Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
Runtime: 1 hr 44 min
MPAA Rating: NR
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Starring: Bob Hoskins, Charles Fleischer, Christopher Lloyd, Kathleen Turner, Joanna Cassidy
One of the greatest technological accomplishments in the history of the movies.
Review by: shaunhenisey
Added: 3 years ago
As a kid I remember watching a lot of cartoons. Growing up in the 1980's, I distinctly remember watching my favorite programs (The Real Ghostbusters, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Thundercats) and not thinking about the animation. The worlds that these characters occupied were real, not imaginary. They existed vividly in my imagination. I typically watched my favorite shows on Saturday mornings. After school everyday Nickelodeon played a show called "Looney Toons" which was basically that- classic Warner Bros cartoons from the 1940's, 50's and 60's. I remember Daffy Duck being my favorite of the lot. Something about Daffy was just a little... wilder than the rest. You can only imagine the look on my face when I saw my favorite characters integrated seamlessly with live action the first time I saw Who Framed Roger Rabbit.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit is one of the greatest technological accomplishments in the history of the movies. Sure, there had been movies that have mixed live action and animation before (Mary Poppins) but never like this. These were not ridiculous nameless cartoon mice or cats, but Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny we were talking about. These were characters that I knew and loved, and here they were- interacting with a super sleuth detective and an insane rabbit that I had never heard of, but instantly liked.
To summarize the plot of Roger Rabbit simply does not do the film justice. One of the beauties of the picture is that it is actually three pictures in one. It is a 1940's film noir in the vein of Chinatown (the similarities between Robert Towne's great screenplay are obvious), an animated comedy picture, and a special effects movie- all rolled into one. The film opens with one of the funniest two minute cartoons I have ever seen. Even outside the remainder of the picture Somethin's Cookin' starring Roger Rabbit and Baby Herman is a masterpiece. If it wasn't for Chuck Jones's brilliant Daffy Duck cartoon Duck Amuck, I would say that Somethin's Cookin’ may be the greatest cartoon short I have ever seen. At first, we think that the cartoon is simply a short in front of the film (a throwback to the great theater experiences of the 1940's and 50's, where a movie would open with a cartoon and end with a news reel) but then the end of the cartoon comes. Roger Rabbit (Charles Fleischer) has saved Baby Herman (Lou Hirsch) from a terrible fall. He lifts up a refrigerator over his head and then takes both of his arms and grabs the baby. The refrigerator falls on his head, and the director opens up the door to a Roger Rabbit that cannot see stars. This would be breaking the 4th wall in any cartoon- except the director (a nice cameo by action producer Joel Silver) is not animated- he is a real, living human being. There is not a sound effect, or "tada" moment. The movie just goes from pure animation to integration. The film is not interested in showing us the gimmicks of its artistry- it is just telling the story.
Taking place in 1947, Roger Rabbit tells the story of a young Hollywood during the golden age of animation. The 101 Freeway had not yet been built, and all major film and animation production was still taking place in Hollywood. Just outside of Hollywood lies Toontown (another Chinatown reference), a purely animated world where all cartoon characters live. You see, in this world cartoon characters (known in the film as "Toons") are real. They are paid performers for Hollywood cartoons. One of the film’s best moments includes a scene where various cartoon characters are hanging around a studio backlot, preparing to perform or audition for various parts. The Toons are still insane, of course, and it is clear that they abide by a different set of laws in the real world (they are virtually invincible and are capable of miraculous physical behaviors).
Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins) is our hero. Valiant is an alcoholic, down and out detective that is forced to resort to sleazy spy jobs in order to make a living after the death of his brother, Teddy. Teddy was murdered by a violent Toon several years ago, and ever since Eddie has hated all Toons. It is only out of desperation that Eddie takes a job from big shot cartoon producer R.K. Maroon (Alan Tilvern) to snoop on Roger Rabbit's wife Jessica (Kathleen Turner).
Jessica is one hell of a cartoon woman. She is not so much a cartoon character as a walking pinup model from the 40’s. Her curves are so fantastic that if she were a real woman she would most likely fall over. When Eddie witnesses her performance at the Ink and Paint Club (a club consisting of an all Toon staff) he is paying more attention to these curves than the behavior of Marvin Acme (Stubby Kaye), the owner of Toontown- who clearly has an obvious romantic obsession with the cartoon starlet. This changes when Eddie catches Marvin and Jessica playing Pattycake (a Toon equivelant of something much more…adult) and takes some juicy photos. Eddie shows Roger the pictures; Roger goes berserk and runs off into the night. The next day Marvin Acme is murdered and Roger Rabbit is the prime suspect.
Toontown is governed by the merciless Judge Doom (Christopher Lloyd). Doom is judge, jury and executioner for all Toon related crimes. Using his henchmen of cartoon weasels (another creation specifically for the film) he vows to hunt down Roger Rabbit and execute him for the murder of Marvin Acme. Doom has developed a chemical compound he calls “The Dip” made of Acetone, Turpentine and Benzene (fittingly, what cartoonists use to animation from cells) that will permanently melt a Toon, the only known way of killing them. Of course not everything is what it seems; Roger and Eddie eventually team up to figure out the mystery behind the conspiracy. Somebody framed Roger Rabbit, and could possibly be behind a plot to get their hands on Toontown and change Los Angeles forever.
From this point on the plot becomes a mixture of noir, mystery and action-adventure, with the cartoon characters all playing integral parts into the storyline. There is a brilliant supporting cast of adult players here, including Joanna Cassidy as Delores, Eddie’s girlfriend. Have no doubt though, the cartoons steal the show. This is a wondrous motion picture from start to finish.
