Friday, August 15, 2014

Classics Revisited: Who Framed Roger Rabbit

Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)
Directed by: Robert Zemeckis.
Written by: Jeffrey Price & Peter S. Seaman based on the novel by Gary K. Wolf.
Starring: Bob Hoskins (Eddie Valiant), Christopher Lloyd (Judge Doom), Joanna Cassidy (Dolores), Charles Fleischer (Roger Rabbit / Benny The Cab / Greasy / Psycho), Stubby Kaye (Marvin Acme), Alan Tilvern (R.K. Maroon), Richard LeParmentier (Lt. Santino), Lou Hirsch (Baby Herman), Mae Questel (Betty Boop), Mel Blanc (Daffy Duck / Tweety Bird / Bugs Bunny / Sylvester / Porky Pig), Tony Anselmo (Donald Duck), Wayne Allwine (Mickey Mouse), Kathleen Turner (Jessica Rabbit).

Who Framed Roger Rabbit was so popular and critically acclaimed back in 1988 that I’ve often wondered why it didn’t spawn more imitators. True the movie was nowhere near the first film to combine animated characters and live action – they had been doing that for decades – but the film pretty much perfected it. More than any other film of its kind the animated characters really do seem to be a part of the live action environment they are inhabiting. Perhaps the reason there were not more like this is because the process was so painstaking – as animators had to take the shots that director Robert Zemeckis actually shot and draw the characters on them one at a time. Zemeckis didn’t make it easy, as he insisted on his camera to be constantly in motion, so not only do the characters have to move from frame to frame, but the perspective they are being shot in needed to change as well. Perhaps it was because when they did try to imitate the success of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, the result was a failure like Cool World. Perhaps it was the dawning of computer animation – which started just 7 years later with Pixar’s Toy Story, which made animation so much easier that the idea of doing something like Who Framed Roger Rabbit just seemed too time consuming and complicated. Whatever the reason, Who Framed Roger Rabbit stands as one of the most innovative films of its time – and one that remains almost a singular achievement.

The film is 1940s style film noir set in a Los Angeles where toons and people co-exist. The film opens with what appears to be one of the shorts of the era – a troublesome baby getting into all sorts of trouble on his quest to find a cookie, and his rabbit babysitter taking the brunt of the punishment for the Baby’s action. Then we hear someone yell “Cut!”. The Rabbit, Roger, has screwed up again – it’s supposed to be stars circling his head after the fridge drops on him, not little birds. The “baby” whips out a cigar, and starts cursing his co-star and the director. He can’t work like this! The action than goes from the purely cartoon world of that short, into the strange mixture of live action and animation that make up the rest of the movie.

Bob Hoskins stars as Eddie Valiant – a P.I. who once loved the toons, and now cannot stand them because his brother was murdered by one. He’s become an alcoholic, in desperate need of money, so when head of Maroon studios – R.K. Maroon (Alan Tilvern) comes to him with a simple assignment – follow Roger Rabbit’s wife Jessica to get some pictures to prove she’s cheating on him – he reluctantly agrees. And Eddie gets the job done – after seeing Jessica Rabbit’s routine at a nightclub, he snaps some photos of her literally playing “Pattycakes” with Marvin Acme (Stubby Kaye) – head of the company who makes all those wonderful gadgets. The next day, Acme turns up dead, and Roger is the only logical suspect. He’s pursued by the insane Judge Doom (Christopher Lloyd) who wants to dispose of him once and for all. But Roger tracks down Eddie and says he was framed – and Eddie reluctantly agrees to help.

The film is simply a joy to behold from beginning to end. It’s fun to spot all the cameos that are littered throughout the movie – and is probably the only chance we’ll ever get to see Daffy and Donald Duck in the same scene together (the movie was released by Disney, but producer Steven Spielberg got Warner Bros. to grant them permission to use their iconic characters in the film as well – but only if Daffy got the same screen time as Donald, and Bugs got the same screen time as Mickey Mouse – resulting in both pairs occupying the exact same scenes at the same time – including the dueling pianos routine by the two ducks, which is a highlight). It’s fun to see all these iconic characters pop up – Betty Boop, now down on her luck since the toons changed to color is perhaps my favorite – but Zemeckis doesn’t simply add them in for the sake of having them there (at least not completely). He does it to build the world they inhabit quickly, by using established characters. The main animated characters are of course Roger – that bundle of manic energy – and his bombshell of wife, Jessica – perfectly voiced by an uncredited Kathleen Turner. Surprisingly the human characters fit in perfectly as well. Bob Hoskins wouldn’t have been the first person to come to mind for me to do an animated comedy – but he’s perfect as Eddie Valiant – a grizzled, cynical detective who is hiding a good guy underneath. He doesn’t try to compete with the toons in terms of energy – but does succeed in grounding the movie is some sort of reality. Christopher Lloyd has great fun going over the top as Judge Doom.
Watching the film again, I realized that had the film been made today, it would probably be much different. This isn’t exactly a dark movie – but it does include smoking, drinking, sex jokes, murder and a few scary bits (that poor shoe) that would likely have to be sanded off for modern audiences, who are more sensitive about that sort of thing. By doing so, Roger Rabbit would have lost much of its charm. The film stands as a movie lover’s dream – referencing film noir in a family friendly way, and making one nostalgic for the childhood characters they loved. This is probably the best film Zemeckis has ever made – Back to the Future perhaps comes close, but the technical achievement of this film is unparalleled in his career. This is what he does best – make elaborate comic fantasies. And Who Framed Roger Rabbit is one of the best.

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