Wouldn’t it be cool if cartoons co-existed with human beings? Let me rephrase that: how awesome would it be if Daffy Duck and Donald Duck were to have a duel of pianos at a members-only club in 1940s Hollywood? Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), based on the book Who Censored Roger Rabbit? by Gary K. Wolf, successfully imagines such a world and most importantly manages to convince the audience cartoons are actually interacting with human beings. Its director, Robert Zemeckis, has always been a master at mixing groundbreaking special effects with an engaging story, so if anyone was going to get this story right, it had to be him. Pulling the strings at the top of the production chain was none other than Steven Spielberg, who although better known for his directorial work, has produced some of the most memorable movies of the 80s, including this one.
But just how do you classify Who Framed Roger Rabbit? I first saw a French-dubbed version of the film on VHS in the early 90s while living in Corner Brook, Newfoundland. My parents thought my brother and I would enjoy the movie’s cartoons and indeed the film starts off with a cartoon skit that gives Bugs Bunny a run for his money. But then a human yells cut when Roger Rabbit (voice of Charles Fleisher) has birds floating around his head instead of candles after a refrigerator falls on his head. From then the movie delves into a plot involving an affair, a murder, and a real estate scam à la Chinatown. Roger is the film’s comedy relief, while the hero is an alcoholic private detective, the archetypal character of film noir. That is a lot to take in for an eight-year-old. I had to watch the movie dozens of times before finally understanding the plot. Nevertheless, if you are a kid you will love seeing Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse share the screen, and as an adult you get to enjoy the intricate plot and the performances of the humans.
Bob Hoskins is Eddie Valiant, a boozy private eye working in 1947 Hollywood. In the movie’s universe, cartoons are studio employees who interact with the humans who direct them. R.K Maroon (Alan Tilvern), the owner of Maroon Cartoon Studios owns Roger Rabbit’s contract and has a job for Eddie. There is a rumor around town that Roger’s wife Jessica (sexy voice of Kathleen Turner) is having an affair and Maroon wants Eddie to do follow her around and get pictures of the truth. Eddie is reluctant to be anywhere near cartoons, since one of them is responsible for his brother’s death, leading to his drinking problem. After assurance that he would never have to go to Toontown, the cartoons’ own private city, and the promise of $100, Eddie takes the job.
To his surprise Jessica is a sultry red head, whose animators were inspired by screen sirens such as Rita Hayworth and Lauren Bacall. A cartoon, yes, but a very human-looking one, who is apparently cheating on Roger with Marvin Acme (Stubby Kaye), owner of the Acme Corporation and of Toontown. Eddie and Maroon show the compromising photos to Roger, who does not take it well. The following day Eddie is awoken by Lieutenant Santino (Richard LeParmentier) who informs him Marvin Acme is dead and Roger is the prime suspect.
From there Eddie is dragged into the mystery of Acme’s death and the fate of Toontown itself. Baby Sherman (voice of Lou Hirsh), Roger’s foul-mouthed co-worker with the body of an 8-month infant, tells Eddie Acme had a will that would leave Toontown to the Toons, but the will is missing. Hot on Roger’s tail is the aptly named Judge Doom (Christopher Lloyd), the corrupt judge of Toontown’s superior court. With a gang of evil weasels following his orders, Doom intends to put Roger on trial and execute him by melting him in a batch of solvents or as he calls it “Dip.” To make matters worse, Roger has slipped into Eddie’s office through the mail slit and needs his help to clear his name.
With all these story strands involving missing wills, corrupt studio officials, sultry femme fatales, and murders, it is easy for a kid to get confused. But simply put, Eddie is the hero who will overcome his fears, Roger is the funny sidekick, Judge Doom is the villain, Dolores (Joanna Cassidy) is Eddie’s ex-girlfriend who of course works at a bar, and Jessica Rabbit is the femme fatale. But as she puts it, “I am not bad. I’m just drawn that way.”
The movie’s other star is of course the special effects and the roster of cartoons who were rented by Amblin Entertainment and Touchstone Pictures to be together onscreen for the first time. What other movie has Yosemite Sam, Betty Boop, Dumbo, Tweety Bird, Droopy, Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny? This was the first movie to have cartoons seamlessly interact with human characters by holding objects, opening doors, and in Roger’s case being handcuffed to Eddie. When Eddie finally faces his fears and travels to Toontown, he becomes somewhat of a cartoon himself when he enters an ultra-fast elevator driven by the sad-faced Droopy the dog. “Hold on, sir,” he says before Eddie is squished into the floor.
I may not have understood the general plot the first time, but you can’t fault Who Framed Roger Rabbit for trying to be ambitious with its story line. I revisit it frequently and I have of course updated from the VHS tape to the special edition DVD, which looks like it was designed by cartoons. If you click in the right place in the DVD menu you get a pie thrown at the screen.
As Porky Pig would say: “Th, th, th, that’s all folks.”