loved every single one them. Now that i am thinking of it:
    Was there ever a Roger Rabbit Game for the SNes or Genesis-Generation?

  13. I know there was one for the regular Nintendo.

  14. “and even have a word, which I will not repeat, for your cartoon girlfriend.”

    WAIFU! WAIFU! THE WORD IS WAIFU! HAHAHAHAHAHA!

    Also, Barry Jackson did one of the greatest video game covers of all time, the one for the original Wasteland. https://pbs.twimg.com/media/C59DO3vXQAE5lW1.jpg

  15. Hey, Free Dummy

    June 5th, 2017 at 8:52 pm

    A few months back on the Doughboys podcast they started talking about the Cool World SNES game. They looked up the gameplay description on Wikipedia and it sounds more like an incomprehensible fever dream than a video game plot. I’m only just now noticing that even more bizarrely, you play as Jack, not Frank. Sorry, I gotta share this:

    “The player controls Jack, who must avoid being surrounded by the Popper Police, a cartoon police force, or get arrested. Depending on how many times the player has broken the law and whether he has collected the in-game currency of nickels or not, the player will either get a lecture by Detective Frank Harris and/or be forced to pay bail money. Ten coins is the usual bail required by Detective Harris. Players can visit Las Vegas to increase their nickel stash and store their coins at the Cool World bank.

    Other in-game locales include a pawn shop that allows items to be traded or bought with nickels in addition to the Slash Club where the player arranges a date with Holli Would. At Holli Would’s house, the player must navigate the exterior of the house in order to reach the date with Holli. If the player did not arrange a date with Holli before reaching the top, Jack is tossed back to the ground level. In the malt shop, candy can be found in addition to other sweets. However, entry is restricted to players who have collected several pieces of candy.”

    lol wut

  16. There was a ROGER RABBIT game for the Game Boy and it was seriously good.

  17. Fritz the Cat hit a sweet spot at that particular time. Cool World was more a rip-off, jump-on-the-bandwagon mess that tried to capitalize on the success of other animated/real world crossover movies. I don’t think Bakshi was ever really strong when it came to story. Fire and Ice (a personal fave) is less interesting than an episode of He-Man, and certainly less humorous. But it did feature fucking Darkwolf at least.

    Badass Hall of Fame: Darkwolf

    You could be forgiven for thinking a film called Fire and Ice would perhaps be something to do with George RR Martin’s Game of Thrones. But Fire and Ice, an animated movie directed by Ralph B…

  18. I do love the David Bowie theme song, but yeah i’m never gonna watch this.

  19. Another remarkable thing about the soundtrack btw, is that it’s the first time, that Moby can be heard in a movie. By that time he had with GO already a club- and in some parts of the world a charthit, but in 1992 he was still pretty underground-ish (especially in the US). He didn’t become a true household name until 1993 and didn’t fully break into the mainstream until 1999. He currently has 200 soundtrack credits on IMDb, but COOL WORLD will always be his first one.

  20. Cool World (1992) Official Trailer # 1 - Brad Pitt

    Subscribe to TRAILERS: http://bit.ly/sxaw6h Subscribe to COMING SOON: http://bit.ly/H2vZUn Subscribe to CLASSIC TRAILERS: http://bit.ly/1u43jDe Like us on FA...

    This a seriously terrible trailer.

  21. This is one of those movies where I loved the concept so much I barely paid any attention to the actual movie (also see: TRON). The movie that was playing in my head as I watched was more of a horror and didn’t involve the real world at all. So somehow I still feel an affection towards the movie even though I can’t remember anything that really took place it in.

  22. I will defend FIRE & ICE to my dying breath solely for the work of the great Frank Frazetta. But COOL WORLD was just…eh, I think Vern pretty much nailed it down. Bad, derivative movie with bad, cheap effects. The original idea sounds much better, and much more in Bakshi’s wheelhouse.

  23. I rented this with some pothead roommates back 20 years ago and am still mad. This movie is boring, stupid, and inane, but try telling that to a bunch of people who will laugh at anything.

    Actually, everything I have ever seen of Bakshi’s is about the same quality. Poor animation, a severe lack of perspective and motion and scene composition, terrible plotting… it is just crap. It’s as if you gave R Crumb a few million bucks and let him go wild. But probably not nearly as interesting.

  24. Wow, I haven’t seen this movie in almost 15-20 years, since catching it on HBO or Showtime and probably not even watching from start to finish in 1 go. The biggest thing that jumped out to me when I saw it, besides how awful it is, is that Brad Pitt must’ve gotten plastic surgery on his ears because they looked a lot different than in his more famous, later movies.

  25. Griff, I thought “waif-fu” was what they call it when a petite actress like Milla Jovovich is able to beat up onscreen bad guys twice her size…

    I’m not a huge Nostalgia Critic fan, but his episode on COOL WORLD may be of interest:

    Cool World - Nostalgia Critic

    Having sex with cartoons leads to all sorts of problems, a bad movie being one of them, but is there more to this film than it seems? Nostalgia Critic takes ...

    (and if the link doesn’t work then just look up “nostalgia critic cool world” because I am not reposting it)

    For the first 21 minutes it’s the kind of angry nerd sarcasm I think most of us here have had our fill of, with occasional interjections from a fake Ralph Bakshi played by a guy in a goofy beard. But then the fake Bakshi explains the original concept, and the Nostalgia Critic is impressed. By the end of the video the Nostalgia Critic is offering apparently sincere praise for Bakshi’s idiosyncrasy as an artist, and I think ends up finding more positive things to say about the movie than in Vern’s review.

    Vern, that image of Holli on the Hollywood sign – did that really happen? To deface (however temporarily) a world-famous landmark and symbol if the industry seems like a pretty confident push for a movie so half-assed and meddled with.

    Maybe what happens sometimes is that a minor film already in development gets an unlikely promotion by its studio in order to compete with a superficially-similar film (in this case WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT) that became a huge hit.

    Roger Ebert’s review is worth reading for the opening paragraph:

    Cool World Movie Review & Film Summary (1992) | Roger Ebert

    The DJ who was hosting the radio station's free preview of "Cool World" leaped onto the stage and promised the audience: "If you liked "Roger Rabbit," you'll love "Cool World'!" He was wrong, but you can't blame him - he hadn't seen the movie. I have, and I will now promise you that if you liked "Roger Rabbit," quit while you're ahead.

    “The DJ who was hosting the radio station’s free preview of “Cool World” leaped onto the stage and promised the audience: “If you liked “Roger Rabbit,” you’ll love “Cool World’!” He was wrong, but you can’t blame him – he hadn’t seen the movie. …”

  26. Now i realise that the guy was Brad Pitt and NOT Val Kilmer. :D

  27. WAIFU! WAIFU WAIFU WAIFU!!!!!!!!

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