Should I Watch..? 'Who Framed Roger Rabbit'
What's the big deal?
Who Framed Roger Rabbit is a comedy fantasy film that blends animation with live action and was released in 1988. Based on a novel by Gary K. Wolf, the film stars Bob Hoskins as Eddie Valiant - a private detective working in an alternate Hollywood in 1947 where people live alongside animated characters called toons. Valiant is hired by toon sensation Roger Rabbit to clear his name after a studio boss is found murdered. The film co-stars Christopher Lloyd and Joanna Cassidy in live-action roles while the voiceover cast included Kathleen Turner, Charles Fleischer and Mel Blanc in one of his final film appearances. It also marked the first time that Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny appeared on screen together. Winning three Oscars and becoming a worldwide smash hit at the box office, the film rekindled an interest in the Golden Era of Hollywood animation and also revitalised Disney's fortunes as well.
What's it about?
In 1947, Hollywood is a boomtown thanks to the success of cartoons starring the various animated citizens (known as toons) of nearby Toontown. Washed-up private eye Eddie Valiant, who used to work exclusively for toons, is hired by studio boss R.K. Maroon to investigate rumours concerning the wife of Maroon's top star, Roger Rabbit, whose recent performances have been less than satisfactory. It's rumoured that Jessica Rabbit, a nightclub singer, is having an affair with the owner of Toontown Marvin Acme and after Eddie snaps the pair of them playing patty-cake together, Roger flies off the handle and rushes off into the night.
The next morning, Acme is found dead with a safe having been dropped on his head. With Roger the chief suspect, Eddie meets Judge Doom who is interested in bringing Roger to justice. But Doom has a dark side - he has perfected the only known method of killing a toon, a toxic blend of chemicals he call Dip. After speaking with Roger's co-star Baby Herman, Eddie returns to his office to find Roger hiding and reluctantly agrees to help the toon clear his name...
Trailer (25th anniversary Blu-ray)
Roger Rabbit*/ Benny The Cab*/ Psycho*/ Greasy*
Jessica Rabbit (uncredited)*
Jeffrey Price & Peter S. Seaman *
Release Date (UK)
2nd December, 1988
Animation, Comedy, Crime, Family, Fantasy
Best Film Editing, Best Sound Effects Editing, Best Visual Effects, Special Achievement (Richard Williams)
Academy Award Nominations
Best Cinematography, Best Set Direction, Best Sound
What's to like?
Assume for a moment that the film's jokes are terrible, the story is complete rubbish and the performances are wooden - this is still a film that you can admire from a technical point of view. Never before had animation merged so seamlessly with the real world, to a point where you sometimes forget what's animated and what isn't. Now put the brilliant gags, complicated mystery and Hoskins' sublime showing as Eddie Valiant back in plus cameos from almost every animated character in the back catalogues of Disney and Warner Bros, a femme fatale for the history books and Lloyd's chilling portrayal of Judge Doom and it quickly becomes apparent that this is a rare film from the top drawer.
It works as a comedy, both for children and adults with its sharp dialogue and in-jokes as well as the endless slapstick. It works as a crime drama with Acme's murder quickly becoming one facet of an epic scheme at the very heart of Hollywood. It can even work as a period piece with the film looking every bit as authentic as you could imagine with costumes, sets, cars and technology all fitting in. Hoskins gives a truly wonderful performance as Valiant whose own story of redemption mirrors his efforts to clear Roger's name. Opposite, Lloyd makes a lasting impression as the black-clad judge drifting through scenes like the Grim Reaper himself. Even Joanna Cassidy, who might have struggled for attention between Hoskins, Lloyd and the rabbit, manages to deliver a quality performance as Valiant's on-off love interest.
It isn't just the physical actors who deliver the goods. Fleischer works overtime as both Roger and his personal transport Benny The Cab and both of whom provide plenty of laughs. But I'm afraid most viewers will leave thinking that the film belongs to Turner as the unforgettable Jessica Rabbit, arguably the most alluring animated character in history. No character in a family film should provide that much sexual energy in a non-sexual role but the character is simply dynamite - her introduction singing Why Don't You Do Right? is utterly magnetic.
- The three ingredients of Dip - turpentine, benzene and acetone - are all used as paint thinners by animators to remove animation from cels.
- Although Kathleen Turner was uncredited for her role as Jessica Rabbit, her singing voice was provided by Amy Irving who found fame as Sue Snell in Carrie.
- Although the film's title is obviously a question, no question mark ever appears in the title. The reason for this is because it is considered unlucky in Hollywood for a film's title to end in a question mark.
What's not to like?
Children might find Judge Doom a bit too scary and especially towards the end when his villainous scheme reveals itself (I don't think I'm giving too much away announcing a character called Judge Doom being a baddie). The plot might also confuse younger viewers as it encompasses themes of corruption, corporate sabotage and blackmail - certainly, I didn't get it when I first saw it as a child all those years ago although I'd be lying if I said it ruined my enjoyment of the film. Also, I would have liked to see more of Roger's earlier work - the film opens with what appears to be an actual Roger Rabbit & Baby Herman cartoon before revealing itself to be a cartoon being shot on stage.
But genuinely, I'm struggling to think of anything else to criticise this movie for. Indeed, it feels churlish to do so - some many man-hours must have been spent on its creation (no computer animation or digital work to be found here, remember) that it pick any holes in it feels like kicking a puppy because it can't do calculus. I will forever have a place in my heart for Who Framed Roger Rabbit, a film which miraculously still feels fresh and innovative more than twenty-five years after it's initial release.
Should I watch it?
If you know what's good for you. It can be easy to take great film-making for granted, especially in these days of digital short-cuts. But Who Framed Roger Rabbit is as well-crafted as it is ridiculously entertaining for the whole family. Frankly, there's not much more to add...
Great For: the whole family, voluptuous red-heads, Bob Hoskins' career
Not So Great For: weasels
What else should I watch?
Given how much work went into Who Framed Roger Rabbit, it's perhaps not surprising that so few other film-makers have tried to emulate it. Obviously, a studio with resources as vast as Disney have attempted it a few times - most successfully with Mary Poppins and less so with Bedknobs And Broomsticks. But these days, most animation is completed digitally so in theory, you might think it would be easier to merge animated characters like real-life performers. Instead, what we're seeing are actors being animated into an animated film - consider the likes of The Polar Express which do a good enough job but utterly lack the charm of traditional animation.
Anyone looking for an actual film noir would be better suited looking for classics like The Big Sleep which sees Humphrey Bogart's Marlowe falling head over heels for Lauren Bacall's teenage temptress or how about Double Indemnity, the film that would come to define the conventions of film noir? Either are excellent places to start watching and enjoying.
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© 2016 Benjamin Cox