It took every last dirty trick in the book to get Spider-Man on the same screen as the Avengers and the Guardians of the Galaxy in the upcoming superhero smash-up Avengers: Infinity War. It’s a movie so huge that it needs to be divided into two parts. It’s being billed as the biggest event of our young century, the plot threads of which are sure to spin out into a dozen other feature films where any and every ancillary character is given his or her full-length feature. It will probably, in several places, feature computer-generated imagery that tries and utterly fails to fool the eye.
Obviously, I haven’t seen it yet. I’m still willing to bet you one tumbler full of Scotch and actual rocks that it will fail to deliver on all these selling points as effectively as Who Framed Roger Rabbit? already did 30 years ago.
Cartoons themselves have largely left their weird roots in America, and it’s difficult to really say for sure why or how it happened. When you look at the animation of the early 20th century—the Fleischer brothers, Disney, Warner Brothers—you see shows based around music (to take advantage both of the new sound features of “talkies” and, in the case of Merry Melodies cartoons, to capitalize on Warner Brothers’ extensive catalogue of film soundtracks and record company acquisitions), and featuring ensemble casts of mascot characters who are performing a disjointed series of skits.
Which is to say, you don’t need to have seen any previous Looney Tunes or Silly Symphonies or Merry Melodies pictures in order to follow along—unlike “serials,” which made stars out of characters like Flash Gordon and, like comic books, generally required you to have seen the last one. The medium for telling these stories, it’s important to remember, was the theater rather than the television, and cartoons’ transition to television in the form of Saturday morning cartoons in the post-war era slowly began to change how kids watched them, even as Bugs and Daffy and Tom and Jerry continued making their debuts at the theater through the ’60s.
By the ’80s, with President Ronald Reagan’s de-regulation of cartoons—a withdrawal of rules that basically prohibited them from being hyped up toy advertisements—cartoons became as crass and loud and devoid of nuance as the era that was producing them. Watch an old Bugs Bunny cartoon, literally any one of them, and then put on an episode of He-Man or Brave Starr, and you’ll see the difference in quality as clearly as night and day. The latter are less elastic, less vivacious—altogether less cartoony—than older stuff. You’re seeing fewer of the 12 Principles of Animation that were laid out by Disney animators. It seemed most of the effort got blown on the opening sequences.
The subject matter, too, became hyped up and almost too close to a parody of itself.
I did just recently write about how I don’t think that whole era was all irredeemably bad, but any bright spots were despite the exploitative turn the industry took. So, it’s not a surprise that a movie like Who Framed Roger Rabbit? came out at a time like this, or that we got it from Amblin Entertainment, Steven Spielberg’s imprint. Nobody I’ve ever heard interviewed about the film has said it was a response to the dismal cartoon landscape of the years in which it was made, but it seems impossible to think a major studio picture prominently featuring cameos from Betty Boop and Mickey Mouse wasn’t one creative team’s earnest attempt at going back to an age when these entertainments seemed simpler and better crafted.
Nor do I think it’s a small detail that the movie takes place in a post-World War II Hollywood heyday. The film is a very, very loose adaptation of Gary K. Wolf’s 1981 novel Who Censored Roger Rabbit?, which ports over quite a few characters but otherwise bears basically no resemblance to the film and which was set in the ’80s. Whatever the original story might have been, director Robert Zemeckis was making a nostalgia trip.
And also starring…
The journey to the film’s release was truly epic in the sense that it took years. When it purchased the rights to Wolf’s novel in 1981, Disney was deep into an era many regard as having produced the poorest-quality films the animation house ever made—a slump so notable that Don Bluth left in 1979 to start making his own movies to compete with the Mouse House. Years of theoretical work and test screening—including a few sketchy scenes that even used Pee Wee Herman himself, Paul Reubens, as Roger’s voice—finally came to an end in 1985 when new Disney CEO Michael Eisner decided to make the production a priority and handed production over to Amblin and directing duties to Zemeckis.
