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.