Setting and genre
Keith: Who Framed Roger Rabbit takes place in an imagined version of 1947 Los Angeles, where humans and “toons” live side by side, a fantasy grounded in reality. The city really did have a trolley system that gave way to roads, even if it wasn’t the result of a conspiracy. It also had a studio system not unlike the one depicted here, where execs traded stars, though they didn’t always work for peanuts, like Dumbo. The Los Angeles of Who Framed Roger Rabbit also existed onscreen, in the noirs that rose to prominence during and after World War II. From the boozy, hard-bitten hero to the shadowy doings behind venetian blinds to the femme-fatale heroine (who isn’t bad, just drawn that way), director Robert Zemeckis and screenwriters Jeffrey Price and Peter S. Seaman fill the film with noir trappings. It isn’t quite the L.A. of The Big Sleep, but it’s just a parallel universe away.
I think there’s another reason for the 1947 setting, too, and kind of a melancholy one. We’re at the high-water mark for Hollywood animation. Disney and Warner Bros. are operating at full power. Other outlets, like MGM and Terrytoons, are in their heyday. It lasted a while longer, but not forever. (Just ask poor Betty Boop.) Animated theatrical shorts may live on forever, thanks to TV, but the format barely survived the 1950s, and by the end of the decade, they were coping with constricted budgets and changing tastes. UPA’s more-with-less aesthetic worked wonders with expressionistic, stripped-down animation, but also opened the door for cheap-looking (and just cheap) imitators. Toontown survived The Dip, but the flood came anyway.
Nathan: I like the notion of 1947 being both the high-water mark and the beginning of the end for classic animation. Part of what lends Who Framed Roger Rabbit its emotional wallop is the sense of despair and decay—not just in folks like Eddie Valiant, who’s just barely eking out a scuzzy existence on the fringes, but also in cartoon characters who seem cognizant of their fragile place in the show-business ecosystem. Betty Boop’s melancholy as she tries to assure Eddie—and by extension, the world—that she’s still got it, is played for sad laughs. In the cartoon noir world of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, everyone suffers and everyone schemes, even characters literally created to make people laugh.
Tasha: Another possible contributing reason for the specific year and setting: That studio system Keith mentions, where big conglomerates signed stars to exclusive contracts, then considered them property to be controlled and traded, is historically considered to have ended in 1948, when Howard Hughes signed a government agreement to break up RKO Pictures. Roger Rabbit feels like it’s taking place in a moment where everything’s coming apart—Marvin Acme is dead, Toontown may get sold off and bulldozed, Maroon Cartoons is in danger first because its big star is accused of murder, then because its head honcho dies, the Red Car company is about to fold, Eddie Valiant is washing away on a sea of booze and bills—but it takes place in the last moment before the dominos all fall, and it takes advantage of the tension of them all teetering at once. Still, that sequence where Eddie leaves RK Maroon’s office and crosses the giant studio lot, where costumed actors mix with Fantasia’s ballerina ostriches and hippos and Warner Bros. bit players like the top-hatted frog—that’s pure classic-studio-system movie-magic fantasy, one of the era’s favorite tropes. That fantasy would be harder to maintain just a year later, as the studios started to come apart.
Genevieve: Something I noticed on this rewatch that never registered before is how brilliantly Who Framed Roger Rabbit telegraphs its unique mixture of genre and tone right from its opening seconds—before even revealing the technical conceit at its center. It’s all right there in the music that opens the film, beginning with the jazzy bassline-and-snare combo accompanying the Touchstone logo and pre-title credits (rendered in a very 1940s-evoking, Art Deco-influenced typeface), giving way to a sultry saxophone line over the garish red title. Both unmistakably scream “noir,” and situate us for a period piece before a single non-textual image is shown. And then, after a short pause: the screaming horns, manic percussion flourishes, and bright primary colors of the opening cartoon short, a direct visual and aural reference to Looney Tunes and Silly Symphony shorts of the moviehouse era, and as tonally removed from the dark shadows of noir as possible. The juxtaposition of two such incongruent styles primes us for what’s to come, a seemingly impossible blend that works through sheer storytelling and technical achievement.
