Monday, January 28, 2013

Reeling Backward: "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" (1988)


I'm always curious about how the reputations of a film rise and fall with the passing of years. When "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" came out in 1988, it was heralded as a spectacular artistic and technical achievement. A quarter-century on, it's become a pretty forgotten piece of cinematic history.

I remember Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert raving about the stunning combination of live-action and animated characters on their eponymous television show -- how convincing the juxtaposition of cartoon characters and real actors. Similarly, in the New York Times Janet Maslin gushed, "Although this isn't the first time that cartoon characters have shared the screen with live actors, it's the first time they've done it on their own terms and make it look real."

Though I'm sure it looked fresh and exciting back in '88, the film hasn't aged well. The craftsmanship that seemed cutting edge 25 years ago looks positively hokey now. Considering the 'Disney Renaissance' that began the next year with "A Little Mermaid," or in contrast to Pixar's computer-animated films that started coming out just a few years later, "Roger Rabbit" registers now as little more than a minor way station on the way to grander achievements.

I think what seemed groundbreaking back then was that the humans seemed to actually interact with the denizens of Tunetown, the fictional Hollywood enclave where cartoon characters live (and seemingly spawn). So when roughhouse private detective Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins) grabs Roger in a crushing grip, his meaty fist actually seems to be enclosed around the rabbit's scrawny neck ... sort of, anyway.

Coming before green screens and CGI, the live actors plied their trade on a regular sound stage, with props and puppets standing in for the cartoon characters -- who would be painstakingly drawn in during 14 months of post-production. Robert Zemeckis directed the film, but Richard Williams supervised the animated sequences.

Supposedly, Charles Fleischer -- the voice of Roger -- even read his lines off-camera wearing a ridiculous rabbit get-up, so Hoskins and the actors would have something to relate to.

Roger himself is like an amalgam of different bits 'n' pieces from the golden age of animation -- a little Bugs Bunny, Goofy's fashion sense, Droopy the Dog's patch of red hair, Porky Pig's speech impediment and the hyperactive schizoid personality of the Road Runner on acid. The overall effect is entertaining, if a bit synthesized.

It's notable that Roger Rabbit, while appearing in a few more short films to capitalize on the movie's success, pretty much died off as a mainstay in the Disney oeuvre.

The other most notable toon character from the film is Jessica Rabbit, gifted with Kathleen's husky sex appeal and the body of a Barbie doll after spending a couple of years under the care of a Brazilian plastic surgeon. I personally never saw what the big deal was with her, even after the revelation of a few supposed frames of a naked Jessica that appear subliminally.

But then, "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" was always a challenging mix of kiddie and adult material. The movie contains a few swear words, but was more controversial for risque bits like the little baby with the sexual mores of an aging lothario.

The story, based on a book by Gary K. Wolf, is pretty spare -- film noir meets Daffy Duck.

The head of the biggest cartoon studio is killed, with Roger fingered for the crime. Evil Judge Doom is the heavy, working to suppress the mogul's will leaving Toontown to the toons, so he can instead destroy the city's mass transit system and substitute a freeway instead. Eddie, who has an abiding hatred of toons after one killed his brother, is roped into helping Roger out.

Despite the simplicity of the plot, the film contains a number of clever conceits. The first is the notion that cartoon characters are not imaginary creations but sentient beings, who live to act screwy and make people laugh. Thus, Bugs and Mickey Mouse and a thousand other iconic characters are really actors who star in cartoons, suffering pratfalls and hammer squishings and other hilarious hijinks since they're more or less indestructible.

Sounds like they've got a lousy union.

(Steven Spielberg was reportedly key in convincing so many of the entities that owned the rights to these characters to let them appear in cameos.)

Doom has found a way to permanently destroy toons, melting them in his horrible acidic Dip. It's unclear exactly what the Judge's judicial duties actually consist of, since he mostly just rides around with his weasel henchmen putting the squeeze on toons and any humans who help them out.

It was one of Christopher Lloyd's most enjoyable roles, during a decade when he occuppied a rarefied perch as mainstream filmdom's most versatile character actor. His off-kilter line readings and creepy/funny screen presence made Judge Doom in many ways more enduring the Roger Rabbit.

"Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" is still a good movie, though seen today it clearly does not belong among the animation giants that came after, nor among the best comedies of that era. Mostly, it's a confectionery treat of live-action and cartoons mashed together in a way that's fun, if not entirely convincing.

3 stars out of four


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