Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988)

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Director: Robert Zemeckis

Producers: Frank Marshall, Robert Watts (Amblin, Silver Screen, Touchstone)

Writers: Jeffrey Price, Peter S. Seaman (screenplay), Gary K. Wolf (novel)

Photography: Dean Cundey

Music: Alan Silvestri

Cast: Bob Hoskins, Christopher Lloyd, Charles Fleischer, Kathleen Turner, Joanna Cassidy, Stubby Kaye, Alan Tilvern, Richard LeParmentier, Lou Hirsch, Betsy Brantley, Joel Silver, Paul Springer, Richard Ridings, Edwin Craig, Lindsay Holiday, Mike Edmonds

Introduction

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

Few lines sum up a movie better than this confession by Jessica Rabbit in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Not that the film is drawn poorly. Quite the contrary. The “bad” she speaks of is a delicious naughtiness, a cleverness that emanates from every pore of this wholly original film. Its presentation may be safe for viewers of all ages, but the idea of combining live action with animation for an entire feature length film was just as dangerous as Jessica’s curves.

The technique dates all the way back to the 1920s when it was popularized by Walt Disney’s Alice cartoons. Disney revisited it in Song of the South (1946), Mary Poppins (1964) and, after Walt’s death, Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971). Aside from Disney, you may also remember a real-life boy befriending an animated dragon in the children’s favorite Pete’s Dragon (1977) and Gene Kelly dancing with Jerry (of Tom and Jerry) in the Oscar-winning Anchors Aweigh (1945).  But it was Robert Zemeckis and company who redefined the idea with Roger Rabbit.

Not only did they sustain the technique for the entire feature length, they also designed increasingly complex ways of showcasing their mastery of it, all the while supported by a solid story and noir style that amounts to more than just gimmick.

Plot Summary

Toontown is a playful Los Angeles suburb where “everybody knows when a toon’s in trouble, there’s only one place to go: Valiant and Valiant.” V&V is a private eye biz, founded by Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins) and his brother, before an unknown toon assailant dropped a piano on the brother’s head. Now it’s 1947 and Eddie runs the office alone while carrying a deep-seeded grudge against toons. So it’s with great reluctance that he agrees to work for cartoon studio head R.K. Maroon (Alan Tilvern), who hires him to snap lurid photos of Marvin Acme (Stubby Kaye), manufacturer of all those Acme cartoon props, playing “patty cake” with Jessica Rabbit, wife of Maroon’s most famous star, Roger Rabbit.

The very next day, Acme turns up dead and Roger is blamed for a jealous murder. Roger seeks the help of Eddie, who suspects Maroon of killing Acme in a bid to take over Toontown. It was Acme who held the deed to Toontown, and though the toons say he promised to leave the town to them, his will has since disappeared. Soon Eddie discovers that highway corporation Cloverleaf may be bidding a Toontown takeover, and unless Acme’s will shows up by midnight, Cloverleaf will have the rights.

As they unravel the mystery of Cloverleaf, Eddie and Roger must also dodge Judge Doom (Christopher Lloyd) and his Weasel henchmen, who have been hired to capture Roger. What’s more, Doom has secret plans to wipe Toontown off the map with a special acid, known simply as “The Dip,” which melts all toons on impact. Zemeckis has compared this “dip” to Hitler’s Final Solution, which makes for a very interesting reading of the film as a commentary on minority culture. As the film says, “There’s no justice for toons anymore.” (B)

Men Among Toons

Thrust into the middle of this wildly imaginative plot is Bob Hoskins, who appears just two years after his Best Actor nomination for Mona Lisa (1986). To hear Hoskins speak in real life will surprise many Roger Rabbit fans, as he carries a strong British accent. You wouldn’t know it here, as his voice reeks of Los Angeles grit.

Of course, changing accents is typical actor fare. The real challenge for Hoskins was to act on set all by himself and give the illusion that he was actually interacting with toons. Thus, Hoskins and the other actors underwent mime training, so that they would be able to interact with their non-existent surroundings in a believable way. Hats off to Hoskins, who flexes his arms to look like he’s pulling actual weight.

As for the rest of the cast, Zemeckis gives Hoskins some human interaction, including Joanna Cassidy (Six Feet Under), Stubby Kaye (Cat Ballou) and Christopher Lloyd, who returns with Zemeckis in between the first and second Back to the Future films.

Original Toons

Still, the real stars are the toons, brought to life by some top notch voice talent. Lou Hirsch is utterly memorable as Baby Herman; Charles Fleischer voices Roger Rabbit, Benny the Cab and the weasels Greasy and Psycho; and Kathleen Turner lends her smoky lungs to Jessica Rabbit, the sexiest cartoon character ever created (OK, as Bill Murray said in Tootsie, “I think we’re getting into a weird area here”).

