Normally, I don’t like doubling-up on posts in a single day on this blog, and ever since last fall Friday has belonged to Batman. Well, I’m breaking my own self-imposed rule today, but it’s for a very good reason. Today is the 30th anniversary of the film Who Framed Roger Rabbit. On this day in 1988, the then most expensive movie in film history was released to the general public with a lot of buzz and a lot of trepidation. It was a collaborative effort between some of Hollywood’s hottest names; Steven Spielberg, Robert Zemeckis, and Walt Disney Studios. Adapted from the Gary Wolf novel Who Censored Roger Rabbit?, there was a lot of fear that the movie would be too “out there” for a general audience. So uncertain about how the film was to be received, actress Kathleen Turner, who voiced Jessica Rabbit, declined to be credited for her role in the film. There was some fear this thing would be received about as well as Howard the Duck, a notorious flop at the time, but it ended up being so much more.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit is the story of a rabbit named Roger (voiced by Charlie Fleischer) who is framed for a murder he did not commit. Aside from the fact that he’s a rabbit, the plot sounds rather pedestrian at face value. What sets the film apart is its world and the world it shares with the “real world.” Roger Rabbit is a toon. He is a literal cartoon character. In the world created by this work of fiction, cartoons are just as real as you and me. They go to work, make cartoons, and go home. The toons behave like golden era cartoons – they’re wacky, prone to accidents, and always on the lookout for a laugh. At one point in the film, Roger is handcuffed and needs to get himself out. He ends up simply removing his hand from the cuff at one point, then putting it back. When his partner, Eddie, notices and gets furious with him for not just doing that to begin with, Roger explains he could only remove his hand when it was funny.
Roger works for R.K. Maroon (Alan Tilvern) and is a star of Maroon Cartoons. Set in 1947, the film basically takes place during the waning days of the animated cartoon short. He is married to the impossibly attractive Jessica Rabbit, a buxom, hourglass figured toon who more or less resembles a human. The film starts out with Roger stressed out because there are rumors that Jessica has been up to no good with another man. Maroon wants private investigator Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins) to do some digging to help his star out. The problem is, Eddie hates toons, but he loves money more. Eddie takes the job, and finds out that Jessica has actually been playing pat-a-cake with Marvin Acme (Stubby Kaye), the owner of Toon Town. When shown the images of his wife playing such a lurid game with another man, Roger goes off the deep end and is plunged into a depression (pat-a-cake is serious business to a toon, apparently). Then things take a dark turn when Marvin Acme turns up dead, and Roger is suspect number 1. Roger proclaims his innocence to Eddie, and Eddie is forced to decide if he wants to help out the incredibly annoying, but likely innocent, Roger or just walk away from the whole thing.
The story unfolds like a classic mystery. You have the gruff detective, the innocent victim, and the femme fatale. Of course, nothing is ever truly what it seems. Shadowing the protagonists is the villainous Judge Doom (Christopher Lloyd) who too seems to have a hatred for toons. Eddie and Roger are going to have to do some sleuthing, and even take a trip to Toon Town where all of the toons reside, in order to solve this case.
The story is admittedly fairly simple. The character of Jessica Rabbit is the most intriguing, and not because of her figure, but because she is a femme fatale done well. She possesses an air of mystery and uncertainty, the fact that she is apparently the most attractive toon and is attached to the rather goofy Roger helps to play this up. What truly sets Who Framed Roger Rabbit apart is the presentation. Live actors mix with cartoon ones in truly spectacular ways. We’ve seen this before from Walt Disney with the likes of Mary Poppins and Bedknobs and Broomsticks, but not on this level. Those films merely feature a few sequences of cartoons and actors co-mingling, where as Who Framed Roger Rabbit is built around that dynamic, and it looks spectacular! When Eddie rides along in the toon cab, Benny, he looks like he’s really riding in it. When he wields a toon gun, it’s convincing. And the world of Toon Town is especially marvelous to look at with its impossible architecture and lavish color scheme. The movie is so visually stimulating that you could watch it in mute and still enjoy it.
