Who Framed Roger Rabbit
It's the story of a man, a woman, and a rabbit in a triangle of trouble.
Although there have been plenty of movies over the years that have combined hand-drawn animation with live-action performances, Who Framed Roger Rabbit is arguably the gold standard.
When I was younger I was blown away by how realistic everything looked. As an adult, I'm still continuously filled with awe by how well the movie holds up and by the creative talent that went into making this movie. It perfectly captures the era of 1940s Hollywood, the loony fun of classic Disney & Warner Bros. cartoons and is, in my mind, the epitome of the term "movie magic".
Having previously earned a name for himself helping big-name toons like Donald Duck and Goofy, Private Investigator Eddie Valiant (played by the late Bob Hoskins) is haunted by the memory of his brother's death at the hands of a toon. Now washed-up, he's hired by the Maroon Cartoon Studio to snap candid photos of Roger Rabbit's wife playing pattycake with Marvin Acme, the owner of both Toontown and the Acme company (the very same company that Wyle. E. Coyote gets all his gear from). But the stakes are quickly raised when Marvin Acme is found dead and Roger (brilliantly voiced by Charles Fleischer) is the prime suspect.
The only person who can prove Roger's innocence is the alcoholic, toon-hating Eddie, who is reluctantly forced into helping him after he discovers him hiding in his apartment. It's up to Eddie to clear Roger's name and find the real evildoer before the uncompromising Judge Doom can have the rabbit sentenced to justice!
Not only did it feature the longest credits to appear in a film, but with a production budget of $70 million it was also the most expensive movie ever produced in the 1980s.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit is an entertaining murder-mystery that is very loosely based on Gary Wolf's novel Who Censored Roger Rabbit?. After the book was released in 1981, Disney very quickly snapped up the rights so that they could make a live-action adaptation of it. Their original screenplay was relatively faithful to the source material, which was pretty dark and lacked many of the characters that would later be written for the movie. In 1985, Disney CEO Michael Eisner then handed over the reigns to Steven Spielberg and most of Wolf's plot was thrown out the window.
That also just happened to be the same year that audiences were treated to my favourite movie of all time; Back to the Future! I'm always excited for any opportunity to reference or quote any of the movies from the Back to the Future trilogy, but why “in the name of Sir Isaac H. Newton” is it particularly significant on this occasion? Well, Spielberg, Frank Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy were all executive producers on that picture, and all of whom have been responsible for many of our most cherished movies from the past 30-40 years. Back to the Future was also directed by the brilliant Robert Zemeckis, with music composed by Alan Silvestri, cinematography by Dean Cundey, and it starred Christopher Lloyd as the wonderfully eccentric Dr. Emmett L. Brown. All of these talented people returned to create Who Framed Roger Rabbit, so it's no surprise that both movies share a similar cinematic tone, brilliant comedic timing, and are chocked full of well thought out little details and Easter eggs.
As for the cartoon side of things, Spielberg, Marshall and Kennedy later went on to produce the acclaimed Tiny Toon Adventures series together. Spielberg was also responsible for shows like the Animaniacs and Pinky and the Brain. The team also reunited once again to produce three additional animated Who Framed Roger Rabbit shorts following the film's release that were similar in tone to the short animated sequence that we were treated to at the beginning of the movie.
To better understand how he would need to interact with his non-existent co-stars, Bob Hoskins would watch and study how his daughter played with her imaginary friends, taking note of tiny details like how she would walk across the room with them.
What the team achieved with Who Framed Roger Rabbit was staggering. Not only did it feature the longest credits to appear in a film, but with a production budget of $70 million it was also the most expensive movie ever produced in the 1980s. It is also the only time that cartoon characters from both Warner Bros. and Disney have ever appeared together on screen.
Because Disney were the ones making the movie (through their Touchstone Pictures division), Warner Bros. would only agree to allow their biggest stars Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck to appear if they were both granted an equal amount of screen time as their Disney counterparts; Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. That's why both sets of characters always appear together in every scene that they're in. This did work to the production's advantage, however, as seeing both ducks duelling at the pianos was a hilarious treat. And when Bugs and Mickey are together, Bugs is able to get away with pranking Eddie in ways that Mickey would never have been allowed to. It’s also a delight to hear voice actors like Mae Questel, Richard Williams, Joe Alaskey, Wayne Allwine and Mel Blanc reprise their roles as our favourite classic Disney and Warner Bros. characters.