Matt: The sunniness of old cartoons and the bleakness of noir seem like strange bedfellows, but as you guys note, the tail end of the golden age of Disney and Warner animation was the ideal setting for Roger Rabbit’s melancholic mood. The movie’s release timing was fortuitous, too; in 1988, it did seem like traditional Hollywood animation might soon be Dipped into extinction. A year later, Disney released The Little Mermaid, heralding a new era of hugely popular animated movies, at which point the cartoons-under-assault theme would have felt much more out of place. Roger Rabbit probably deserves more credit than it typically gets for helping set the stage for the so-called “Disney Renaissance” of the late 1980s and early 1990s, by reminding people of the enormous potential that still remained in what many at the time considered an outdated artform.
Scott: Matt makes a great point here about the revitalizing impact of Roger Rabbit on animation, which could be appreciated more at the time than it is now, post-Disney Renaissance (and Pixar, and Hayao Miyazaki, etc.). It would have been enough merely to bring all these classic animated characters together in one place, but from that opening cartoon with Roger and Baby Herman—still, I must guiltily confess, my favorite part of the movie, even though it lacks the thematic and visual layers that are added later—there’s a level of craft here that’s worlds apart from Oliver & Company and The Land Before Time, to name two other 1988 animated movies. As far as the noir influence goes, did no one else get a Chinatown vibe from the movie? Lots of parallels between Jessica Rabbit and Faye Dunaway in terms of how they hide information but wind up being nobler than we suspect, but mostly the way a simple case opens up into a more sweeping conspiracy about the city of Los Angeles and the corrupt forces intent on determining its future.
Tasha: Well, sure. You can’t set a period noir in Los Angeles without evoking Chinatown. Roman Polanski’s movie takes place a decade or so earlier, but it’s still about an embattled PI, a fragile but desperate femme fatale, and a schemer who wants to make a mint by secretly cornering a public industry. Both films even loop the PI into the story by setting him up as a patsy who’s hired to shoot some compromising photos, which get him in trouble with the female lead. I think it’s clear that all similarities are strictly conscious and deliberate.
Violence and comedy
Genevieve: Who Framed Roger Rabbit opens with a sort of overture of cartoon violence, via “Somethin’s Cookin’,” the Baby Herman/Roger Rabbit short that eventually segues into the live-action backlot “reality” of the film. But first, Roger is put through a gauntlet of would-be lethal animated mayhem, including but not limited to: getting cooked to “well done” in an oven, getting electrocuted, being force-fed Acme-brand “extra hot” chili sauce, facing a wall of flying cutlery, and finally, dropping a refrigerator on his own head. Any one of these gags could have originated in an old Warner Bros. short (and probably did), but stacking them atop each another in this hyper-violent cascade establishes the world Roger Rabbit is working in: one where cartoon violence functions independently of, but exists alongside, the human world. This is a world where toons are impervious to things that remain fatal to non-toons—and vice-versa, in the case of the dreaded “Dip” that’s lethal to toons but apparently harmless to humans. (Though the mixture of solvents it contains would probably at least produce some sort of icky rash.)
This divide between cartoon and human violence ends up being one of the film’s greatest sources of dark humor—as with the revelation that Eddie’s brother and Marvin Acme were both killed by having heavy objects dropped on them—as well as a source of tension, via the introduction of Dip, the one thing that can kill toons. Dip introduces actual life-or-death stakes into a world that traditionally has functioned without them, which is counterintuitively scarier than the thought of having a piano dropped on one’s head. (The image of that poor squeaky shoe getting Dipped remains one of the most frightening images of my childhood. I still whimper when I see it.) And yet Who Framed Roger Rabbit skates by with a PG rating, presumably because most of its “objectionable” material exists within a cartoon framework, and is played for laughs rather than shock value. How does the bloodless-yet-extreme violence in this film strike you guys? Does it feel exceptional in any way, or is it too far removed from reality to register?
