Who Framed Roger Rabbit is one of those rare films that bring you as much joy now as they did when you were a child. It is still an explosion of colour and fun, an action-driven mystery with the life-or-death stakes, but some of the dialogue is suddenly layered and the villains’ motivations bring current politics to mind. Released in 1988 and set in 1947, the picture has the inherent timeless quality typical for Hollywood nostalgia (see the 2016 Hail, Caesar!), yet is not just an homage. Who Framed Roger Rabbit is distinct and inventive, introducing its titular character, his wife Jessica, and private detective Eddie Valiant (played by Bob Hoskins) in a way that makes them all stand out — even against a backdrop shared by Daffy Duck, Betty Boop, Droopy, and Dumbo.
Based on Gary K. Wolf’s novel Who Censored Roger Rabbit? (1981), the film is a fantasy neo-noir that combines live-action and animation in an original fashion. Cartoon characters entering the real world was nothing new, the concept being present since the early days of the cinema and developed by, for example, Max Fleischer in his Koko the Clown series (Out of the Inkwell, 1921). What Roger Rabbit did differently was treating the animated characters as independent beings that act in scripted cartoons but, ultimately, have lives separate from their professional employment.
Roger is a film star, his beloved wife Jessica Rabbit is a singer at a supper club — one where animated penguins work as waiters and Betty Boop is a cigarette girl. Along with other drawn characters, the Rabbits reside in Toontown, an animated neighbourhood of Los Angeles. Toontown is a missing illustration from the ‘This is your brain on acid’ campaign, or, alternatively, a draft version of Mabeland from Gravity Falls. Relatively little action takes place in Toontown though, as the film prefers darker settings typically associated with noir.
The viewer is given an unexpected opportunity to observe one’s childhood heroes off screen, to find out the Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny share a sense of humour and that Dumbo really does work for peanuts. The film concept is already exciting and rich in material, and that is without the main plot.
Most of the screen time is spent following the unlikely duo of private detective Eddie Valiant (Hoskins) and fugitive toon Roger Rabbit. The latter is accused of a crime he did not commit, while the former would really prefer to keep to his whisky bottle but is forced to investigate a murder. Murders. Multiple murders committed in ways simultaneously brutal and comical: apparently, if you drop a piano or a safe on a human, they do not survive it. Modus operandi is, of course, a reference to the classic gag familiar from the Bugs Bunny, or Tom and Jerry, or Wile E. Coyote cartoons.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit manages to create a version of the world where co-existing with animated birds, anthropomorphic cars, and talking weasels makes sense and is natural. Toons are not a superfluous attraction, they are fully-developed characters whose ‘cute’ looks might be at odds with their personalities. The most notable evidence of that contrast is provided by Baby Herman, Roger’s friend and colleague. Baby Herman is a grumpy middle-aged cigar smoker in a toddler’s body; how he acts and sounds on set and who he is when not performing are opposites in all but comical effect.
The correspondence between one’s personality and looks is developed further as a theme with Jessica Rabbit. Intended by Richard Williams (the animation director) and Robert Zemeckis (the overall director) to be an ‘ultimate male fantasy, drawn by a cartoonist’, she nevertheless has plenty of agency, is determined and creative, and will take her funny rabbit over any number of suitors. To quote the most famous line from the film, ‘I’m not bad. I’m just drawn that way.’
These are two main female characters in Who Framed Roger Rabbit: Jessica Rabbit (voiced by Kathleen Turner) and Dolores, Eddie’s girlfriend who works at a bar (played by Joanna Cassidy). They both prove competent and often more intelligent than their respective partners, although the methods employed are somewhat problematic: Dolores ‘loans’ money from her cash desk to help Eddie and Jessica knocks Roger out with a frying pan, to prevent him from getting into trouble. Both of these schemes work out, so there is that.
It is part of the noir convention that even the good guys are not squeaky clean. Eddie is an alcoholic, while Roger has questionable decision-making and driving skills. The police are incompetent, the Red Cab conductor, unsympathetic, and the likable street urchins, aged about ten, smoke like the proverbial chimney. Roger Rabbit the film is not didactic, it is not preoccupied with providing good role models; rather, its aim is the same as Roger Rabbit the character’s: ‘My whole purpose in life is to make people laugh!’
At the time of its production, Who Framed Roger Rabbit was the most expensive animated project undertaken by Disney, with the starting budget of $30 million. That raised some doubts, but the studio decided to proceed, as they were very excited about working with Steven Spielberg as a producer. The result was a blockbuster that grossed $330 million worldwide and started the Disney Renaissance. Roger Rabbit was received well both commercially and critically: it won four Oscars and numerous other awards.
Given that outcome, Disney and Spielberg immediately decided to make a sequel. A second installment for Who Framed Roger Rabbit has thus been in works since 1989, but remains to be produced, as the outline, storyboards, animation techniques, and studio policies kept changing. For what it’s worth, Robert Zemeckis is still interested in directing a sequel, although the prospect looks increasingly slim. In Zemeckis’s own words, ‘The current corporate Disney culture has no interest in Roger, and they certainly don’t like Jessica at all.’
It is ironic, if unsurprising, that Walt Disney Pictures would try to distance themselves from the film responsible for the company’s revival. Who Framed Roger Rabbit is such an unusual production, it is almost surreal it had been made in the first place. The picture remains the only instance — outside of one’s childhood bedroom — where famous characters owned by competing animation studios share the spotlight. It is a Disney feature that has smoking children and jokes about prostate. There are scenes of cruelty and episodes of seductive nature.
It is absolutely brilliant.
Filmography: Who Framed Roger Rabbit, directed by Robert Zemeckis. United States, 1988. (IMDb)
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