Roger was designed with a mix of characters from both studios. Animation director Richard Williams described him as having a "Warner's face", a "Disney body", a "Tex Avery attitude", Goofy's overalls, Mickey's gloves, and Porky Pig's bowtie. The red overalls, white body and blue tie were also deliberately based on the colours of the American flag so that "everyone would subliminally like it".
During filming, Charles Fleischer delivered Roger’s lines off camera in full Roger costume including rabbit ears, yellow gloves and red overalls. During breaks when he was in costume, other staff at the studios would see him and make derogatory comments about the poor caliber of the effects in the "rabbit movie".
But it can't be understated how astonishingly good the effects actually are. It was the most complicated and ambitious hand-drawn animated movie of all time. ILM were responsible for merging the animated pieces with the real-life footage, which was something that they hadn’t ever attempted before. To put things in perspective, ILM’s biggest special effects feature at the time was Star Wars: Return of the Jedi which had an astounding 300 VFX shots. In contrast, Who Framed Roger Rabbit had well over 1,000. They also came up with some amazing techniques to make the characters feel like they had some dimension in the real world through the use of some clever shading and lighting effects to give them a more rounded look. As with a lot of special effects, some of the hardest ones are the things that often go unnoticed but would be very evident if they were missing. One such effect that I love are their focus pulls, whereby the field of depth would cause the background to be blurred, then as the background is focussed in on, the character in front would become blurred instead. It’s a very subtle effect that was difficult for them to pull off convincingly, but would have looked wrong without it.
Previous attempts to merge animation with live action in films such as those seen briefly in Mary Poppins looked flat, had little physical interaction between the actors and toons and whilst fun, ultimately didn’t feel all that believable. Animation director Richard Williams set out to break three rules that shattered those conventions: first, move the camera as much as possible so the toons wouldn't look they were pasted on flat backgrounds; second, use lighting and shadows to an extreme that had never before been attempted; and third, have the toons interact with real-world objects and people as much as possible.
How they accomplished that level of interaction baffled me for years, and given that this was made at a time that existed before mainstream CGI, it can be challenging to imagine how they managed to pull off some of the effects. But the team came up with a couple of ingenious methods to help bring it all together.
Certain props like Baby Herman’s cigar were moved on-set via motion control machines hooked up to an operator who would move the objects in exactly the desired manner. Then, in post, the character was simply drawn 'over' the machine. The other way of doing it was by using puppeteers. The glasses held by the octopus bartender in the Ink & Paint club were in fact being controlled by puppeteers from above on strings, whilst the trays carried by the penguin waiters were on sticks being controlled from below - both the wires and the sticks were simply removed in post and the cartoons added in. The effect of the weasels carrying guns around during the film was achieved using a mix of both methods.
They didn't want Jessica to be too realistic or to be too cartoony, so she was designed to be somewhere in the middle.
One minor yet interesting effect was during the scene where the toon pelican falls off his bicycle. It’s an effect that looks purposefully executed, but the surprising truth is that it was actually a complete accident. The original plan was for the pelican to simply ride straight past the camera, but the effects technicians were unable to keep the bike upright and stop it from hitting the wall. The filmmakers then made the decision to let the bicycle fall and animated the pelican losing his balance instead which ultimately added more realism to the scene and was charmingly amusing to boot.
Of course one character we haven't spoken much about yet is Roger's loving and dedicated wife, Jessica. She's an outright product of the 80s, based on women of the 40s. She’s instantly recognisable as the sexy red-headed bombshell who sings seductively in a club for human patrons. But when her husband is in need of protection, she’ll grab a gun without a moment’s hesitation if necessary. She defies all expectations of what you would expect Roger’s wife to look like and how she might act, but her strong-nature, confidence and smart thinking perfectly compliment her slapstick, innocent-minded and dim-witted husband.
One of her most quotable lines is "I'm not bad, I'm just drawn that way". This is something that extends beyond the script; they didn't want her to be too realistic or to be too cartoony, so she was designed to be somewhere in the middle. For example, they purposefully decided to give her bosom an unusual bounce by reversing the natural up/down movements of her breasts, causing them to bounce up when a real woman’s would bounce down, and vice versa. And if you imagine her proportions in real life, she'd snap in two at the waist! But that's the thing about animation; animators often try to do things that just wouldn't be possible with a real camera, to make something magic out of the impossible and yet make it believable. And Jessica is a perfect example of that.
