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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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).
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.
That’s all, folks!
Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” June 29, 2010