How to Frame a Cartoon Rabbit

We'll miss you, Bob Hoskins. (1942-2014)

We’ll miss you, Bob Hoskins. (1942-2014)

Roger ruins another take. The physics of how one would actually film cartoon mayhem is an astounding mystery.

Roger ruins another take. The physics of how one would actually film cartoon mayhem is an astounding mystery.

Does anybody remember back to a time when Robert Zemeckis was making fun movies? Forget his most recent motion-capture fixation (Polar Express, Beowulf, and A Christmas Carol never happened). Now there is only the Back to the Future (1985, 1989, 1990) and Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988). Feels better, don’t it?

Yes, I know. Back to the Future is amazing and Forrest Gump (1994), Death Becomes Her (1992), and Romancing the Stone (1984) were pretty fun, but Roger Rabbit always had a special place in my heart. It was a dark night in some distant relative’s house and I was maybe two or three years old. I was proffered two VHS tapes and was told I could pick the movie. I picked Roger Rabbit because of the funny cartoon on the cover. The other tape was Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990).

Charles Fleischer voices Roger Rabbit, 2 weasels, and Benny the cab.

Charles Fleischer voices Roger Rabbit, 2 weasels, and Benny the cab.

The film gave me nightmares for years. Something about the dark and subtly subversive tone and the real life consequences for cartoon hijinks and the “dip” and then the dude getting run over by the steamroller and his eyes bugging out. It was a frightening experience, but I still loved it (much like my memories of The Neverending Story). Today I appreciate it for its clever mix of film noir, cartoon tempo, and snippets of Los Angeles history. Then there’s the special effects. It’s actually amazing how well this movie holds up after over two decades.

Brought to you by "Yummy Cigs." So tasty, even a baby enjoys a puff.

Brought to you by “Yummy Cigs.” So tasty, even a baby enjoys a puff.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit is based on a novel by Gary K. Wolfe which was an innovative combo-tribute to Dashiell Hammett  and the funny pages. The book, Who Censored Roger Rabbit, is almost nothing like the film. The plot is barely comparable and most of the characters are either totally different or nonexistent. The book is a lot of fun though. It reads like a tough, gritty pulp novella with the added whimsy of some creative cartoon mayhem. It’s kind of like if Robert Clampbett rewrote Isaac Asimov’s Caves of Steel (instead of a hard-boiled detective with a prejudice against robots and stuck with one for an important case, it is cartoon characters he holds in contempt). Read the book, but don’t expect to find the movie in it. The film does, however, keep the spirit and feel of the book.

"Work's been kinda slow since cartoons went to color." Saddest line of the movie.

“Work’s been kinda slow since cartoons went to color.” Saddest line of the movie.

The plot of the movie was fairly straightforward. A washed-up detective, Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins), who used to specialize in ‘toon cases before his brother was killed by a ‘toon, scrounges for work in 1947 Hollywood as a private dick. He is hired by cartoon studio executive R. K. Maroon (Alan Tilvern) to spy on his star Roger Rabbit’s (voiced by Charles Fleischer) curvaceous wife, Jessica (voiced by Kathleen Turner). Valiant catches Jessica Rabbit having an extramarital affair—in the form of a clandestine game of patty-cake, but this is serious business for ‘toons—with an eccentric human, Marvin Acme (Stubby Kaye), the Gag King. Right after Roger Rabbit is shown the patty-cake pictures he has a tantrum and bolts out of the room, leaving a cute little Roger Rabbit shaped hole in the window. The next morning Marvin Acme turns up murdered (a safe dropped on his head) and Roger is the prime suspect, but when the rabbit shows up at Valiant’s apartment he pleads with the prejudiced flatfoot to take his case and clear his name before the sinister Judge Doom (Christopher Lloyd) and his weasel henchman put him to death with the dip (the only way to kill a ‘toon). The rest of the movie follows Valiant uncovering more clues and trying to keep Roger Rabbit out of trouble while also trying to get back with his former girlfriend, Dolores (Joanna Cassidy), and stay a step ahead of Judge Doom and the weasels.

