For this week’s Saturday Morning Cartoons entry, we’re jumping back in time a couple of years from last week’s post. On a whim last night, I decided to watch Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Well, perhaps it wasn’t so whim-ish; I saw this post yesterday on grammatically-incorrect movie titles, and it reminded me that I’ve been wanting to see this film again for quite a while now. I didn’t remember too much about it, seeing as how I was nine years old the first and only time I saw it, but I am wondering now why my super-ultra-conservative parents actually allowed me to see it, considering some of the more unsavory themes …
By today’s standards, this live-action/animation combo, directed by Robert Zemeckis, seems rather tame. I did, however, find myself slightly preoccupied wondering what kind of cartoon boob tape Jessica Rabbit had to be using to shellac that sequined gown to her insanely impressive rack. And we like to say Barbie sets unrealistic standards for young girls. Sheesh.
Released in 1988, Who Framed Roger Rabbit takes place in 1947 Hollywood—albeit a 1947 Hollywood in a parallel universe where toons are real and live side-by-side with regular ol’ human beings. Roger Rabbit (voiced by Charles Fleischer) is a beloved toon bunny, the star of Maroon Cartoon studios. But his work has been slipping lately due to concerns that his alluring toon wife, Jessica Rabbit (an uncredited Kathleen Turner), is cheating on him. The owner of the studio hires hard-drinking private eye Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins) to tail Jessica and find evidence of her infidelity. Despite Eddie’s hatred for toons—it is later revealed that his brother was killed by a mysterious toon—he takes the job.
When Eddie presents Roger with evidence of Jessica’s cheating—photographs of her playing a game of “patty-cake” with the owner of Toontown, Marvin Acme (Stubby Kaye)—Roger runs off, and is thus considered the prime suspect when Acme is found dead a day later. Judge Doom (Christopher Lloyd), the sadistic human judge who controls the fate of toons found breaking the law, is eager to mete out his particular brand of justice on the presumed-guilty Roger: a bath in The Dip, a blend of paint thinners that is the only thing that can kill a cartoon character. But Valiant comes to realize that there is a frame-up at play, and he must solve the mystery of Acme’s murder while trying to hide Roger from Doom and his troop of weasel henchmen.
Perhaps the most notable aspect of the film is the combination of cartoon characters from multiple animation studios. The idea came from the source material for the movie, Gary K. Wolf’s 1981 novel Who Censored Roger Rabbit?, which actually used comic book characters in lieu of cartoons (the original novel ultimately bears little resemblance to the film, as the book’s themes were considered to be much too dark for a “family” movie). Remarkably, Roger Rabbit is one of the only forms of media that was able to utilize characters who had never before—and, to my knowledge, have never since—appeared on-screen together. Disney is represented by Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Dumbo, and a host of other notable supporting characters, including a fleet of brooms from Fantasia. The Warner Bros. are ably represented by Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Tweety Bird, and a pantheon of other greats. Even Paramount’s Betty Boop and Universal’s Woody Woodpecker have sweet cameos. Putting these “rival” characters on screen together made for some classic moments of sheer animation joy, such as the hilarious “dueling pianos” scene between an increasingly frantic Daffy and Donald.
The film takes many of the characteristics of noir and adapts them in sly and hilarious ways. It is, at heart, a spoof of the genre, poking fun at its conventions while also paying homage to the hard-boiled detective film that was so popular in the 1940s. At the same time, it is filled with all of the slapstick-y gags that befit its cartoonish inspirations, with innumerable pratfalls and an untold number of random objects being dropped on heads. It makes for a strange combination of thematic elements that nevertheless somehow manage to work together to form a cohesive, intriguing story of love, lust, humor, and mystery.
Jessica Rabbit is an updated take on the classic femme fatale—but the lighter side of the coin, a mix of Gilda and Laura, with faint shades of Veronica Lake (check out that peekaboo hairdo). This is definitely a woman with secrets, and she uses (and oozes) sex to protect them and herself. But she is ultimately proven to be innocent of the sins of which she has been accused—as she so memorably states, “I’m not bad. I’m just drawn that way.”
The character is superbly voiced by Turner, who as I previously mentioned was not credited for the role for some reason. Still, credit or no credit, that voice is unmistakable, and Turner’s throaty growl perfectly matches the seductive sway of the character’s movements. The singing voice is provided by Amy Irving (who was married to the film’s producer, Steven Spielberg, at the time). Her rendition of “Why Don’t You Do Right,” combined with the sultry animation of Jessica’s performance, is one of the highlights of the film; let’s just say that particular scene has likely fueled a number of disturbing dreams over the years.
Turner is not the only star here, however; the performances are, in the end, what truly make the film a standout. Lloyd is phenomenally creepy as Doom, and Hoskins makes a good substitute for Sam Spade and Mike Hammer. The voice actors superbly capture their characters—among them, legendary talents like June Foray, Frank Welker, and Mae Questel bring the cartoons roaring to life. And foremost of all, “The Man of a Thousand Voices” himself, Mel Blanc, the voice behind Bugs Bunny and his pals, sadly portrayed his carrot-chomping doppelganger for the final time in this film.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit was rightly judged as a technical marvel upon its release. While other films had combined live-action and animation before (such as Disney’s controversial Song of the South in 1946), none had done it so seamlessly. The filmmakers used camera and lighting tricks, including double exposure, to cause the characters to appear more three-dimensional on the screen, making their interactions with the human actors seem that much more realistic. The hard work paid off—Roger Rabbit was a monster success at the box office, and the movie went on to win four Academy Awards, including Best Visual Effects and Best Film Editing.
As I mentioned briefly a couple of weeks ago, Who Framed Roger Rabbit provided a much-needed boost for the Disney studios. At a time when the animation department was floundering—about as far removed from its Walt-headed heyday as they could get—this film helped turn the tide. It breathed new life into some forgotten classic cartoon characters of the Golden Age of animation, and in the process, enabled Disney to keep their animation studio going—and thriving. In many ways, one could consider the success of Roger Rabbit as the catalyst for the Disney Renaissance, allowing animators the chance to bring us such beautifully-realized films as The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King in the years to come.