Spielberg himself is said to have jockeyed about Hollywood to negotiate for the rights to use a raft of major characters from the deep benches of Disney, Warner Brothers, Fleischer Studios and Universal Pictures. The specific negotiations must have been absurd, but to the credit of the screenwriters and director, the tough standards the parent studios outlined for their star characters all somehow made it into the film without dragging down any individual gag. When Daffy Duck and Donald Duck appear together, the scene casts them as dueling pianists (heh heh), neither of whom appears to be able to outplay the other—and the scene works perfectly. Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny were apparently supposed to be on screen an equal amount of time, and show up in a moment of mischief that understands the smiling anarchy of their comedic roots.
You’ll see Dumbo (he works for peanuts!!!), Tweety, Droopy and Betty Boop as a faded flapper serving drinks in a toons-only bar, among countless other sight gags and notable cameos. All the right characters speak with Mel Blanc’s voice. If that were all this movie did right, it would’ve been a triumph.
Fun for all ages
Ebert gave the film a glowing review and insisted it was a feature for all ages, calling the blending of animation with live action stunning. Thirty years on, it is unbelievable how totally it holds up.
The toon characters cast shadows, move according to the perspective of the camera, maintain sight lines with the human characters, manipulate real objects that are part of the scenery, and seem to have weight and pull when they physically interact with the human actors. If you want to see how this can be done completely wrong, steel yourself and watch Ralph Bakshi’s confused flop Cool World, where it is painfully apparent the actors generally have no idea where they are or with whom or what they are ostensibly interacting.
Even decades later, critics marvel so much at the perfect insertion of a Gollum or Caesar precisely because this is so hard to get right that I think moviegoers just let it slide in the same way they used to let editing cheats and the inability to set off remote squibs slide in the earlier days.
Again, if this were the only thing the movie did right, it would still be regarded as a landmark film event. And again, it’s more than that: This is a great movie with a tight script and committed performances from actors who are giving the proceedings exactly as much seriousness and levity as they demand. Watching it again for this piece, I was actually struck by how well-constructed the mystery at the center of the plot is. Every detail of the conspiracy and crime—the motive, the means, the opportunity—are revealed to the sharp-eyed observer on a second viewing, which just goes to show that the filmmakers were determined to do a noir the right way, even if it had the animated broomsticks from Fantasia in it.
The movie ushers us into a world where cartoons and humans live side by side, and the “toons” who light up the silver screen are workaday actors playing parts. The story follows Eddie Valiant, a perfectly shlubby Bob Hoskins, who works as a private eye famous (and infamous) for being the flatfoot who will work with toons. He’s stopped doing so because one toon killed his brother. Valiant is hired by a sleazy studio exec to reveal to Roger Rabbit (voiced by Charles Fleischer, who stood off-camera to help his co-stars act off of him during production) that his wife Jessica Rabbit is cheating on him.
(Jessica Rabbit, it must be noted, is still brought up today in lists of disturbingly attractive cartoon women. For whatever reason, Kathleen Turner’s damn perfect voice work on the character goes un-credited in the film itself—though if you’re familiar with her, you probably knew recognized her voice.)
Valiant gets drawn into a murder conspiracy with Roger and Jessica and perhaps his own brother’s killer at the center. The final confrontation brings him into a fight with Christopher Lloyd’s traumatizingly evil villain Judge Doom—and puts on display every live-action and cartoon trick the film has up its sleeve despite the fact the whole set piece basically just takes place inside a warehouse like every other ’80s movie. It’s a story of confronting demons, learning to loosen up and trust others, and a celebration of both classic animation and the new, no-holds-barred wackiness that cartoons in the ’90s would start putting on display again.
South Park, some years back, did a three-part episode which is known as “Imaginationland” but which bears a far more raunchy real title (of course). In it, the main characters are drawn into the actual collective cultural imagination of humanity, interacting with carefully edited versions of Captain America and Luke Skywalker and Wonder Woman, doing battle with Predator and Jason Vorhees, all in a delirious celebration of what makes fictional characters important. This is a toy box everybody gets to play in, they seem to be saying.
Looking specifically at the love of animation, Roger Rabbit had some of that same cheerful spirit. Thirty years later, as Disney is becoming the Buy ’N’ Large of entertainment and so many major studio offerings are becoming transparent attempts to sell our childhood nostalgia back to us, it’s hard to imagine them producing something quite like this picture.
Kenneth Lowe isn’t bad; he’s just drawn that way. He’s written for Colombia Reports, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and Illinois Issues Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.