Nathan: Part of the brilliance of the opening short is that it really isn’t that heightened from the vicious slapstick of classic Daffy Duck, Bugs Bunny, or Wile E. Coyote shorts, which sent characters through a harrowing gauntlet of abuse. And it does so with the wit, pacing, and daring of an old Warner cartoon as well. In that respect, the film is throwing down the gauntlet; it’s letting audiences know that this cartoon isn’t necessarily for kids, or at least for suggestible young ones, and establishing a baseline level of violence that’s pretty extreme, particularly for a PG family blockbuster from Disney. This isn’t the world of Itchy & Scratchy, where the comedy comes from the grotesque hyperbole, but it isn’t entirely removed, either. I think the violence does register, despite the cartoonishness; that poor shoe’s demise is horrifying, and Bob Hoskins, God bless him, invests real pathos into talking about a piano falling on someone. Who Framed Roger Rabbit isn’t afraid to traumatize children for the sake of a laugh, or just for the sake of traumatizing children. That’s a big part of the reason the film endures.
Keith: I think that squeaky shoe’s death has affected me more than the onscreen deaths of most human characters. (It’s all the intensity of Amour squeezed into a few seconds.) And as much as I hate watching it, it’s pretty essential to making the movie work. Roger getting hit on the head by a refrigerator doesn’t matter. This does.
Tasha: That poor Dipped shoe seems to stick with everyone, probably because the shoe is adorable—it basically behaves like a wiggly puppy—and because it so obviously feels terror when Doom dips it. It’s a remarkably sadistic scene, heightened by the way Doom winds up with his hands covered in dripping red paint that looks unmistakably like blood. But it could have been worse—on the Blu-ray commentary track, the producers tease director Robert Zemeckis about how he traumatized kids, but at least he didn’t show the matching other shoe watching in terror as its mate dissolved.
The shoe aside, that opening cartoon always read as sadistic for me as well, maybe a little too much so. (Who leaves their Suck-O-Lux vacuum sitting out in their spotless kitchen, anyway? Much less a drip-dry rack packed with razor-sharp knives, pointing up. I’ll tell you who: Someone who’s expecting comedy mayhem.) I always thought there was a satirical edge to it, pointing out via excess just how conceptually queasy all those Road Runner/Tom And Jerry/etc. cartoons really were, with their endless parade of physical tortures for toons that just kept coming back for more.
Scott: The Dip is such a terrifying prospect because there’s no such thing as “death” in a cartoon. These ageless characters keep coming back, no matter how many times they fall off a cliff. Roger Rabbit teases the idea that not only can beloved cartoon characters die, but their entire world can die, too, and along with it, all the joy and color of Hollywood. What’s more, humans can die in Toontown, like Eddie’s brother. I don’t think Zemeckis and company are pursuing some agenda to reveal the real consequences of violence—for that, we’ll have to wait for Alejandro González Iñárritu’s sobering remake—but it does raise the stakes and amplify the darkness.
Scott: At this point, I think it’s fair to say people think of Robert Zemeckis as a special-effects technician first, before considering his other qualities as a director. For good reason, the interaction between human and animated characters and worlds in Who Framed Roger Rabbit was the first bullet point in the cultural discussion of that movie. But Zemeckis’ skills as a filmmaker—and a writer, back when he partnered with Bob Gale—apply in his precise calibration of effects. Say what you will about Back To The Future Part II, but there few (if any) movies have worked out the implications of time travel as thoroughly. For Who Framed Roger Rabbit, simply making the machine run is a feat of superior organization: It’s overstuffed with characters and references from different animated worlds, has a plot that’s thick with intrigue, and pulls off a fusion of live-action and animation that had never been done with this level of sophistication. I don’t know if any other director could have done it.
Nathan: Rewatching the film, I was struck by how tight and compact it is. Pretty much every scene keeps the film rocketing forward; even sequences seemingly designed just to show off some brilliant nook or cranny of the film’s world serve important plot functions. In that respect, Who Framed Roger Rabbit plays to Zemeckis’ strengths as a fearless technician, but also as a populist entertainer and dark humorist. Zemeckis began as a specialist in dark comedy; his scripts for Used Cars, 1941, I Wanna Hold Your Hand, and Back To The Future all benefit from a healthy contempt for humanity and its foibles. Who Framed Roger Rabbit extends Zemeckis’ nastily funny perspective on the futility of all striving to the ostensibly sunny and happy world of cartoons. He makes Eddie Valiant’s trip into Toontown into a psychedelic nightmare descent into hell, and he got Disney to pay for it, and the families of the world to swoon. That is a neat trick from a brilliant filmmaker operating at the top of his form.
