In 1988, Walt Disney Productions rolled the dice on a project whose budget had ballooned and post-production protracted to more than a year. But this lengthened production time was in service of a groundbreaking mix of live-action and animated elements. True, Disney films such as Song of the South and Mary Poppins from decades earlier had dabbled in this technique, but Who Framed Roger Rabbit took the concept to a scale never seen before. What’s more, both Disney icons and Warner Brothers’ Looney Tunes would cameo in the film, which takes us to an alternative 1947. In Hollywood and Toontown, humans and toons live together, and human P.I. Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins) is tasked with investigating the possible extramarital affair that’s got premier marquis toon actor and concerned spouse Roger Rabbit down in the dumps.
The film commits to a noir atmosphere that permeates everything from the production design to Alan Silvestri’s restrained and sultry score. The film refuses to be a mess; it decides on a focus and sticks to it. It’s easy to imagine a version of Who Framed Roger Rabbit that would give new meaning to self-indulgence, but everything remains on point: that being a sometimes silly, sometimes striking story of toon antics and anti-toon acid, all grounded beautifully by an engaging central performance by Bob Hoskins.
Hoskins’ brooding gumshoe is the necessary counterbalance to the wackiness going on around him, and of course he is given a basic but effective arc to play over the course of the film. His reason for giving toons the cold shoulder is given in dialogue early on. “A toon killed his brother…” Oh jeez, this is really heavy. “… dropped a piano on his head.” Hahahaha! This single line stands in for the delicate balance that the film strikes. The film asks what would happen if over-the-top cartoon antics were naturalized into a realistic setting, and the answer as shown here is what it should be: equal parts dark, joyful, and bizarre. It’s not any one thing, it’s all of them, and the film understands this well. And who better to bring the intricately looney results to life than Robert Zemeckis, hot off of directing Back to the Future, perhaps the most satisfyingly detailed film of all time? That attention to detail is what makes Who Framed Roger Rabbit great entertainment, as while the main plot is a necessary backbone, it is the insanity surrounding it, spicing up the proceedings, that makes a world of difference.
One insane but slightly understated aspect of the film is its villain, Christopher Lloyd as Judge Doom. He seems to be a Nazi-esque character; he’s dressed all in black with unsettling spectacles, and he even says, “You lack vision!” with a Teutonic accent! Balancing his relatively restrained persona are a pack of weasel henchmen, on loan from Winky in The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad. Judge Doom is very much a standard capitalistic villain, but his villainy goes a little deeper than that. He means to destroy Toontown and transform the area for sterile profit; by doing so he’s declaring war on art itself, as the madness of Toontown, while impossible to contain, is a hub of creativity and good humor. So he’s a fitting villain from where I stand, and come the end of the climax he’s guaranteed to freak the audience out on a whole other level as well.
Some of the crossover elements in the film seem like the stuff of childhood fever dreams. Here, Donald Duck and Daffy Duck find a venue to exercise their competitive streaks, and marquis mascots Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny share a quick and exhilarating scene. Funny, then, that the film is so inappropriate for kids! You have a hard-drinking and cigarette-bumming hero, sexual jokes that are barely veiled at all (the most blatant of which is the only line reproduced from source novel Who Censored Roger Rabbit? by Gary Wolf), and topping it all off is the outrageously sexualized Jessica Rabbit, human wife to Roger. Then again, “questionable” material was no stranger to Zemeckis, as Back to the Future milked the icky topic of incest brilliantly. All this and more probably just added exponentially to the appeal for many kids, I would imagine. It’s a testament to Disney’s confidence in the film that it would only pull so many punches in bringing the story to life.
The visual appeal of the film is undimmed after all these years; the blue screen work for the Toontown sequence still inspires a sense of wonder, such as in Eddie’s wonderful descent down the skyscraper. It’s fitting that Judge Doom references The Wizard of Oz, as both that film and Who Framed Roger Rabbit pushed the boundaries of what a film could look like, and what strange alchemy could come together to conjure these moving pictures. Who Framed Roger Rabbit is a great technical achievement, being a great feather in the cap of Robert Zemeckis; the animation landmark here foreshadows his forays into CGI fantasias in the first decade of the 21st Century, such as The Polar Express and Beowulf. But the film is also a broader achievement, endowed as it is with great humor, heart and boundless creativity. Pretty much a triumph. 10/10.