Robert Zemeckis has worked on a lot of ambitious projects. They haven't all been successful (or good), but whether sending Michael J. Fox into the past to save his mother, or Jodie Foster across the universe to get punked by her dead father, Zemeckis has consistently proven himself willing to take risks throughout his career. One of his most fascinating risks was the time he directed a movie that was weird enough for Terry Gilliam to turn it down. But the technical challenges involved in making cartoon characters appear to interact with reality are obvious. Do you know what you really need if you want to get Bugs Bunny and Donald Duck on the same screen?
Viking Night: Who Framed Roger Rabbit
By Bruce Hall
March 3, 2016
Lawyers. Lots and lots of lawyers.
When you look at Who Framed Roger Rabbit today, the visual effects probably look a little quaint. The idea of animated characters sharing the screen with live actors seems almost mundane. But it was kind of a big deal at the time, and not just because there were no computers and no Michael Bay. The combination of characters from different animation studios required the stewardship of Steven Spielberg, and presumably enough legal talent to fill the LA Coliseum. It’s the present day equivalent of putting Batman in the Avengers, and that alone is enough to warrant its own Oscar category.
But wait, that’s not all. If you ever wanted to see Yosemite Sam and Tinkerbell in the same movie, Roger Rabbit’s got you covered. But the story was written as a fairly straightforward 1940s style noir thriller. You know, the kind of movie where there’s a detective, and he drinks a lot because he’s got a lot of demons? And he gets reluctantly ensnared into a web of sex, lies and murder? And there’s a gorgeous woman involved? And a cartoon rabbit? Yeah, it’s the movie your grandfather falls asleep watching on the Turner Classic Channel every Sunday night at 6:30.
Only in this version, the hard living private eye is Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins). Valiant is a poor, spent soul who grew up in a world where kids lend cigarettes to adults and Wild Turkey is what you drink on Thanksgiving. The once successful business he ran with his brother has fallen on hard times, thanks to said brother getting a piano dropped on his head by a renegade Toon (a fact revealed to the audience with pinpoint irony). So you see, Eddie Valiant now has a character arc. He drinks for a reason - which of course makes it less disgusting - and his hatred of Toons is almost as debilitating. If only there were some way for him to conveniently overcome both of these problems at once!
Enter cartoon mogul R.K. Maroon (Alan Tilvern), who needs someone to do a little marital recon for one of his stars, Roger Rabbit (think a less intelligent cross between Bugs Bunny and Woody Allen). Valiant’s investigation is short and sweet, but Roger ends up with sour grapes when his beautiful wife Jessica (Kim Basinger) is caught in a compromising position. The idea was for Roger to get some closure and move on with his career, and for Valiant to take home enough scratch to pay his massive, citywide bar tab. Instead someone ends up dead, Valiant ends up looking like an insensitive goon, and poor Roger is accused of the murder.
And the whole thing is super bad timing, because there been a lot of friction between humans and Toons, who have their own section of town, because they’re insane. As Eddie Valiant can tell you, this is not the first example of Toon-on-human violence. Because of this, the new mayor of Toontown is a sadistic, creepy looking stiff named Judge Doom (Christopher Lloyd). He has vowed to make an example of Roger, and by that I mean “brutally kill him.” And by THAT I mean “physically dissolve him in a barrel of benzene.” It’s apparently the only way you can kill a Toon (dropping an anvil on them never seems to work), and the result is what would happen if you dipped cotton candy in nail polish remover.
I’m not spoiling anything by telling you that Judge Doom is the villain, right? Or that Roger and Valiant will have to team up to clear the their names? Or that in the process, Valiant will be forced to confront his grief over his brother’s death? Replace the cartoons with humans, and remake this film in black and white. Film it entirely on cramped, poorly lit indoor sets. They made a gazillion movies like that back in the '30s and '40s, and just on strength of story, Roger Rabbit barely rates, But the draw, of course, is the integration of some very well known animated characters into the story. And the best part is that it isn’t just a gimmick. A lot of thought went into making this movie as good as it could possibly be, and it really shows.
That said, a word of warning, if you’ve never seen this film, or you haven’t seen it in a long time. The Toons themselves aren’t as astonishing as they once were. It’s certainly not for lack of effort, but we’ve been living in the age of digital effects for so long that I’m afraid Who Framed Roger Rabbit just looks uncomfortably dated. Even so, I still found myself wondering “how'd they do that?” every few minutes. Granted, it was in the way you do when you’re driving through the Midwest and see the world’s biggest popcorn ball. It won’t change your life, but it sure is delicious, and the logistics behind it really are staggering, when you think about it.
And most of all, it’s fun. It’s a joyful homage not just to film noir but to specific genre of animation. Many of the characters that appear in this film have appealed, at one time or another, to both adults and children. Having been on both sides of that, I can tell you that the Roger Rabbit does a pretty damn good job of maintaining tone consistently somewhere between The Big Sleep and Foghorn Leghorn. There’s a lot of cartoon logic in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, both on the screen and in the script. It takes its own premise at least semi-seriously, because people and toons can and do occasionally kill each other - and in darkly humorous ways.
It perfectly captures the tone of the violently absurd, surprisingly mature cartoons I loved as a small, occasionally unsupervised child. Seriously, there is a point in this movie where a car gets into another car, and then drives THAT car. I have no idea why, but that’s just brilliant on so many levels. And, a little hint - if you’ve ever wanted to see Mickey Mouse standing over a dead body, this is your big chance. Lawyers really CAN do anything.