Reviews

'Who Framed Roger Rabbit' Is Meta, Funny and Exhilarating

Director Robert Zemeckis explains that Who Framed Roger Rabbit is really "three elaborate films in one": a period live-action movie, an animated movie, and a special-effects extravaganza required to blend the two.


Who Framed Roger Rabbit

Director: Robert Zemeckis
Cast: Bob Hoskins, Christopher Lloyd, Charles Fleischer, Joanna Cassidy, Alan Tilvern, Stubby Kaye, Kathleen Turner, Lou Hirsch
Distributor: Disney
Studio: Touchstone Pictures
Release date: 2013-03-12

I first saw Who Framed Roger Rabbit when I was seven years old. It was not the first movie I saw in a theater; in fact, I quite liked movies by age seven and had already seen a variety of Disneys, Muppets, and even -- sorry, mom and dad -- Care Bears. But Who Framed Roger Rabbit was different; it was, to that point and for many years subsequent, the movie. It had pretty much everything I wanted from a movie before I saw it (Bugs Bunny, Donald Duck, cartoon violence), everything I wanted from a movie for the next few years (Steven Spielberg, Christopher Lloyd, in-jokes), and a lot of things I still cherish (all of the above, plus detective stories). It was the movie that turned me from a kid who liked going to the movies to a kid and adult who needed to go to the movies all the time. Who Framed Roger Rabbit had enormous influence on me, in other words (I may, in fact, be paraphrasing from my college application essays in relating this).

Who Framed Roger Rabbit is now on Blu-ray in a 25th anniversary edition, though as far as I can tell the primary function of the anniversary distinction is to make me feel old (with the secondary function of selling more copies); apart from the upgrade of the movie to high definition, it's mostly a rehash of the Vista Series DVD that came out a decade ago. The high-def transfer is substantial, though: the movie's painstaking pre-computer effects shots still look casually impressive.

I say "casually" because it took many, many years before I fully processed just how impressive a technical feat Who Framed Roger Rabbit actually was. Even now, two and a half decades later, I've learned a lot more about the undertaking from watching "Behind the Ears: The True Story of Roger Rabbit," a making-of documentary imported from the DVD (and not upgraded to high definition), which includes pre-production test footage and shots of Charles Fleischer (the voice of and on-set stand-in for Roger) performing in a rabbit costume alongside his non-animated costars.

In the documentary, director Robert Zemeckis explains that the movie is really "three elaborate films in one"" a period live-action movie, an animated movie, and a special-effects extravaganza required to blend the two. That blending of animation and live action, familiar in practice (Mary Poppins, Pete's Dragon, etc.) but unprecedented in complexity, must be especially seamless in order to work because the movie, by design, treats it as no big deal.

The story unfolds in a 1947 Hollywood that produces cartoons not through pencil, ink, and paint, but by filming animated stars (called "toons" and segregated from their live-action counterparts) doing their wacky, familiar shtick. The movie establishes this in one of its most famous turns: following the animated short "Somethin's Cookin", a director calls cut, and the camera pulls back to reveal a flesh-and-blood movie set. We see that the tweeting birds encircling Roger Rabbit's bruised head are a flubbed line (he was supposed to provide circling stars); that his costar Baby Herman is foulmouthed and cigar-craving; and that the refrigerator that just flattened Roger has been dropped on him again and again. When Roger says he'll be fine, the director snaps back "I'm not worried about you, I'm worried about the refrigerator" -- the script's dialogue has traces of '30s and '40s screwball about it.

A group of extras on the Blu-ray show just how special this opening is. Three more Roger Rabbit shorts were produced in the wake of the movie's success, to play in front of live-action Disney releases over the next few years. "Tummy Trouble", "Rollercoaster Rabbit", and "Trail Mix-Up" are all included here, but while the opening of Who Framed Roger Rabbit functions as both wild cartoon slapstick and hyperbolic parody of same (as well as something of a precursor to the even more satiric Itchy and Scratchy of The Simpsons), the subsequent shorts, beyond lacking the deft, fluid touch of the movie's animation director Richard Williams, are less clever: orchestrations of mayhem that occasionally pause to wink at themselves. "Tummy Trouble" has some amusing running gags and a fast pace, but by the time you get to the disjointed and frantic "Trail Mix-Up", the series has engaged in impossibly ante-upping mayhem and, as such, wears itself out.