Great Scott.

Great Scott.

The grisly plot of greed, sex, and murder—displayed in a fashion meant to evoke Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, I think—is interesting enough, but the film has more tricks plugged into it. The film’s plot interestingly involves the semi-fictional origins of the real Cloverleaf freeway systems and the death of Southern California’s Red Car trolley line. Another element is the idea of cartoon characters being struggling actors and an oppressed minority in old Hollywood. There’s some serious history and allegory floating in the ether.

It's not all raindrops and marshmallows in the tooniverse.

It’s not all raindrops and marshmallows in the tooniverse.

One of the things that really helps the film’s reality is the inclusion of cartoon characters from several different studios. Disney, Warner Brothers (Mel Blanc reprising most of his roles), MGM, Max Fleischer, and other animation companies all get in on the act. Betty Boop recalls the glory days before cartoons went to color; Donald and Daffy Duck perform a vaudeville piano act together; Droopy Dog operates a Toon Town elevator; the penguins from Mary Poppins apparently are still waiting tables at the Ink and Paint Club; Dumbo and the brooms from Fantasia are on loan and wander around Maroon Cartoon studios backlot; Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny go parachuting together; Porky Pig and Tinkerbell playfully fight for the last word; the cast of 1932′s Flowers and Trees make appearances, and the cartoon cameos are stacked so high in some scenes its impossible to restrain a cartoon buff’s wide-eyed delight.

Sorry, no Hanna-Barbera.

Sorry, no Hanna-Barbera.

The story has a pleasant film noir type arc. The more Eddie Valiant uncovers the darker the situation becomes. At one point Valiant has to chase a fleeing suspect deep into the chaotic bowels of Toon Town and conquer his fears and face truly hilarious and crazy obstacles. Most of the humor comes from comic irony and the unbalanced laws that govern the ‘toon world and how they conflict with the physics of the human world. It all culminates in a very satisfying conclusion with an ultimate showdown between Valiant and the forces of evil. Very dark, very suspenseful, very funny, very innovative, and very visually pleasing.

Dennis Hopper? Is that you?

Dennis Hopper? Is that you?

Alan Sylvestri’s score combines zany animated antics with sexy 1940s noir bite. The animation is absolutely superb. Bob Hoskins (Mona Lisa, Hook) and Christopher Lloyd (Back to the Future, Once Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) are great to watch and necessarily play their parts totally straight—which is why the cartoon comedy works so well. The period setting not only gets to show off classic cars and old timey wardrobe, but it also casts a thick shadow of history over the fantasy. It feels almost like Middle-earth. This could have been a time that really existed. Maybe our grandparents remember cartoon character walking around the neighborhood. As a kid I believed it, which maybe made the film even darker. What happened to to all the cartoons today?

"I'm not bad. I'm just drawn that way."

“I’m not bad. I’m just drawn that way.”

Zemeckis’s Back to the Future gets a lot of credit for its fun use of comedy, suspense, and time-travel paradoxes (and it’s a great series, true enough), but with my cartoon bent and fondness for old Hollywood and detective stories I can’t help but be slightly biased toward Roger Rabbit. Who Framed Roger Rabbit is remembered as an enormous critical and box office success and for its incredible mixture of live-action and animated characters. Indeed, Roger Rabbit has never been equaled in this category. The integration is seamless and constantly surprising and impressive.

Toontown is like an LSD fever-dream.

Toontown is like an LSD fever-dream.

Anchors Aweigh (1945), Mary Poppins (1964), Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971), Pete’s Dragon (1977), and other features made some great efforts at combining the real world with the cartoon world before Roger Rabbit. And Cool World (1992), Space Jam (1996), The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle (2000), Looney Tunes: Back in Action (2003), etc. all attempted after it. None come close to the complexity behind Roger Rabbit. Real chairs move, real shirts are ruffled, real dust is displaced, real glasses are drunk from, real guns and props are carried and manipulated, and real floors feel the weight of cartoon characters. Real people drive animated automobiles, fire cartoon pistols, and are thrown around by cartoon foes. The combination is always pleasing (and a major part of where a lot of the humor comes from). The camera does things never before dreamed of in a film like this. The animation was supervised and directed by the great Richard Williams (of whom I have previously written about in Off The Cobbled Path).

