Director: Robert Zemeckis
Writers: Gary K. Wolf (novel), Jeffrey Price (screenplay)
Stars: Bob Hoskins, Christopher Lloyd, Joanna Cassidy
Robert Zemeckis has had a successful career. After the underperforming “Used Cars” and “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” he hit his stride with 1984’s “Romancing the Stone”. A year later he directed his arguably most beloved film “Back to the Future”. “Back to the Future” was an Oscar nominated blockbuster that has become a cultural touchstone. He would follow it up with what is his best film in 1988’s “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”. Yes, “Back to the Future” is his most beloved and 1994’s “Forrest Gump” was his most successful, while “Used Cars” and “Death Becomes Her” have their own cult status, but “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” represents the best version of what a Zemeckis film could be. His films blend spectacle with a human story and “Roger Rabbit” struck the perfect balance between the two. The film merged live action with animation, mixed Disney and Warner Bros. cartoon characters, and told a story about grief and the shady deals that build Los Angeles. To say this was a flex is an understatement. It also didn’t require a major star to carry it, instead relying on Bob Hoskins to get the audience to buy into the world of humans and toons. On paper, this film shouldn’t have worked as well as it did but Zemeckis and everyone involved was operating at the highest level.
The Roger Rabbit (Charles Fleischer)/ Baby Herman (Lou Hirsch) cartoon that opens the film is a delightful throwback to the Tex Avery/ Mel Blanc cartoons. It also sets up Roger’s character and why he’s a big star. The first major “wow” moment Zemeckis delivers is when a refrigerator falls on Roger and the camera pulls back to reveal a live action film set and his human director Raoul J. Raoul being angry that Roger blew his lines (having birds circle his head instead of stars). The cartoon suddenly becomes real and instead of pen and ink drawings there are tangible sets. Everything is done seamlessly and immediately immerses the audience in this world. The toon/human dynamic is treated as mundanely as possible. Roger and Baby Herman are just actors on a film set. Everything is casual .When Dumbo interrupts a meeting between private eye Eddie Valiant (Hoskins) and studio head R.K. Maroon, Maroon casually states that he got him on loan from Disney along with half the cast of Fantasia. As Eddie exits the studio he passes a plethora human and cartoon day players and studio employees. The toons don’t even exist solely as actors. At the Ink & Paint Club penguin waiters and an octopus bartender serve drinks (although make sure to ask for ice when ordering on the rocks). The victim is Marvin Acme (Stubby Kaye) who owns the factory that produces all the fine products that Wile E. Coyote fails to operate as well as the most innovative gags in the world.
Bob Hoskins’ performance as alcoholic private eye is the key to everything. Hoskins shockingly didn’t have an actual Roger Rabbit or Baby Herman to play off of. He still conducted his scenes as if he did. It never feels like he’s performing for a stand in or against green screen. Whether he’s angry or tearfully telling Roger about what happened to his brother it all feels real. When he sees Betty Boop selling cigars and cigarettes he’ genuinely excited to see her and when he sees Jessica Rabbit (Kathleen Turner) for the first time he is flummoxed and awestruck. He navigates his surroundings once the action travels to Toontown making the literal cartoon world tangible. It isn’t weird at all when he interacts with Tweety, Bugs, Droopy, and Daffy. Nowadays actors in blockbuster films are used to playing against green screen but if not done right can look awkward and take the audience out of the film. The reason he can do all of that is because the character of Eddie Valiant is a well written character with clear motivations that Hoskins can lean on. Eddie Valiant is a broken man. At one point he and his brothers were flatfoots but went into business as private eyes. They grew up with a clown for a dad and loved being around toons. When he loses his brother because a toon murdered him that all goes away. He turns to a steady diet of Wild Turkey and the only two people prominent in his life are Dolores (Joanna Cassidy) and whomever works at the liquor store. Eddie keeps his brother’s desk exactly the way he left it. When Eddie develops the pictures of Jessica Rabbit playing patty cake with Marvin Acme he’s happy when he sees old vacation photos of him and Dolores. Hoskins’ smile is jarring given his hard boiled nature to that point. That smile immediately fades when he comes across a picture of him and Teddy and the wound reopens. As Eddie cracks open a fifth of Turkey Zemeckis pans the camera using old newspapers and photos to establish their past and how good they were at their job.
This open wound makes it easy to understand why Eddie is so hostile towards Roger. The only reason he stays on the case is because he knows he was a pawn in something larger. Roger meanwhile is also a fully realized character. His pain at the thought that Jessica would play patty cake on him is real. Charles Fleischer plays the hell out of the scene where he cries behind the Acme Factory. Roger is ridiculous but he’s also just a rabbit in love with his wife. He also just wants to make everyone around him happy. Naturally, the one nut he can’t crack is Eddie. Eventually Eddie opens up to Roger while they hide out in a movie theater and Roger is crushed to learn that a toon was responsible for Teddy’s death. This is clearly the first time in a long time if ever he’s openly talked about what happened to anyone and it allows him to deal with it. He allows his heart to open a bit and accept that he loves Dolores and that she loves him. Before entering Toontown to go after Roger he even uses one of his Yosemite Sam bullets to destroy his flask of Wild Turkey. He’s overcoming his grief and finally unleashes the fun loving side when he has to put on an elaborate song and dance to distract the Toon Patrol. Hoskins relishes in getting to act somewhere between vaudevillian and cartoon character. When Judge Doom (Christopher Lloyd) reveals himself to be the toon that killed Teddy, Eddie isn’t angry, he’s terrified. Not just because Doom is coming at Eddie with a buzz-saw but because this toon is his biggest fear. The fact that Hoskins is asked to play all these emotions while also being a British man being asked to play a Sam Spade type character is incredible. Lloyd himself pushes himself beyond what is the typical Christopher Lloyd performance.
