On June 22, 1988 The Walt Disney Company via Touchstone Pictures and Amblin Entertainment jointly premiered a motion picture fraught with all the possibilities of becoming a catastrophic financial disaster. The logistics nightmare that became its production history had actually begun almost a decade earlier with the acquisition of a little known book by Gary K. Wolf. It would later be referenced by its director as the shooting of three movies in one: a vintage film noir, a cartoon caper and a SFX laden action movie. For director Robert Zemeckis there were more than a few sleepless nights. And yet the Midas hands of Steven Spielberg had been laid upon the project, practically ensuring its success. Indeed, the powers that be had hired the very best in the business to bring their dream project to life, including the technical wizards at Industrial Light and Magic (ILM).
I can still recall the sheer joy of seeing Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988) for the first time. Today, spoiled by a level of expectation for seamless computer generated effects, the period look of Roger Rabbit - the interaction between live actors and their animated superstars realized with rubber models, audio-animatronics, props suspended by wires and/or held in place on titanium rods, masterfully manipulated through cutouts in the floor by a small army of puppeteers – now seems generally quaint by direct comparison. What they arguably retain is a flawless and groundbreaking sense of balance and weight – aspects that a goodly number of CGI effects wholly lack.
In 1988 however, these technological achievements were nothing short of a miracle. Nothing could surpass the moment when hardnosed private investigator, Eddie Valliant (played to perfection by Bob Hoskins) reluctantly entered the Ink and Paint nightclub – an underground speakeasy for the very first time; surrounded by penguin waiters from Mary Poppins, an octopus bartender and Betty Boop as its cigarette girl. But the real star attraction was Jessica Rabbit (voiced by Kathleen Turner for dialogue and Amy Irving for the singing), the impossibly buxom super charged voluptuary, not all bad - just merely drawn that way.
What made this moment, as well as the entire film so utterly unique was hardly its blurring of that invisible line between live action and animation. This had been accomplished before, and with astonishing regularity practically from the dawn of moviemaking itself. No, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?’s exceptionality came from Zemeckis’ desire to shoot the movie with a liquidity of camera movement usually reserved for live action. Indeed, after witnessing the spectacular evolution and interaction of all these elements the stationary camera rule - the norm for such iconic moments as Jerry the Mouse dancing with Gene Kelly in MGM’s Anchors Aweigh and even Julie Andrew’s ‘jolly holiday’ through chalk pavement pictures in Disney’s own Mary Poppins was forever broken.
No movie before and few since have presented such an awesome technological challenge. Who Framed Roger Rabbit? consisted of roughly 1004 independent shots where cartoons and people share the screen. For those unaware, film passes through the camera at 24 frames per second. Do the math and you will quickly realize what a labor-intensive process the animators had ahead of them to breathe credible life into their fantastical menagerie.To fully realize this feat is a mind-numbing discipline. The complex process begins with the preparation of rubberized cutouts of the main cartoon characters that the living actors can react to. Test footage is then photographed with the actor and the rubberized prop so that the actor can get his/her bearings with the correct line of sight. Upon reviewing these tests the cutout is then removed and the actor forced to go it alone from memory, reacting to nothing except thin air. This footage is then reproduced frame by frame on Xerox paper and handed over to the animation department as a reference guide so that they can contribute their share.
The live footage is then combined with the animated and photographed together using crude pencil tests before all of the animation is handed over to the ink and paint department to be painstakingly recreated on animation cells by hand and then photographed yet again. To add even more believability the SFX department then separately photographs traveling mattes containing hand-painted shadows and highlights to each and every frame of film, creating an ever so slight third dimension to these two dimensional characters. Finally, all four individually photographed elements are composited in an optical printer on a single piece of film.
While the animators struggled to keep up with the pace of principle live action photography, Zemeckis and his cinematographer Dean Cundey set about resurrecting the classic visual landscape of a 1940s crime/thriller. Utilizing a go cart driven at high speeds by a double cloaked in black, the movie’s flesh and blood star, Bob Hoskins was strapped into the shell of a vehicle hurdling down the highway past vintage automobiles and careening in and out of extras dressed in period.