But the magic of the movie wasn’t just down to the work of the animators, puppeteers and mechanical operators. It was also the responsibility of actors like Bob Hoskins and Christopher Lloyd to help make all that hard work feel real. Nowadays performing to thin air or against a blue screen is common place and something actors have come to expect in big blockbuster movie franchises like The Avengers, The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars, but back then it really wasn’t the case. Bob Hoskins was a true pioneer of the craft. When he holds Roger up by the scruff of the neck, not only is his line of sight and focus on where Roger’s head should be (rather than looking through him to the wall behind), there’s a real sense of weight and mass, as though he’s genuinely holding Roger’s entire weight with his arm. His commitment to the role, his physical comedy, and sheer imagination as Eddie Valiant was astonishing. He also credits his three-year-old daughter for helping to provide some inspiration. To better understand how he would need to interact with his non-existent co-stars, he would watch and study how she played with her imaginary friends, taking note of tiny details like how she would walk across the room with them. But words alone do not do the man justice; the caliber of his acting is truly exemplified when you see and compare the raw footage of his performance side-by-side with the finished film.
Hoskins was iconic as Eddie. He was an incredible actor, and amongst all the wonderful roles he played throughout his life, this is the role that I always associate him with most. I couldn’t imagine another actor in the role, not just because of what he brought to the character, but because his performance alone is what made us believe in the magic of it all.
Christopher Lloyd plays Judge Doom, and he is one hell of a cold, sadistic villain. Growing up watching him as the wildly eccentric Doc Brown in Back to the Future and then playing this intense creepy guy in Who Framed Roger Rabbit when I was at an age where I was just starting to learn to recognize that the same actor can appear in different movies was unsettling to say the least. His entire demeanour, steadfast resolve and belief in a “final solution” for toons is genuinely the stuff of nightmares. If you pay close attention to his performance, you’ll also notice that in every shot where he’s not wearing his glasses, he never blinks.
Although I know it sounds odd, I have a slight phobia of eyeballs in certain contexts. As I write this article it’s beginning to dawn on me that this film may indeed be what initially triggered it (and I’m sure that movies such as A Clockwork Orange and Event Horizon didn't help matters either). Doom’s spine-tingling eyes are freaky as hell and they still haunt me to this day.
One of Judge Doom’s questionable inventions is The Dip, a liquid capable of killing a toon and was devised as a way to help police them. In what I feel is a really nice narrative touch, it’s created from a mixture of turpentine, benzene and acetone, all of which are paint thinners used to remove animation from cels.
The first test-screening audience to see the film was mostly comprised of 18-19 year-olds and they outright hated it.
The movie also has some themes that have some historical context. Judge Doom’s master plan to dismantle the Red Car Trolley and build the first freeway is based on events in the late 1940s and 1950s, when private corporations conspired together to try and eliminate public transit in order to generate demand for automobiles and ancillary industries to keep said automobiles running. Then there’s also the Ink & Paint club where Jessica performs. It’s policy of only allowing toons onto the premises as entertainers and employees, not as customers, is a reference to numerous "segregated" venues during the mid twentieth century, such as Harlem's Cotton Club. That venue in particular was located in an African-American neighborhood, the performers and staff were African-American, and the shows often had pandering jungle themes, but only white people were allowed in as customers. It’s a dark undertone to the film which can sometimes be missed, but is one of those details that embeds it into the realistic, albeit regrettable nature of that era.
One of the aspects of the production which has always interested me since I first heard about it was the first test-screening audience to see the film. They were mostly comprised of 18-19 year-olds and they outright hated it. They started walking out of the screening, and after nearly the entire audience had done so, Robert Zemeckis, who had final cut, said he wasn't changing a thing.
It says a lot for Zemeckis. It’s evident that he believed in the vision he and his team had and that he was confident with what they had created together. And rightly so. Visually, thematically and emotionally, it is a movie that has withstood the test of time, and I have no doubts that it will continue to do so. I’ve repeatedly used the term “magic” to describe the film throughout this article, but with good reason. Everything the movie encapsulates is pure Hollywood magic, and is a wonderful collaboration between two of the biggest and oldest animation studios, the likes of which we may never see again.