Today, the face of Roger Rabbit is as familiar to us as Bugs Bunny or Mickey Mouse. It’s easy to forget he didn’t even exist, on screen at least, until this movie in 1988. In designing Roger, animation supervisor Richard Williams combined Bugs Bunny’s cheeks, Porky Pig’s bow tie, Goofy’s pants, Mickey’s yellow hands from the ’40s and an overall color scheme of the American flag. Roger’s most important attributes, however, are his ears, which tell exactly how he’s feeling at any point in the movie. (D) Walt Disney must have looked down and smiled to see his company release a film starring an animated rabbit, as Disney originally created Oswald the Lucky Rabbit before turning him into that legendary mouse.

Cartoon Dream Team

Yet with Roger Rabbit alone, the film would not have worked as well. The real victory for this movie was its ability to combine its own creations (Roger, Jessica, the Weasels) with the forces of Disney, Warner Bros., Paramount (including Famous Studios and Fleischer Studios) and Universal (including Winkler Pictures and Walter Lantz Productions). The cartoon characters of these various studios had never before appeared together, and thus it took Executive Producer Steven Spielberg a lot of work, and tightly-written contracts, to convince the studios to participate. In the end, Popeye, Felix the Cat, Tom and Jerry and the Terrytoons were the only characters Spielberg was unable to secure, but the list he did get is a dream cast. (B)

Look closely and you’ll see Bugs Bunny, Mickey and Minnie Mouse, Daffy and Donald Duck, Pluto, Goofy, Black Pete, Sylvester and Tweety, Betty Boop, Droopy, Clarabelle Cow, Pinocchio, Porky Pig, Dumbo, the Fantasia brooms, Br’er Bear and the Song of the South hummingbirds, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Jiminy Cricket, Yosemite Sam, Elmer Fudd, Bambi, Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner, Speedy Gonzalez, The Big Bad Wolf and the Three Little Pigs, Piglet, Tinkerbell, Foghorn Leghorn, Marvin the Martian and Woody Woodpecker. No matter how old you are, this collection is a huge novelty. No one had ever seen these characters together, let alone Daffy and Donald playing dueling pianos.

Post-Modern Script

The idea came from Gary K. Wolf’s mystery novel Who Censored Roger Rabbit?, where Eddie Valiant investigates the murder of cartoon Roger Rabbit and interviews Jessica Rabbit and Baby Herman as suspects. Walt Disney Pictures saw the potential and purchased the film rights in 1981, hiring screenwriters Jeffrey Price and Peter S. Seaman to adapt the script. By the time Disney brought in Spielberg and Amblin Entertainment to help finance the film, Price and Seaman had already written two versions, but the changes they were making were for the better. (A)

While Wolf’s novel portrayed the toons as comic strip characters, Price and Seaman decided to make them movie stars. (B) This decision may be the script’s strongest suit, turning Roger Rabbit into one of the first examples of post-modernism in animation, predating the Genie of Aladdin (1992) and the fractured fairy tales of Shrek (2001). After Williams’ 3 1/2-minute opening cartoon, Zemeckis pulls back to reveal it all to be just a movie within a movie. Pulling out of the cartoon and into the real world is much more effective than if we started in the coexistence of humans and toons.

As the film continues, it’s fascinating to watch these classic cartoon characters being treated as celebrity actors, leaving the set for their dressing rooms, clashing with directors and admiring their fellow actors’ work: “Boy, did you see that? Nobody takes a wallop like Goofy. What timing! What finesse! What a genius!”

Price and Seamon show they’ve done their cartoon homework, as evidenced by Eddie using the famous Bugs Bunny reversal trick of “You don’t, you do.” But they also introduce their own new cartoon customs, like “portable holes” and the idea that no toon can resist “shave and a haircut.”

More impressive than any of this is their ability to slip in adult material for more mature viewers to appreciate — Eddie catching Jessica in the act of “Patty Cake;” Baby Herman complaining, “I’ve got a 50-year-old lust and a 3-year-old dinky;” and Eddie hiding Roger in his coat, only for Delores to say, “Is that a rabbit, Eddie, or are you just happy to see me?” In fact, then-Disney president Michael Eisner complained the film was too risque, (A) but Zemeckis refused to make any changes as he had final cut. (D) Turns out, there was more adult material than even Zemeckis knew, as the animators inserted several nude shots of Jessica Rabbit into the Laserdisc release. (E)

Directing Eye in an Animated Storm

No matter how clever the script, the film needed the right person to pull the strings. In hindsight, Zemeckis seems the perfect fit, having made a career of pioneering effects, from DeLoreans disappearing in Back to the Future (1985), to Tom Hanks appearing in archival footage in Forrest Gump (1994), to Hanks morphing in a life-like animation in The Polar Express (2004).