Jeffrey Price and Peter Seaman’s screenplay takes the audience back to 1947 – the height of the golden age in Hollywood and Maroon Cartoons – a Disney-esque conclave for practically every loveably cartoon star one can recall from childhood. But the biggest name on the marquee isn’t one from distant memory, rather a brand new creation; the loveably flustered Roger Rabbit (impeccably voiced by Charles Fleischer, who insisted on wearing a rabbit costume to get into character). After a hilarious all-cartoon opener that effectively resurrects the unhinged zaniness most readily found in a classic Tex Avery cartoon we are introduced to Roger – a rabbit conflicted, with clearly more than dickie-birds and punch lines on his mind. In fact Roger has flubbed yet another take on the latest Maroon Cartoon, incurring the upset of his costar, Baby Herman (Lou Hirsch) – a loud-mouthed cigar chomping midget with a penchant for the ladies, and his flesh and blood director, Raoul (Joel Silver).
Twenty-five thousand dollars over budget, Roger’s boss, cartoon mogul R.K. Maroon (Alan Tilvern) has decided to take matters into his own hands, hiring private investigator and Toon Town expert Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins) to expose a presumed affair between Rogers wife, the sultry nightclub chanteuse, Jessica and middle-aged Ink and Paint Club owner Marvin Acme (Stubby Kaye). Jessica headlines the club’s nightly entertainment, but she’s also been playing patty-cake (literally) with Marvin. Valiant doesn’t really want the case – at least, not since his brother was killed in Toon Town by having a piano dropped on his head. In fact, in the intervening months Eddie’s become something of a shill, soaking his girlfriend, Dolores (Joanna Cassidy) for money and free drinks at the bar she keeps.
After learning of his wife’s extracurricular activities Roger flies into a rage quickly abated by some cheap liquor and his own self-pity. However, when Marvin turns up murdered the police naturally suspect Roger. The chief proponent for seeing Roger brought to trial is Judge Doom (Christopher Lloyd); a sadist with an unnatural aversion to toons and who has recently invented a way of executing them. The concoction is called ‘the dip’ – basically a toxic bath of turpentine and other corrosive chemicals that can eat through a cartoon’s ink and paint. Baby Herman and Jessica both implore Eddie to take Roger’s case. But only after Roger handcuffs himself to Eddie does their awkward friendship and quest for the real killer begin. Roger is a wily sort but harmless. Moreover, Eddie cannot let himself to hate Roger enough to have him destroyed by Doom’s dip.
Roger and Eddie are introduced to Benny the cab (also voice by Charles Fleischer); a rambunctious taxi who helps the pair elude Doom and his weasels. Eddie takes Roger to Dolores’ bar, hiding him in the backroom. Doom, however, lures Roger out of hiding with the old ‘shave and a haircut’ trick. Narrowly escaping his fate, Roger and Eddie hide out in Toon Town, an alter universe where the tables are turned and Eddie Valiant is surrounded by beloved cartoon stars from the golden age. These include Bugs Bunny, Daffy and Donald Duck, Goofy, Woody Woodpecker and Droopy among many, many others. After several harrowing – and frankly hilarious vignettes – including one where Eddie is pursued by Lena; a grotesque and freakish impersonation of Jessica, Eddie and Roger return to the relative normalcy of R.K. Maroon’s back lot.
Eddie discovers that Maroon and Doom were working on a deal to eliminate L.A.’s public transportation system, ‘the Red Car’ in favor of building a freeway. The plan is a cash cow, but with one hinge. The newly proposed blacktop must go directly through Toon Town. While Eddie squeezes Maroon for the particulars of the deal Jessica knocks her husband unconscious with a fry pan in the hopes of saving him from being caught by Doom. Instead, Maroon is murdered and Eddie, Jessica and Roger are taken captive by the weasels to Marvin Acme’s warehouse. There Judge Doom reveals to Eddie that he is not actually human, but the murderous toon who killed his brother. Struggling to overcome his fear and save Roger and Jessica from ‘the dip’ Eddie reenacts a Vaudeville routine that makes the weasels laugh – thus killing them. Doom attempts to murder Eddie, but at the last possible moment is sprayed by his own dip thereby causing him to melt. The toons emerge from Toon Town to rejoice, welcoming Eddie, Jessica and Roger into their world.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit? owes a great deal of its success to the impeccable acting of Bob Hoskins. The believability Hoskins is able to generate in his reactions to Roger and his cartoon cohorts, when in reality he is performing with nothing except his own fertile imagination to rely on, is extraordinary. We implicitly believe Hoskins in his pantomime. When Eddie Valiant seizes Roger by his ears there is a sense of the weight behind the exercise. In fact, Hoskins is able to convey this interaction so well that we never question his behavior. It just seems real. The other debt the film’s creators owe is to Charles Fleischer for his exceptional vocalization of Roger – a character created in the 1980s but one who seems effortlessly plausible as the beloved cartoon hero from the 1940s.