The shorts all close with the same cut-calling gag from the movie, but the opening of Who Framed Roger Rabbit isn't just meta and funny; it's exhilarating because the movie continues from that point, and introduces the thoroughly live-action Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins), a washed-up private detective hired by R.K. Maroon (Alan Tilvern) to take incriminating pictures of Roger's wife Jessica (voiced by Kathleen Turner) and gagsmith Marvin Acme (Stubby Kaye). When Acme turns up dead, Roger is pursued by the terrifying Judge Doom (Christopher Lloyd, coming off like a family-movie version of Christopher Walken or Michael Shannon) and turns to Eddie for help.

The scene where Roger first visits Eddie's office, in fact, gathers all of the movie's technical marvels together. The commentary and documentaries explain that any live-action props moved around by toon characters had to be rigged with robotics and puppetry; that the proper real-world shadowing on the cartoon characters required four or five layers of composited elements; and, perhaps most often, that Bob Hoskins made great, undersung contributions to the movie via loads of formally difficult mime work -- his co-lead not actually being on set. The sequence at Eddie's office is, then, a virtuoso showcase for all of the above: physical comedy, the skills of Hoskins, the seamless blending of Roger (as well as a pack of cartoon weasels) into a real environment, and, oh yeah, some terrifically economical screenwriting, as we learn a rush of character details about both Eddie and Roger and also see their relationship start to progress in just a single extended scene.

The rest of the films continues that balancing act, moving along at the breakneck pace of all early Zemeckis films: Eddie and Roger take a talking cartoon cab on a real-world car chase; Eddie makes his way through the surreal landscape of Toontown; the detective story works in some real Los Angeles history as well as notes of Chinatown; a climactic fight bends reality, pitting real actors and cartoons against each other with weapons from both sides of the divide. The movie plays like a series of challenges: a gauntlet of invention.

I never really noticed that as a kid, though. I was too swept up in the movie's energy and comedy to notice the amazing production details. What did impress me about Who Framed Roger Rabbit even at a young age was the converging of cartoon stars from Disney, Warner Brothers, and elsewhere, all in one movie, animated more or less as they looked in the late '40s. This was accomplished by feats of corporate negotiation that likely rivaled the movie's technical work -- though, as with the artists and technicians handling the filmmaking, Steven Spielberg, the architect of these unlikely accords, makes it sound perfectly easy. Throughout the extras, the filmmakers assure us that this will probably never happen again.

That now applies to a lot of Who Framed Roger Rabbit. The ironic beauty of the movie is that many of its innovative techniques became outdated just a few years later, as computer animation began to render live action and animation not just compatible, but sometimes indistinguishable. Most summer blockbusters mix live action and animation, and they generally don't require a complicated synthesis of puppetry, hand-drawn characters, and mime to do so. This may be why Who Framed Roger Rabbit, while inarguably a mass-appeal, most-ages entertainment, still feels so personal to me: All of this grand difficulty, just to get an illusion across to an impressionable seven-year-old. Twenty-five years on, that illusion looks just as much like old-fashioned magic.

10


Music


Books


Film


Television


Recent
Books

Zadie Smith's 'Intimations' Essays Pandemic With Erudite Wit and Compassion

Zadie Smith's Intimations is an essay collection of gleaming, wry, and crisp prose that wears its erudition lightly but takes flight on both everyday and lofty matters.

Music

Phil Elverum Sings His Memoir on 'Microphones in 2020'

On his first studio album under the Microphones moniker since 2003, Phil Elverum shows he has been recording the same song since he was a teenager in the mid-1990s. Microphones in 2020 might be his apex as a songwriter.