Christopher Lloyd’s Judge Doom is clearly defined the minute his cane zaps Eddie with Marvin Acme’s hand buzzer (still his biggest seller). Alan Silvestri’s (more on him later) theme for Doom is ominous and as the camera pulls up revealing him in all black its clear he’s the villain. Lloyd’s volume is turned up but rather than sound like Doc Brown, every word is precise and cold. Eddie describes him as a gargoyle. Doom is all about reigning in the insanity of Toontown to the point where he considers it a calling. His rise to prominence is a mystery but it’s clear it wasn’t entirely on the level as he spread a bunch of simolians around and bought his election. Doom knows Eddie’s history and needles him with it. In his first scene he demonstrates the Dip, the turpentine-acetone-benzene concoction (paint thinner basically) that can kill a toon, by dipping an innocent squeaky shoe. This scene is brutal. The Shoe’s face pleads for help and the sound it makes as it dissolves is scarring. His leather glove is covered in red ink and he casually flexes his hand. Lloyd’s line “I’m looking for a murderer” is petrifying and is delivered as if by Alan Rickman. He sells the malevolence of Doom while using the “shave and a haircut” bit as torture and it never sounds ridiculous. Later when his scheme is revealed, Lloyd revels in pitching the freeway and it sounds insane (still does). But the score and Lloyd’s performance make it all sing. He believes what he’s doing is both for the betterment of mankind and yes, lucrative. Once it’s revealed that he himself is a toon it reveals so much about that character. He’s so diabolical that he’d murder his own kind just to get eight lanes of shimmering cement from Sunset to Pasadena. The film never shows us Doom in his full toon form which makes him even scarier.
Two of the biggest influences on this film were “Chinatown” and “The Maltese Falcon”. For the latter film this influence is acknowledged by Eddie having a Maltese Falcon in his office. The case begins to take shape well before Marvin Acme is murdered. Eddie remarks early on that Los Angeles has the best public transportation in the world. The famed Pacific Electric Railway AKA the Red Car. Layoffs are happening at the Red Car and the Cloverleaf Company’s logo would resemble the freeway interchanges that would be seen all over the country and in Alhambra California specifically. The McGuffin in the film is Marvin Acme’s will. The company takes over Toontown if the will doesn’t appear. Doom’s plan is to eradicate public transportation and Toontown in order to build a freeway system. “Chinatown” used this same framework to tell the story of the shady dealings in the Los Angeles water wars.
All levels of production are perfect. Alan Silverstri’s jazzy score is iconic while his action scores echo the work he did in “Back to the Future”. The opening bars set the tone for the entire film and Doom’s theme immediately defines the character. The script by Jeffrey Price and Peter S. Seaman, based on the Gary K. Wolf novel, is both hilarious and structured perfectly. It doesn’t indulge too much in fan service regarding the famous cartoon characters but when it does it makes it count. The piano duel between Donald and Daffy Duck is amazing. It shows what this world is capable of and at the same time allows for the audience to get to know Marvin Acme and introduce the disappearing ink that would become important later in the film. The piano duel itself is both funny and a great set piece. The scene where Eddie is falling off the building and encounters Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse is brief but effective. It leads to both a simple yet terrific gag but is the kind of interaction that could only be possible in this world and would never be seen again. The end of the film features every major cartoon character except for Pork Pig who in one last gag invents his iconic sign off to end the film. The background gags are “Simpsonian” in their implementation. The film benefits from repeated viewings because lines of dialogue or background material give the audience something new every time.
“Who Framed Roger Rabbit” was highly influential both that the time and even today. It would revitalize the interest in golden age animation and jump start Disney’s renaissance with “The Little Mermaid” being released a year later. Disney was in the wilderness throughout the 80’s and this film would be the big swing they needed to take. The visual effects are still groundbreaking and while there were imitators (i.e. “Cool World”, “Monkeybone”, “Space Jam”) none of them could tell a compelling story. Other shows and films such as “Greg the Bunny” and the upcoming “Happytime Murders” try to take the approach of using what was considered a children’s medium (in this case puppets) to tell adult stories. It also has what is still one of the best rides in Disneyland history with “Roger Rabbit’s Cartoon Spin”. The idea of having iconic characters exist in a separate world was revelatory especially because Disney and Warner Bros. are corporate rivals. Disney’s “Wreck it Ralph” would succeed in this as would “Ready Player One” but not nearly to the level of “Roger Rabbit”. Robert Zemeckis would reach his career apex with “Forrest Gump” but this is his creative high point. The effects hold up more than the latter film and he hasn’t worked with a better script since (although “Death Becomes Her” is close). “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” is a masterpiece and in its 30 years has only gotten better with age.