Ironically, Zemeckis was originally turned away from Roger Rabbit because he was considered a box office liability in the early ’80s. Instead, the studio asked Terry Gilliam, who turned it down because the project was too technically challenging. “Pure laziness on my part,” he later said. “I completely regret that decision.” (C)

After the success of Romancing the Stone (1984) and Back to the Future (1985), Zemeckis was a hot commodity, and Roger Rabbit was his for the taking. Instantly his duty became the director’s job which moviegoers often misinterpret as the only responsibility and which scholars often overlook in favor of compositional technique — corralling the project as Organizer in Chief.

“It was three elaborate movies in one,” Zemeckis said. “It was a period film noir live action movie. It was a feature length animated movie. And it was a special effects movie.” (D)

To handle such a beast, Zemeckis would direct the live action scenes, and Williams would supervise the animation. The latter’s goal was to capture the nostalgia of all those classic cartoons, meaning CGI characters were out of the question. Toy Story and Finding Nemo are great in their own right, but they don’t exactly scream “Merry Melodies.” So you’ll notice there is not a single shot of computer animation in all of Roger Rabbit, marking one of the last great achievements in non-computer special effects.

If an animated character were to hold a real-life object in his hand, a robotic arm would control the object (i.e. Baby Herman’s cigar), or a puppeteer would dangle the objects on a string and control them from above (i.e. the octopus bartender). (D)

“The interactivity of the cartoons and the real world was the whole key to making the movie work,” Special Effects Supervisor Michael Lantieri said. “… It doesn’t become real practical or funny unless they interact with something, unless they pick something up, or touch something or show that they’re actually doing something that you are.” (D)

And so we get Hoskins loading an animated gun with talking bullets; Lloyd choking the animated Roger Rabbit; Hoskins being thrown out into the street by a cartoon bouncer; Roger jumping onto a bed and causing the sheets to compress; Roger blowing his nose with a real handkerchief; Roger running through a window and leaving a rabbit-shaped cutout in the venetian blinds; and the animated Jessica seducing Hoskins by opening his coat, taking off his hat and tugging on his tie.

Other tricks include Roger handcuffed to Hoskins; animated weasels driving a real car as they chase after Hoskins, who drives a cartoon talking taxi; and possibly the best use of it, Jessica Rabbit holding a mirror with her animated self in the reflection, then, in the same shot, turning the mirror to see Hoskins’ face.

How did the actors know where to look? A typical scene between Hoskins and Roger Rabbit would go like this. Fleischer would get into character as Roger, even wearing a rabbit suit, and walk through the scene with Hoskins on set. Then, he would step off set and call out Roger’s dialogue in a process called “transprojection acting” (most of the time, this dialogue would be re-recorded in post-production). At this point, Hoskins would run through the scene again, this time acting with a rubber dummy as Roger. Finally, the dummies would be removed and it would be up to Hoskins to remember the sight lines of where the dummies had been. (D)

Cinematographer Dean Cundey shot on VistaVision cameras with motion control technology, which enabled Williams to go back in afterward and animate over top the footage with precision. (D) The detail in his animation is brilliant — Roger’s reflection in the title floors; Donald and Daffy reflected in the shiny wood of their pianos; Toontown reflecting in the windshield of Eddie’s car; flashing sequins on Jessica Rabbit’s dress.

Overall, the film boasts 55 minutes of total animation. Animators would get B&W prints of each frame and draw over top. Each frame was shot four times — as matte, back lights, highlights and shadows — then sent to ILM, who used Optical Printers to composite with the live-action plates. It was ILM’s first animated attempt, processing 1,004 shots for Roger Rabbit, when previously their most had been 300 on Return of the Jedi (1983). (D) The massive endeavor resulted in a year of post production, and the film was constantly under the threat of being canceled as the project labored on and on.

“Making animated movies is like watching grass grow,” Zemeckis said. “You direct in slow motion, you’re endlessly giving direction to the animators, you get just a few seconds of the performance every couple months, and throughout that process, you can’t let yourself lose sight of the original move that you wanted to make.” (D)

In the end it was worth it, as Roger Rabbit won Oscars for Visual Effects, Sound Effects Editing and Film Editing, as well as a Special Achievement Award for Williams’ animation. Who Framed Roger Rabbit? remains one of those few moments, like Star Wars (1977), where visuals completely demolished the boundaries of what viewers could expect from the silver screen.