Matt: Even to this day, there’s a “How’d they do that?” quality to the technical innovations of Roger Rabbit. All these years later, I’m still amazed by the interactions between the human and toon world, which are just about seamless in a way that’s still lacking from most modern computer-generated spectacles. I’m sure if I bought the Roger Rabbit DVD or searched on YouTube, I could find behind-the-scenes featurettes that reveal the secrets. But I’ve always resisted the urge to read or see anything about it, because it’s more fun to simply be dazzled by old-fashioned movie magic. And that’s how I think of Zemeckis’ work, particularly in this period with Back To The Future, Death Becomes Her, and Forrest Gump. He didn’t just make movies that look cool; they looked impossible, and yet his incredible visuals never seemed to overwhelm the story or the characters.
Keith: Matt, you should certainly avoid the deleted scene on the DVD and Blu-ray edition, which features Bob Hoskins wearing the outline of a giant pig head on top of his own. It’s the stuff of nightmares.
Tasha: I’m in the opposite camp, Matt. I ate up all the behind-the-scenes stuff I could, because I love the technical answers the filmmakers invented to solve their problems, and I can’t get enough of the footage of Roger Rabbit before the animation was added, when robot arms are waving newspapers around and smashing plates, and puppeteers are flying guns across rooms. I’ve never been the biggest fan of Zemeckis’ aesthetic, or his love of effects, which sometimes trumps the content in his films. But this is a really visionary movie that took a great deal of confidence and creativity—and the clout of someone with proven successes, who could stand up to what was, judging from the behind-the-scenes stories, an immense amount of doubt, pressure, and second-guessing from his studio.
Nathan: Who Framed Roger Rabbit is remarkable in so many ways. On a purely organizational level, it’s astonishing that the filmmakers were able to get so many studios to sign off on using their creations. (It didn’t hurt that the film had Steven Spielberg, probably the most beloved and popular figure in Hollywood, as its executive producer.) Even more remarkably, the characters are employed organically and ingeniously. It never feels like the film is shoehorning in cameos, or trying to cram every popular toon into a single overstuffed narrative. All the appearances have a logic and integrity that goes beyond cross-promotion.
Even more remarkably, Who Framed Roger Rabbit created a batch of original cartoon characters (or semi-original, since Roger Rabbit debuted in a novel) funny, lovable, and unforgettable enough to hold their own with Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, and the most beloved characters in pop culture. If we did not believe in Roger Rabbit, or accept his place in the cartoon pantheon, the film would fall apart. But he’s a brilliant creation, as is his wife Jessica, who helped an entire generation get through puberty. Who Framed Roger Rabbit’s sweetest and strangest joke is that it’s ultimately a love story, and one that gets audiences rooting for the survival of a relationship that could only exist in this insane world, with these insane characters.
Keith: In the lead-up to the film’s release, much of the press revolved around the historic team-ups between characters who had never shared the screen. Of the two big scenes, I think the Daffy Duck/Donald Duck piano battle is brilliant, and the Mickey Mouse/Bugs Bunny interaction kind of a whiff. (Would Mickey really be that on-board with Bugs almost getting Eddie killed?) But I don’t think either big moment makes or breaks the movie, since the real magic comes from the casual mingling that goes on in the background, which goes a long way toward making the world of Roger Rabbit feel real, however improbable.
Genevieve: Both the Daffy/Donald and Mickey/Bugs scenes become slightly less magical when you learn that they’re basically animated contract negotiations. Supposedly, Warner Bros. would only allow its most iconic characters to be used if they got the exact same amount of dialogue and screen time—down to the frame—as Disney’s analogous characters. As you note, Keith, this is much more apparent in the Mickey and Bugs cameo, perhaps because those two characters aren’t as compatible as the similarly wacky Daffy and Donald. (That spare-tire-in-the-parachute gag is pure Bugs “Ain’t I a stinker?” tomfoolery; Mickey would never.)