This is a movie that only Robert Zemeckis could have directed. Although his recent films have not shown it (I am not a fan of his CGI work) he is an exceptional live action filmmaker. What I admire about Zemeckis’s work the most is the breakneck pace of his scenes and the integration of magic into his movies. A Zemeckis film never feels long or boring, because he does not want you to feel this way. The camera is always moving, the plot always progressing from one plot point to another. Many directors can make “quick” pictures, but most aren’t masters of pace. The pace of a film is not just about its plot progression, but the mixture of the progression along with character development. We get to know Eddie, the Judge, and Roger based on how they behave- not lengthy exposition or archetype. The special effects that Zemeckis creates, not only in Roger Rabbit, but also in his Back to the Future Trilogy and Forrest Gump, are always in service of the story. It is not shock and awe, but story and wonder.
That is not to discredit the film as elementary. On the contrary, what an amazing technological achievement this is! Who Framed Roger Rabbit must be one of the most technologically complex motion pictures ever made. This film was made over a period of four years in the mid 1980’s. There is not a CGI or computer shot in the entire film. Every frame of animation is hand drawn and then printed on top of the film image. This is a painstaking process, each frame taking hours upon hours to draw, ink and then implement. Richard Williams, the director of animation (who received a special Oscar for his work in this film) had the thankless job of animating the content into the film. Several rules of traditional animation are broken here. For example, most animation (specifically in this time period) focused on a non moving camera and a flat background. In Roger Rabbit, the camera moves around the Toons constantly- forcing them to have a level of depth and dimension unprecedented in any hand drawn animation before or since. Every frame of animation had to be highlighted with an aura, so that there would be a glow around the Toons when they are in the frame with live action actors. This glow prevented the cheap “cut and paste” look of previous integration projects (such as Mary Poppins) while also truly making the Toons look like they exist in the same plane as their human counterparts.
The physical effects and editing of the picture are also tremendous. Every live action piece of film involving cartoons had to be mimed; the “invisible man” technique had to be used in virtually every shot. When you really wrap your head around this, becomes an even more impressive accomplishment. Not only does the animation have to be created- but it has to be integrated. The Toons are not merely walking next to the humans, but touching them, interacting with the actors and their environment.
For example, there is a scene at the beginning of the picture where Jessica Rabbit is seducing Eddie Valiant. Jessica messes Eddie’s hair, picks up his tie, and then kisses him, leaving the slightest smudge of lipstick on his cheek. This was purely acted by Bob Hoskins, and no one else. In all reality, there is no one there. Jessica has not been input in the frame yet. Instead, the physical effects team has fishing wire on Hoskins tie, so that it can slowly come up when “Jessica” is grabbing it. Eddie’s hair is rustled from behind him using wires and “invisible” techniques as well. Finally the slight smudge of lipstick is actual animation simply edited into the frame. In a nutshell, this two minute scene is a technological and logistical nightmare, but Zemeckis, Williams and Editor Arthur Schmidt (who also won an Oscar) pull it off. This was only a two minute scene in the picture. There are over 50 minutes of animation. Do the math. Now think about scenes involving Roger Rabbit being in a sink. The water has to shake on its own. Think about the octopus in the Ink and Paint club that is serving drinks. The drinks were required to “float” in the air, and the animation was then drawn around the actual film footage. Each frame of film was printed as a still photograph and then animators used animation paper (which is as thin as tracing paper) over the photographs to animate into the scenes. I cannot imagine how much work would go into these scenes, let alone the animated car chase in the film.
Once one realizes how much work was involved in this film, it is easy to realize how grand the Bob Hoskins performance is. This is one of great underrated performances of all time. There was no green screen in the making of Who Framed Roger Rabbit. When Hoskins is on the screen he is spending 80% of the time talking to thin air. Sure, Charles Fleischer is talking off screen and giving Hoskins his lines, but Hoskins is still required to act, look at, and interact with characters who are simply not there. He is in every scene in the entire picture. Every time Hoskins is grabbing onto Roger he is actually just cupping his hands, as if grabbing the hand of an invisible person. His performance is remarkable. There is never a second when we don’t fully believe that Eddie Valiant is interacting with his Toon counterparts. Bob even is able to look at the Toons in the eyes, as if he knows specifically where they are at all points in time. This is an Academy Award worthy performance, specifically considering a great deal of his performance is essentially mime.
If any of these factors would have failed, the movie would have as well. Instead, the technology works, the live action story works, and the animation succeeds. Top it all off with the brilliant direction by Zemeckis along with a rousing “Old Hollywood” score by Alan Silvestri and Who Framed Roger Rabbit became an American Masterpiece.
Watching the film the other night, on my big green couch with my daughter lying next to me, I realized how much I missed traditional animation. Computer animation is brilliant (the Pixar films in particular are all masterpieces in their own right) but CGI animation simply lacks the heart and soul of hand drawn artistry. There is a beauty in these characters; a nostalgia to them. I forgot how much I loved Daffy Duck when I watched him battle Donald with dueling pianos. I love these characters and I love this story. They seem to be in the right environment. If cartoons really did live, I believe they would live in 1940’s Hollywood, with the fancy muscle cars and the art deco buildings. There is a certain level of class, and even danger, about old animation that we simply don’t see anymore. Williams and Zemeckis got everything right even when creating Roger. They have gone on record stating that they wanted the beauty of Disney, the characterization of Warner Bros, and the humor of Tex Avery. They got it all right. These cartoon characters are classic. Timeless. When the movie was over I was a little sad, my daughter did not know who some of these great characters were. Cartoons today are too safe and watered down due to nonsensical ‘political” reasons. Give me Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck with a stick of dynamite any day compared to Dora and Boots, or Bob the Builder. Who Framed Roger Rabbit is a movie that needs to be preserved. Show your kids. Before it begins tell them: This is what magic looks like.