While Williams brought home the gold for special effects, Zemeckis was not even nominated for Best Director. The insinuation was that all the hard stuff was done by the animators, forgetting the fact that Zemeckis broke the old rule that said there couldn’t be a moving camera with animation, crafted a focus pull with animated characters in the shot, and showed Roger flipping through photographs in a literal expression of animation. (D)

Forget it Roger, it’s Chinatown

Stylistically, Zemeckis bases his “story of greed, sex and murder” on the neo-noir of Chinatown (1974). Thus Roger Rabbit feels as much an homage to film noir as it does to classic cartoons. We see the Chinatown connections in Eddie’s character, the fact that he had a bad experience in Toontown, just as Jake Gittes did in Chinatown, and both are destined to wind up there at the end of the movie.

Beyond backstory, Roger Rabbit also follows the more thematic cues of Chinatown. Watch as Eddie hops onto the back of a Red Car (those vintage L.A. trollies) and says, “Who needs a car in L.A.? We’ve got the best public transportation system in the world.” Here, the highway system is to Roger what the water works were to Chinatown, and Cloverleaf is the new Albacorp. It’s all an allegory for public corruption, the idea that taxpayer dollars are funneled to pet projects designed specifically to make the owners more powerful.

“The Red Car plot, suburb expansion and urban political corruption really did happen,” Price said. “In Los Angeles, during the 1940s, car and tire companies teamed up against the Pacific Electric Railway system and brought them out of business. Where the freeway runs in Los Angeles is where the Red Car use to be.” (B)

Ironically, the success of Roger Rabbit may have been the deciding factor in Towne finally bringing forth his Chinatown sequel, The Two Jakes (1990). Even after that, scholar David Thomson insisted Roger Rabbit was the true sequel, (F) thanks to an atmosphere provided by Alan Silvestri’s Grammy-nominated jazz score.

The one flaw may be that the more thematic elements of noir are only half there. Sure we get the Chinatown plot similarities, human silhouettes in doors like The Big Sleep (1946), a shadow-filled alley chase like The Third Man (1949), and a femme fatale voiced by the dame from Body Heat (1981). But here the femme fatale is revealed to not have been fatal at all, which sort of discounts the whole notion.

The hero goes on a night journey, but it ends happily by walking into the sunset, singing a happy tune. If this were actual noir, Eddie would be lying in a ditch, or at least forever changed in a disturbing way. What’s more, it’s antithetical to the genre that the whole film be so brightly colored. In theory, there should be more diagonals, more pockets of shadow and more dutch angles.

I digress. This is a kids movie about cartoons. It’s a world where color and humor are vital, and thus we can’t fault Zemeckis. If the darkness had to be sacrificed for this awesomely original technological experiment, so be it. Even though it doesn’t hit all the notes of noir, the film nevertheless introduced a whole hell of a lot of us to that style. As a kid, it was my first exposure, so no matter how many actual noirs I see after this, I subconsciously relate back to Roger Rabbit.

Pop Culture & Legacy

Growing up in the ’80s, Roger Rabbit was one of those landmark moments of movie magic, where you just stare at the screen and ask yourself, “How did they do that?” Millions asked the same question, as Roger Rabbit became the second highest grossing film of the year at $156 million, winning as many Oscars as that year’s Best Picture Rain Man (1988) and rocking the pop cutlure landscape. It inspired Disneyland to build Mickey’s Toon Town.

It inspired a Nintendo game that gave me fits as a kid.

It also inspired a dance move known as “The Roger Rabbit,” an heir (or is it hare?) to the “The Running Man.”

Today, the film is as highly regarded as it was in 1988. The visual effects have not dated one bit, and it currently carries a powerful 98% on rottentomatoes. It’s a travesty that it was not even nominated for the AFI Top 10 Animated Films, simply because half of the film was live action. Instead it was nominated in the Fantasy category, where it had much tougher competition.

Still, the film finds itself on some best lists, including Tim Dirks’ Filmsite Top 200 and the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die. Hopefully more will come in the future. It is so rare that such a good family film be so technically groundbreaking, so memorable, so influential in introducing children to a certain film style, and most importantly, so much fun. Rumor has it that a sequel is in the works.

Citations:

CITE A: James B. Stewart (2005). DisneyWar. New York City: Simon & Schuster. p. 86. ISBN 0-684-80993-1.
CITE B:
Norman Kagan (May 2003). “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”. The Cinema of Robert Zemeckis. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield. pp. 93–117. ISBN 0-87833-293-6.
CITE C:
Ian Nathan (May 1996). “Dreams: Terry Gilliam’s Unresolved Projects”. Empire: pp. 37-40.
CITE D:
Roger Rabbit DVD documentary: Behind the Ears: The True Story of Roger Rabbit
CITE E:
Michael Fleming (1994-03-14). “Jessica Rabbit revealed“. Variety. http://www.variety.com/article/VR119154. Retrieved on 2008-11-04.
CITE F:
David Thomson, New Biographical Dictionary of Film

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