Tasha: Still, there’s no malice in Mickey leaving Eddie with a tire instead of a chute; it’s just cartoon humor. (He does much, much worse to the villain in the recent Disney short “Get A Horse,” which played before Frozen in theaters, and he laughs and cheers while the bad guy screams in pain. He ain’t that nice.) If Eddie were a toon, he’d hit the ground and bounce right back. And he might even though he isn’t a toon; the gag where Droopy takes the elevator up at high speed and flattens Eddie into a wide, grumbling puddle suggests that even humans obey Toontown’s wacky, non-fatal laws of physics. I get the impression that toons don’t really get human mortality at all: When Tweety Bird pries Eddie’s fingers off the flagpole, or Roger hauls him violently around the room by his handcuffs, it’s because they follow the laws of what’s funny, not what’s fatal. Characters that regularly get squashed, flattened, and exploded without taking any harm don’t really need much morality. That may also be why they all pointedly, even ritualistically disavow Judge Doom at the end, as not their kind of critter.
Scott: I enjoy the Daffy/Donald scene quite a bit, though I appreciate how it’s relegated mostly to the background, the opening act of a sequence that’s really about introducing us to Jessica Rabbit. Really, just having all these iconic characters in one place is enough, without Zemeckis needing to give every big Warner Bros. and Disney icon a splashy showcase. (I wasn’t aware of the equal-screen-time restrictions placed on the production, which is as sound a discouragement for overusing these characters as any.) Withholding the full coming-together of all Toontown parties until the end makes it especially delightful, the dawn that follows the darkness.
Genevieve: I want to focus on the human characters a bit, not just the great, recently departed Bob Hoskins, who injects an incredible amount of pathos into Eddie Valient’s drunken depression—Eddie is a bit of a cur in the early going, sorely in need of the slightly softened edges Hoskins gives him—but also Joanna Cassidy as his long-suffering sometimes-girlfriend Dolores, who serves as a down-to-earth-dame corrective to Jessica Rabbit’s jiggling sexuality. And Christopher Lloyd’s Judge Doom serves to bridge the gap between cartoon and human, on both a narrative and performance level. A towering, rigid pillar of black among the colorful elasticity of the toon world, Judge Doom is a bad-guy caricature, right down to his name, and Lloyd’s performance is suitably heightened. The reveal of Judge Doom’s true nature wouldn’t play nearly as well if he weren’t so clearly an inhuman figure from the jump, and Lloyd sells that without necessarily giving away the reveal.
Matt: Glad you singled out Judge Doom, Genevieve; for me, it’s the great unheralded Christopher Lloyd performance of this era. Lloyd is now best remembered as Doc Brown of Back To The Future, but he played some wonderful villains in the 1980s, including the main Klingon in Star Trek III: The Search For Spock and the immortal John Bigbooté in previous Movie Of The Week The Adventures Of Buckaroo Banzai Across The 8th Dimension. As Judge Doom, he’s over-the-top evil from the moment we first lay eyes on him, and he only gets broader from there, but I still find something genuinely unsettling about his toonish appearance in the climactic confrontation: the scraggly white hair, bulging animated eyes, and shrill, cackling voice. Doom also hints at the unsettling subtext of Roger Rabbit’s universe; since toons can’t be killed, they could cause real havoc if they ever decided to do something other than throw pies at each other. “Cartoonish villainy” is a phrase critics often use to dismiss bad performance in movies. Here, Lloyd turns “cartoonish villainy” into high art.