I always really liked the weasel designs.

I always really liked the weasel designs.

The DVD extras feature documentaries on how many of the complex special effects were achieved, and all without the use of computers! Another nice feature on the DVD is the inclusion of all three Roger Rabbit and Baby Herman shorts, Tummy Trouble, Roller Coaster Rabbit, and Trail Mix-Up (originally played before Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, Dick Tracy, and A Far Off Place respectively). Decades later, Who Framed Roger Rabbit still holds up and stands out. It’s a pleasantly frenetic roller coaster ride through the wild life of cartoon characters and the classic era of Hollywood and it’s a fun detective thriller to boot. There is so much to love and admire about this film. I wish Robert Zemeckis would make another movie like Back to the Future or Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Rumors of a Roger Rabbit sequel have been thrown around for the past several years. I honestly hope they leave it alone because I doubt they’d be able to capture the magic of the original.

Also, please don’t remake Back to the Future.

"I've sold meself for a couple of dykes." (Mona Lisa)

“I’ve sold meself for a couple of dykes.” (Mona Lisa)

That’s all, folks!

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” June 29, 2010

Still Marching: A Laurel and Hardy Kind of Thanksgiving…or any other time of the year. It doesn’t exactly matter.

Everybody remembers the Disney "Babes in Toyland" (1961), but do they remember us?!

Everybody remembers the Disney “Babes in Toyland” (1961), but do they remember us?!

Perhaps there is nothing remotely binding between the holiday in which we partake of turkey and welcome family fellowship with the obscure 1934 Laurel & Hardy musical March of the Wooden Soldiers (a.k.a. Babes in Toyland). All I know is that at my house growing up, it wasn’t Thanksgiving without this odd comedy (it used to be a holiday staple on TV in the 60′s and 70′s). The film stars the legendary comedy team of the infantile Stan Laurel and the rotund Oliver Hardy and features an interesting—and sometimes dark—peek into the world of fairy tales and nursery fables.

Santa Claus. Because Thanksgiving is just a primer for Christmas.

Santa Claus. Because Thanksgiving is just a primer for Christmas.

My deep admiration of Laurel and Hardy clearly influenced my enjoyment of this twisted yarn, but even for the uninitiated this film has undeniable charm and an incorrigible sense of whimsy…but it wouldn’t hurt to enjoy some of their other work and funny shorts first. The duo’s shtick was a basic one: two grown men with extremely childlike sensibilities saunter in and out of trouble while the softer more naive Laurel inadvertently causes more duress for the more domineering Hardy. They would put these characters into many situations and milk the comedy out of any circumstance and, naturally, the darker the dilemma the funnier the situation. Like Abbott and Costello, Laurel and Hardy were always funniest to me when they were up against monsters, killers, ghosts, psychos, gangsters, etc. and in March of the Wooden Soldiers (directed by Gus Meins and Charley Rogers) they bounce from delightful childhood storybook characters to an army of Bogeymen led by the conniving Crooked Man, Silas Barnaby (Henry Brandon).

Silas Barnaby, he Crooked Man of Toyland.

Silas Barnaby, he Crooked Man of Toyland.

Based on Victor Herbert’s 1903 operetta, the story goes like this: Silas Barnaby is the wealthiest and meanest man in town (you don’t get rich by being nice to people), and he is in love with Little Bo-Peep (Charlotte Henry), but she loves the gallant Tom-Tom Piper (Felix Knight). Barnaby will not be beat so he frames Tom-Tom for pig-napping one of the Three Little Pigs and then furthers the deed by making it look as though Tom-Tom also ground him into sausage. Ollie Dee and Stannie Dum (Laurel and Hardy), two boarders with the Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe (Florence Roberts) and friend of Bo-Peep, suspect foul play and so embark on a mission to find the truth…but get themselves arrested for burglary when they try to steal Mother Peep’s mortgage back from Barnaby.

