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

Off the Cobbled Path

Some folks might remember an odd, little animated film that was swept under the carpet back in the 1990s. It was labeled a knockoff of Disney’s Aladdin (1992), but in fact, quite the opposite was true. I am of course referring to Richard Williams’ The Thief and the Cobbler (1993). Richard Williams was and is widely considered one of the greatest animators and with such works as The Little Island (1958) and A Christmas Carol (1971) as well as several TV shows and commercials under his belt in addition to directing the animated sequences for Robert Zemeckis’s classic Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), who could argue?

The version of this film that was released by in 1993 is not what the film was meant to be at all (I believe they called Arabian Knight when it went to theaters). Director/writer/producer/animator Richard Williams had been working on this passion project for over twenty-six years, but when it was at long last nearing completion another studio had the rights to it and made several alterations to make it “more accessible.” They deleted several sequences and put their own animators to work to fill in the incomplete portions and if you have an eye for animation it won’t be hard figuring out who animated what in the theatrical cut. They also threw in a few forgettable songs to make it a musical. If this didn’t drastically alter the tone already, to make matters worse the studio rejected Williams’ original idea of having the two title characters be mute and gave them voices (the Thief being voiced by comedian Jonathan Winters). When it came out in 1993 many people did not appreciate the sloppy mix of highly stylized Williams art combined unevenly with the slapdash bits and songs. Furthermore, many people compared it unfairly to Aladdin which came out the year before because they had many things in common. The truth is that Disney, who had owned the rights to the unfinished film for a time, swiped many of The Thief and the Cobbler‘s ideas, characters, and glimmers of the character designs and incorporated them into Aladdin. Both films are set in the Middle East and feature magic, a romance between a lowly peasant and a beautiful Princess, an evil Grand Vizier with a bird sidekick, and a plot to get the throne from the oblivious but kind-hearted short, bearded Sultan. Now I like Aladdin just as much as the next fellow (Robin Williams is hilarious in it and the whole film a lot of fun), but let us give credit where it is due.

For years the only piece to the puzzle that could be seen by the public was the Miramax cut with the songs. The good news is that we live in an age of computers and The Thief and the Cobbler: Re-Cobbled cut can be found on the internet. The re-cobbled version restores what it can of what was to be Richard Williams’ magnum opus. It cobbles together all of the footage that Williams completed and institutes pencil tests and storyboards for the missing pieces. It also removes the songs and unwanted voiceovers and attempts to recover Williams’ lost vision. The end result may not be your typical animated film, but it is not hard to see the genius at work behind it. Indeed the most frustrating element of the whole thing is that you can see how The Thief and the Cobbler could have been easily one of the greatest animated films of all time. It remains one of the singularly most impressive personal works from an animator I have ever seen. Incorporating elements from classic Arabian art, silent cinema, M. C. Escher, and western cartoons (to name but a few), Williams fashioned a world that could only exist in the realm of cel-animation.

The story takes place in the mythical Golden City. It follows your basic plot of malevolent malfeasance and diabolical deception. The evil Grand Vizier, Zigzag (voiced by the great Vincent Price) desires to marry Princess Yum Yum and has made an illicit alliance with the Wicked One-Eyes (an army of, what else but green, grotesque one-eyed monster-like people). Zigzag (who speaks entirely in rhymes and recites them all as only Vincent Price could) intends to snatch up the throne of the drowsy King Nod, but things go awry when a mute shoe Cobbler named Tack bumps into a scruffy Thief and he enters the realm of royals due to a mislaid tack which finds its way into Zigzag’s shoe. Sentenced to death, Tack is saved by the beautiful Princess Yum Yum who breaks one of her shoes on purpose and insists he fix it. Unbeknownst to the palace inhabitants, a dreadful prophecy is about to come true. The Golden City is only safe as long as the three golden balls are secure atop the highest minaret, and the clownish Thief (with a persistent halo of flies about his head) has snuck into the palace with Tack. A constant stubborn opportunist and filcher of many a fine prize throughout the film, the Thief cannot resist and so undertakes the nearly impossible task of thieving the three golden balls. He succeeds at last, but Zigzag’s minions snatch them and Zigzag uses them to bribe the One-eyes to let him take control after they destroy the Golden City.

Tack, Princess Yum Yum, and her nanny, fearing the impending doom of the city at the hands of the vicious One-eyes, go on a quest to get help from the Mad and Holy Old Witch. The Thief also tags along. Along the way they pick up a ragtag militia of slovenly brigands who help them on their journey. When they at long last find the Witch she answers them with a riddle (as witches are oft times wont to do). “It’s what you do with what you got,” she says to Tack. When they return to the Golden City they discover that the One-eyes’ war machine and army are ominously advancing. Tack shoots a single tack at the encroaching mass and what happens next can only be described as one of the most epically impressive Rube Goldbergian orgies of chaotic mayhem and comedy ever conceived. As the impossible war machine unravels from within, amidst the chaos the Thief, spotting the three golden balls within it, casually meanders through the disaster narrowly missing arrows, gears, canons, explosions, elephants, and more in a desperate effort to appease his greed. Somehow the single-minded Thief escapes the carnage unscathed. I shouldn’t have to tell you that it all ends well for Tack and the Princess and that the forces of evil get their just desserts.

The Thief and the Cobbler: Re-Cobbled is a treasure to behold. It is an incredible achievement with nonstop kinetic power and seemingly effortless Looney Tunes-esque comic panache. The scene where the Cobbler pursues the Thief through the palace is fantastic and the scenes where the Thief steals the balls and when we wanders through the collapsing war machine are hilarious. It is hard for me to watch this movie without erupting in laughter or my jaw hanging agape. The animation is vibrant, stylized, and colorful. I’m always impressed by Richard Williams’ ability to capture the essence of weight—easily one of the most difficult things to do in animation. The movie is a constant delight and dazzlement and with the Re-Cobbled cut I think people may finally see the crowning achievement this film was supposed to be. I find no difficulty in saying that Richard Williams’ The Thief and the Cobbler, even unfinished, is a masterpiece.

And I have included it for your viewing pleasure. Enjoy.

(This particular “re-cobbled” cut does feature a few shots from the Fred Calvert version, although his animation does not measure up to Williams’ it does provide greater context for much of the scene progression).

picture references:

imageshack.us

tankadillo.com

movierapture.com

photobucket.com

thephoenix.com

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” May 25, 2010.