Music

Washed Out's 'Purple Noon' Supplies Reassurance and Comfort

Washed Out's Purple Noon makes an argument against cynicism simply by existing and sounding as good as it does.

Music

'Eight Gates' Is Jason Molina's Stark, Haunting, Posthumous Artistic Statement

The ten songs on Eight Gates from the late Jason Molina are fascinating, despite – or perhaps because of – their raw, unfinished feel.

Film

Apocalypse '45 Uses Gloriously Restored Footage to Reveal the Ugliest Side of Our Nature

Erik Nelson's gorgeously restored Pacific War color footage in Apocalypse '45 makes a dramatic backdrop for his revealing interviews with veterans who survived the brutality of "a war without mercy".

Music

12 Brilliant Recent Jazz Albums That Shouldn't Be Missed

There is so much wonderful creative music these days that even an apartment-bound critic misses too much of it. Here is jazz from the last 18 months that shouldn't be missed.

Music

Blues Legend Bobby Rush Reinvigorates the Classic "Dust My Broom" (premiere)

Still going strong at 86, blues legend Bobby Rush presents "Dust My Broom" from an upcoming salute to Mississippi blues history, Rawer Than Raw, rendered in his inimitable style.

Music

Folk Rock's the Brevet Give a Glimmer of Hope With "Blue Coast" (premiere)

Dreamy bits of sunshine find their way through the clouds of dreams dashed and lives on the brink of despair on "Blue Coast" from soulful rockers the Brevet.

Music

Michael McArthur's "How to Fall in Love" Isn't a Roadmap (premiere)

In tune with classic 1970s folk, Michael McArthur weaves a spellbinding tale of personal growth and hope for the future with "How to Fall in Love".

Film

Greta Gerwig's Adaptation of Loneliness in Louisa May Alcott's 'Little Women'

Greta Gerwig's film adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's classic novel Little Women strays from the dominating theme of existential loneliness.

Music

The Band's Discontented Third LP, 1970's 'Stage Fright', Represented a World Braving Calamity

Released 50 years ago this month, the Band's Stage Fright remains a marker of cultural unrest not yet remedied.

Music

Natalie Schlabs Starts Living the Lifetime Dream With "That Early Love" (premiere + interview)

Unleashing the power of love with a new single and music video premiere, Natalie Schlabs is hoping to spread the word while letting her striking voice be heard ahead of Don't Look Too Close, the full-length album she will release in October.

Music

Rufus Wainwright Makes a Welcome Return to Pop with 'Unfollow the Rules'

Rufus Wainwright has done Judy Garland, Shakespeare, and opera, so now it's time for Rufus to rediscover Rufus on Unfollow the Rules.

Music

Jazz's Denny Zeitlin and Trio Get Adventurous on 'Live at Mezzrow'

West Coast pianist Denny Zeitlin creates a classic and adventurous live set with his long-standing trio featuring Buster Williams and Matt Wilson on Live at Mezzrow.

Film

The Inescapable Violence in Netflix's I'm No Longer Here (Ya no estoy aqui)

Fernando Frías de la Parra's I'm No Longer Here (Ya no estoy aqui) is part of a growing body of Latin American social realist films that show how creativity can serve a means of survival in tough circumstances.

Music

Arlo McKinley's Confessional Country/Folk Is Superb on 'Die Midwestern'

Country/folk singer-songwriter Arlo McKinley's debut Die Midwestern marries painful honesty with solid melodies and strong arrangements.

Music

Viserra Combine Guitar Heroics and Female Vocals on 'Siren Star'

If you ever thought 2000s hard rock needed more guitar leads and solos, Viserra have you covered with Siren Star.

Music

Ryan Hamilton & The Harlequin Ghosts Honor Their Favorite Songs With "Oh No" (premiere)

Ryan Hamilton's "Oh No" features guest vocals from Kay Hanley of Letters to Cleo, and appears on Nowhere to Go But Everywhere out 18 September.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.