The boring love interest.

The boring love interest.

Screwball mishaps abound as the lovable duo rub elbows with Mother Goose, Rock-a-bye Baby, Old King Cole, Mary Quite Contrary, Santa Claus, the Sandman, and many others. There are five musical numbers including the memorable “March of the Toys” instrumental piece that plays during the final battle when Laurel and Hardy unleash 100 giant Wooden Toy Soldiers on the vicious Bogeymen. The battle at the end is a lot of fun. All the characters band together to fight off the onslaught of monsters in their own unique ways. March of the Wooden Soldiers is a funny, entertaining, scary, bizarre, and fun Thanksgiving adventure for everyone. I will be the first to admit I was never a fan of most of the singing, but as I get older I appreciate its campy oddness more and more.

The last march of the ents.

The last march of the ents.

Personal notes: The Bogeymen are actually not the scariest part of this film. My family and I have always been slightly perturbed by the weird rubber pig costumes and the glassy eyed cat playing the cello (pigs and cat all played by people in suits). Another spooky aspect (but somehow absolutely fantastic in an incredibly deranged way) is the presence of Mickey Mouse. I’ve heard that they couldn’t get the rights from Disney (little surprise), but they still have a black mouse character with round head and ears, white gloves, red trousers, and yellow shoes. The spooky part: Mickey Mouse is played by small monkey that has been freakishly adorned to vaguely resemble the iconic rodent. The Mickey Mouse creature scrambles around, throwing bricks at the cat and is easily one of the coolest parts of the Bogeyman Battle (I won’t ruin it), but it is still slightly unnerving. Last note: This film is one of those rare movies that really benefits from the computer colorization process. Originally shot in black and white, the colorized version actually works for the film’s strange artificiality and brings a lot more surreal magic to this already kind of special movie.

Bogeymen.

Bogeymen.

See? Scary pigs.

See? Scary pigs.

See? Spooky man in cat costume and monkey in Mickey Mouse costume.

See? Spooky man in cat costume and monkey in Mickey Mouse costume.

Mouse monkey!!!!

One more time! Mouse monkey!!!!

Yeah, it’s weird. This celebrated classic may be strange, but I encourage you to invite Laurel and Hardy and the rest of Toyland into your home this Thanksgiving. Or any time of the year really. This movie isn’t themed to any holiday technically. It’s not really a great movie either. But it’s kinda kitsch now, I suppose. It doesn’t exactly matter.

Laurel & Hardy

Laurel & Hardy

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” November 25, 2009.

Mickey Mouse is Watching

Disney Chicks are like Trekkies. They are bizarre and insufferable and make whatever their prospective obsession happens to be appear terrible and soul-devouring.

Don’t get me wrong. I like Disney movies and I like Star Trek. I can say things like that because I am a nerd myself.

Maybe I’m just bitter Walt Kelly never got an amusement park.

Scene from "Escape from Tomorrow."

Scene from “Escape from Tomorrow.”

I’m sorry for the hostility in the first bit there. I’m just testy because I’ve lost a few friends to the mind-numbing positivity that is Disney. You know the ones I mean. They’ve been indoctrinated and have only love, admiration, and fear for the Mouse and zero tolerance for anyone who didn’t particularly care for High School Musical.

I recently read [skimmed] a book called Mouse Trap: Memoir of a Disneyland Cast Member by Kevin Yee. For some reason, perhaps it was the title and the seemingly ironic uber-happy cover, but I was somehow under the impression that this memoir was going to be a dark examination of the seedy underbelly of Disneyland. I was expecting some mad ravings from a deranged, disgruntled, and disenfranchised former employee. I thought it was going to be the unmasking of the Mouse. A shameless deconstruction of the Happiest Place on Earth. Totally biased and skewed, but entertaining! This was not the case.