It is also interesting to note that despite its obvious gimmickry, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? never relies exclusively on this one hit fascination for combining two worlds to sustain itself. Yes, it’s fun to watch humans and non-humans effortlessly coexist. And true, we are never far removed from this seamless blend, brought closer still by having a man’s best friend a rabbit (I am certain Freud could make much out of that). But the movie is a caper first and foremost and a finely engrossing one too. The film’s state of the art technological achievement therefore becomes second. This is as it should be. Besides, Hoskins, Lloyd and Cassidy are expert foils for the zaniness of their cartoon counterparts, layering their Bud Abbotts, if you will, to the toon’s wacky menagerie of Lou Costellos. Perhaps this too is part of the secret and the magic behind the exercise.
The humans do human things while the toons react as we might expect them to – defying all logic of space and time. And then, of course, there is Jessica Rabbit; with her Veronica Lake styled coiffeur and body inspired by the erotic creations of Ralph Bakshi – she is every bit as alluring and plausible as Kathleen Turner’s vocalization – a concoction obviously designed to appeal to the hot-blooded American teenage male who enjoys the female form as a stereotypical sex object. But Jessica Rabbit is more than a fantasy. As the story unravels she reveals her worldly side, unequaled by her husband’s mental simplicity or any of her other female cartoon contemporaries. Her body not withstanding – for it scarcely could without toppling over at those unrealistic proportions – Jessica’s mind is cleverly exacting and, at times, manipulative, while never becoming the clichéd femme fatale of the piece. That’s refreshing.
Viewed today, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? remains a true artistic achievement. Moreover, it is a landmark in the integration of live action and animation – certainly one that has never again even been attempted without the benefit of CGI. Disney’s 25th anniversary blu-ray revisits this technological touchstone with a spectacular looking 1080p image. I remember how disappointed I was with Buena Vista’s ‘vista series’ DVD release from ten years ago, finding the image slightly dull and soft with less than perfect integration of the live action and cartoon elements. But on Blu-ray the image clicks as a whole – regaining the invisible integrity I remember from my theatrical viewing experience. Moreover, the image is tight and sharp with refined, bold and very rich hues. Flesh tones look spectacular. Contrast is bang on. Minute dirt and scratches that had been quite obvious on the ‘vista series’ DVD have been eradicated on the Blu-ray. The wow! factor is here. Prepare to be amazed.
The DTS 5.1 audio is also good reason to rejoice. Alan Sylvestri’s score sounds spectacular. Dialogue is well placed and clear. SFX are very solidly integrated. At the time of the film’s theatrical release great pains were taken with the sound mix to create a heightened sense of realism. Disney has resisted the urge to do one of their clever-clever ‘home theater’ mixes, allowing the strengths (and weaknesses) inherent in the original Dolby surround to shine through (more of the former and less of the latter, thankfully) and the results perfectly preserve that mostly frontal sounding sonic palette with clever – if restrained – use of the rear channels.
If this disc does have a failing, it is the extra features – virtually all of them imported from the ‘vista series’ DVD. Honestly, if we’re going to market a Blu-ray release as 25th anniversary shouldn’t this alone warrant the inclusion of some new retrospective goodies? Apparently not as far as the powers that be at Disney are concerned. While their animated Blu-rays have yielded great things, Disney’s commitment to their live action catalogue hasn’t been so fortunate and it’s one of my biggest pet peeves with the company today.
Extras include the meandering audio commentary from Zemeckis and various members of his creative team. We also get all of the previously released featurettes that, regrettably, were hardly comprehensive in illustrating the production history of this incredible undertaking. Deleted scenes and the three Roger Rabbit shorts round out the extras. Like the feature, these shorts have been remastered and yield an impressive clarity that will surely not disappoint. Bottom line: it’s hard not to recommend this repurchase. Who Framed Roger Rabbit? has never looked more ravishing on home video. So, yes. It’s time to re-buy and own it again.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)