Even with the flashy presentation, the film still needed true chemistry between its real-life lead Eddie, and it’s toon co-lead Roger. Hoskins is fantastic at playing the straight-man Eddie. He takes everything seriously and has explosive reactions to all of the nonsense around him, but not in such a manner that would break the film. Helping to make sure he was able to form good chemistry with Roger, voice actor Charlie Fleischer dressed up as the character and would voice it off-camera. Seth McFarlane utilized a similar method when filming the more recent Ted to similar effect. I suppose it’s impossible to say if this truly worked or did not, but the results speak for themselves.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit was a unique looking film that was impossible to ignore when it was released, but it was still relying on a lead that had never been seen before in Roger. That’s why to help spruce up the film, Spielberg and Zemeckis wanted to make sure that Roger’s world was inhabited by recognizable cartoon characters. That ended up being the film’s strongest selling point as it promised, for the first time ever, that characters from both Disney and Warner Bros. would share scenes together. This leads to the wild team-up between Donald Duck (Tony Anselmo, with some archivable Clarence Nash) and Daffy Duck (Mel Blanc, in one of his last performances) who have a dueling pianos scene where the more outlandish Daffy seems to get on Donald’s nerves more and more as the scene goes on. Mickey Mouse (Wayne Allwine) and Bugs Bunny (Blanc) also get to share a brief scene, which contains an easter egg of Bugs flipping Mickey the bird (apparently, Disney was a bit of a pain to work with concerning how the characters could be portrayed and this was one way for the animators to have a little fun at their expense). Those represent the biggest cameos, but there are many, many more throughout the film from both companies, both major and minor. Part of the fun of watching the film is looking out for them and there’s always a chance that on re-watch you’ll see another you may have missed.
There are so many things to pick out of Who Framed Roger Rabbit that it’s way too much for me to cover here. Suffice to say, if you’ve never seen this baby then you owe it to yourself to check it out. Much of the effects still stand up today, and much of the credit is owed to animation director Richard Williams. The toons are two-dimensional, but a lot of effort is made to make sure they look like they’re really inhabiting this world in the manner in which lighting is utilized and how often the camera moves. Working on this film must have been exhausting, but oh so rewarding in the end. Due to the nature of the license rights, the complexity of it shots, and incredible of expense of animating over live-action, a sequel has never truly got off the ground. Author Gary West has returned to the character for his novels, and Disney and Spielberg would probably both love to cash-in on the brand, but there are just too many hurdles to clear. Zemeckis has campaigned for a sequel on multiple occasions, but he’s been less vocal about it in recent years. Additional Maroon Cartoon shorts of Roger Rabbit were produced after the film, but even that was a touchy subject as Spielberg wanted to run them alongside his films while Disney wanted them for theirs. And supposedly Disney wanted to create a television show starring Roger Rabbit for their Disney Afternoon block, but Spielberg who was working on televised cartoons of his own (Tiny Toon Adventures, Animaniacs, etc) wouldn’t allow Roger to be utilized forcing Disney to create the character Bonkers the Bobcat. Roger has at least been allowed to live on in Disneyland’s Toon Town where he still has a dark ride to this day. Given that Disney has been replacing a lot of older dark rides to make way for more current franchises, one has to wonder if Roger’s days there could be numbered.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit is likely one of the most popular and successful films to never get a sequel. It took in around $330M in 1988 dollars, a pretty substantial haul, which more than covered its estimated $50M cost. Its story and presentation are both timeless and also proof that Tex Avery styled humor and gags may never truly go out of style. The rather manic Roger Rabbit can appear off-putting to some, especially younger folks who may not have grown up on Looney Tunes, but apprehensions tend to fade away once the movie really gets going. I’ve introduced this film to a few people that weren’t enthusiastic about giving it a shot, only to see them won over in short order. It’s really one of the best things the Walt Disney Company has ever produced, even if it was released on their Touchstone label. I know it’s a Friday, but if you don’t have plans tonight, you could do a lot worse than settling in on the couch with your favorite snack and beverage for a showing of Who Framed Roger Rabbit.