Matt: We’ve talked a lot about Robert Zemeckis and the visual side of Roger Rabbit, and rightfully so. But we also need to acknowledge the cleverness and sturdy construction of the screenplay by Jeffrey Price and Peter S. Seaman. Looking at the film again this week, I was impressed with how well Roger Rabbit works as a mystery, and how skillfully it seeds its big payoffs. (The invisible-ink will! The weasels laughing themselves to death!) This is the rare effects-driven blockbuster that would work well on the page; you’d lose the cool images, but you’d still be able to appreciate the sharp plot twists and the many quotable lines. Who Framed Roger Rabbit was based on a novel, Gary K. Wolf’s Who Censored Roger Rabbit? I haven’t read it, but it sounds hugely different from Zemeckis’ film. Has anyone read it? Or have any other favorite lines or moments we’ve failed to mention so far? Or should we all just watch Bob Hoskins’ song-and-dance routine a few dozen more times?
Tasha: I’ve read the book, which frankly isn’t particularly good; it’s a consciously purple, overwrought Dashiell Hammett satire that pours on the cheese and the sleaze. Wolf invented Roger Rabbit, Jessica, Eddie Valiant, Baby Herman, and others, and there’s a murder-and-betrayal plot, but the book and film stories still don’t have much to do with each other. I wrote a massive comparison of the two many years ago, in case you’re curious, but it comes down to, “I don’t recommend the book.” What I do recommend is watching the little details of the film; I’ve rarely seen a movie so packed with incidental gags and background details like the glowering buildings and luggage of Toontown. Watch for the wry Toontown poster for Porky’s All-Beef Sausages. And for Piglet from Winnie The Pooh, in silhouette, hanging off the back of the cartoon train that flattens the Dipmobile at the end. And virtually everything in the cartoon world has eyeballs and a sense of personality, in a way that recalls Ralph Bakshi’s chaotic movies more than classic Disney or Warner cartoons.
My favorite incidental detail is a particular proof of the screenplay’s tightness: During the pan across the dusty, untouched desk of Eddie Valiant’s dead brother and PI partner, viewers get a whole pocket history of their life together, including the fact that their dad was a circus clown, and they both worked with him as clowns when they were young. When Eddie busts out that song-and-dance routine, it isn’t coming entirely out of nowhere; he’s had professional training at this kind of nonsense. He’s just chosen to repress it for decades. The fact that he never once explains this to the audience, and they have to be paying attention to get it, is honestly one of my favorite things about the film. (Related: Bob Hoskins ran off and joined the circus in his 20s. He had professional training at this kind of nonsense, too.)
Keith: Here’s a question I’m somewhat loath even to ask: Will Who Framed Roger Rabbit make sense to viewers in a generation or two? I’m not saying it won’t hold up, but in 1988, it arrived at a time when kids were saturated with classic cartoons at all hours, thanks to UHF stations and TBS and so on. Will this movie be comprehensible only to aficionados after a certain point? Are we at that point already?
Scott: It’s thoroughly depressing to consider that classic cartoons could be lost as a common pop-cultural reference point, though I think classic animated characters (Bugs, Mickey, etc.) are properties that studios will always be eager to protect, even if their current manifestations are dreadful. (I’m looking at you, Mickey Mouse Clubhouse.) One consequence of that, for me, has to do with the depiction of violence, which is slapstick-y and fun when Tex Avery does it, but overwhelming in its intensity when 3-D, more photorealistic animated characters are doing harm to each other. I think kids have a harder time with the latter.
Matt: I was 7 years old when I saw it for the first time, and the only things I was an aficionado of at that time were Masters Of The Universe and boogers. I didn’t understand any of the references to Chinatown, or the clever allusions to the end of the Hollywood studio system—and I loved the movie anyway. (Somewhere, there is almost certainly blackmail-ready videotape of me trying and failing to imitate Roger’s signature “P-p-p-p-please, Eddie!”) While the mind-blowing-ness of Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse sharing the screen might be slightly diminished for a younger generation, Roger Rabbit’s core holds up well; the effects are still spectacular, the story is exciting, and Roger and Eddie’s relationship is still funny. I think this is a movie that will endure.
Yesterday, our Movie Of The Week Keynote considered Roger Rabbit’s torturous path to the screen, and its enduring status as a one-off anomaly. And tomorrow, Matthew Dessem looks at an animated labor of love that Roger Rabbit made possible.