As I wearily perused the remaining chapters, I was hoping for something good tucked away. It soon became clear to me that Mr. Yee had no intention of staining his former employer. I thought, well there’s a big man. He can walk away with respect for the Man and he can take the time to collect his thoughts and share with us what he learned. It was not this either.

Then I thought maybe it was gearing up to be an account from a male Disney Chick (we’ll call them Disney Dudes). It would be a super-happy-saccharine-cotton-candy-sweet-tooth-deluxe-eat-it-up ad nausea ode to the One with the Round Ears. Totally biased again but in the reverse thrust. So delighted and positive it would prove dishearteningly hilarious. Again, not the case.

Instead what I found within the pages of Mouse Trap: Memoir of a Disneyland Cast Member was one of the most tepid and toothless accounts of anything anywhere in existence. I was astounded at how boring it all was. Yee hasn’t recorded naughty backstage stories. He has compiled his work schedule, the minutiae of his shifts, and a list of the random events the park threw for its workers. And no feeling behind any of it. This was not a memoir but the account of a single cog in a monstrous contraption. I hadn’t been this disappointed in literature since I read Amberville.*

I might actually be more inclined to go if they still looked like this.

I might actually be more inclined to go if they still looked like this.

There was no mouse trap at all. There was nothing. When Yee comes close to something that might be interesting he completely handles wrong. There are passages that explain the importance of good customer service and then there’s the part where he tells of how of he had to inform people the elevator was broken and the time where he talked with Henry Winkler that simply states he “had a long chat with Henry Winkler, a real down-to-earth guy.” This is a man who had worked in Disneyland for 15 years and most of his stories feel emotionally distant and monotonously robotic…which I find even more telling.

The damp writing style reminded me of how I imagined the inner-monologue of one of my old managers at Barnes & Noble must have played out in his head. Everything is like looking through a foggy View-Master but it doesn’t really matter because it’s all about providing quality customer service. Total bureaucrat. It’s like the teleplay to a “Welcome to Wal-Mart, New Employee!” video. Why write this book? Who is the audience? Who could possibly find any of this entertaining? Then it all hit me. Almost everyone I had ever known who had worked for the Mouse on a peon level had become this. This was not the Kevin Yee that existed before Disneyland. This was aftermath. If you ever wondered what someone without a soul would write like, check out this book. It’s a disturbing horror story of what clean employment can do to a man.

Disneyland suckers you in with its pristine everything-is-always-perfect approach. It gets almost everybody. Some are repelled by suspected phoniness, smelling a rat. Others embrace it as the Atman joining with Brahma. Still others see it simply as a business that tries really hard to uphold a quality reputation. Whatever you think it really is, the cold fact lays before us: Yee has joined the Mouse. It is too late for him. It will undoubtedly be years before he can readily relate to normal society. He writes this memoir with the last strength he has to tell the truth, but the Mouse’s hold is strong and his words are mangled and his purpose is lost. A telling account indeed.

No Jews.

No Jews.

I feel bad for ragging on the one guy like this. He’s a victim here too after all. I’m sure he’s a splendid guy. Probably loves his kids. Pays his taxes. Don’t worry. He’ll get his soul back. The cog doesn’t see much of the rest of the machine, but his ambivalent and dim perspective, although familiar and tedious, might just give us a glimpse of something truly chilling at work.

A part of me does want to give him the benefit of the doubt. One of my roommates pointed out while I was yelling at the book that it’s exactly the sort of thing I would do. I would bill my book as a tell-all memoir but only write boring passages about what I had to eat on a given day and what the weather was like. I would do that because I would find it personally humorous and delight at the expense of my idiot readers. I would do that. Might there be other comedy sociopaths like that out there? Maybe Mr. Yee just pulled a fast one.

*Amberville by Tim Davys so did entice me. A hard-boiled detective novel except all the characters are stuffed animals? It was irresistibly askew in premise…but mind-numbingly disappointing in execution. All but totally devoid of wit or irony. Sad day for stuffed animals everywhere. All this being said, there’s no such thing as bad publicity go out and enjoy these too awful books, you schlubs.