Whatever else one might say about it, Who Framed Roger Rabbit unquestionably represents one of the most remarkable technical achievements to come out of Hollywood in the last decade. This movie is an ambitious blend of live-action and animation, brought together in a seamless, inventive, and sometimes exhilarating combination.
It’s the brainchild of Robert Zemeckis, the director of Back to the Future and Romancing the Stone. Having accrued some clout with those consecutive hits, Zemeckis was able to undertake this expensive production (the budget, rumored to be in the $50 million range, was bankrolled by Touchstone pictures—Disney, that is—and Steven Spielberg’s Amblin).
Roger Rabbit was so expensive because of the high cost of animation and the elaboratness of Zemeckis’s design. This movie takes the cartoon/live-action interplay of something like Disney’s Song of the South and whips it up into a silly symphony.
In the late-’40s world of the film, flesh-and-blood people share space with “toons,” the animated character stars of the movies. One toon, Roger Rabbit (voice by Charles Fleischer) is framed for a murder, and he must go to a hard-boiled private eye (Bob Hoskins) to help clear his name. Prominent in the investigation is a sinister judge (Christopher Lloyd) who wants to rid the world of toons by dipping them in a nasty green acid.
The plot is an excuse for the spectacular visual effects, some movie in-jokes, and a gallery of animated characters. There are cameos by most of the great cartoon figures, including Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, Dumbo, Tweety Bird, and Betty Boop.
Aside from the excitable and elastic Roger Rabbit, the most arresting newcomer is Roger’s wife, Jessica, a sultry, vixenish bombshell who purrs, “I’m not bad. I’m just drawn that way.” (Her voice, uncredited, is unmistakably that of Kathleen Turner at her most provocative.)
Zemeckis doesn’t let anything sit still for a single minute. His camera is continually swooping and panning, and he’s constantly staging tussles and clinches between his real and unreal characters, all of which must’ve added to the astonishing difficulty of painstakingly drawing in the animation. (Hoskins and company, needless to say, made their live-action movie first, which means that the actors were mugging and exchanging dialogue with thin air.)
The affectionate in-jokes poke fun at cartoon conventions such as the omnipresence of falling safes and flattening steamrollers. One of the funniest moments comes during a piano duet—no, make that duel—between Donald Duck and Daffy Duck. After a dose of Donald’s bellicose quacking, Daffy turns to the crowd and asks a question that has been on the minds of cartoon lovers for years: “Does anybody understand what this duck is saying?”
Zemeckis enjoys rubbing our faces in the amazing effects. Which is typical of him; I’ve always found his movies rather witless, even when they were enjoyable. If it were an ordinary movie, Who Framed Roger Rabbit would be none too interesting. But then, as it demonstrates at almost every moment during its running time, this is no ordinary movie.
First published in the Herald, June 1988
The absence of the question mark in the title was an early example of puctuaphobia that would creep into films. I never loved WFRR, but have grown to like Zemeckis more since, especially Cast Away and Beowulf.