Violent Segregation and Cartoon Heart in Who Framed Roger Rabbit

Who Framed Roger Rabbit. 1988. Directed by Robert Zemeckis. Screenplay by Jeffrey Price & Peter Seaman; based on the novel Who Censored Robert Rabbit? by Gary K. Wolf.
Starring Bob Hoskins, Christopher Lloyd, Joanna Cassidy, Charles Fleischer, Stubby Kaye, Alan Tilvern, Richard LeParmentier, Lou Hirsch, Betsy Brantley, Joel Silver, Paul Springer, Richard Ridings, Edwin Craig, Lindsay Holiday, & Mike Edmonds. Silver Screen Partners III/Touchstone Pictures/Amblin Entertainment.
Rated PG. 104 minutes.

POSTER These part couple decades I’ve been watching this film and not once did I ever hear this was based on a novel. Amazing! The original book by Gary K. Wolf is titled Who Censored Roger Rabbit? and follows in the film noir tradition of hard boiled detectives, femme fatales, and so on. Except for the fact it’s set in a world where human beings and cartoons coexist, or at least try to anyway. In the film, as opposed to comic cartoons, Private Eye Eddie Valiant navigates a world filled with animated film characters. We even get some familiar faces like Betty Boop, Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Mickey Mouse, Yosemite Sam, and the one and only Donald Duck.
More than that, Who Framed Roger Rabbit gives us a dose of comedy, some mysterious crime, and plenty darkness for a PG-rated flick. At the helm is director Robert Zemeckis who’s no stranger to a fun romp. This is one of the most underrated pieces of cinema out there. Dressed up to appeal to families, as it boasts a cast filled with cartoons many kids will recognize, Zemeckis gave us a crime thriller wrapped up in mystery further wrapped in the sheep’s clothing of a cartoon mixed with live action gimmick. Bigger than the sum of its part. Better than a gimmick. Zemeckis and producers, including Stephen Spielberg among others, allow us a window into a little seen view of the cartoon and human universe where Toons and people alike are subject to the dangers of living in a hyperreal world. Don’t let the friendly exterior fool you, fellow fans of the weird and the frightening – there’s stuff for you, too! Plenty of it. In fact, the mix of tones in this movie is a major reason why it is an unheralded masterpiece.
I’ve always loved the opening because we get that typical animated style, which is awesome, then we’re led into the real world right behind the camera. The animated feature we watch is excellent. What’s really fun is that the Toons aren’t drawn here. In this universe, they’re corporeal, they’re simply different. After we cross over from the animation into half animation, half live action, it is almost surreal for the first few moments. The animation director, Richard Williams, drew unconventionally for this project. Generally, there are rules animators follow when combining live action with animation; nothing written in stone, just a general way to do things. Instead, he broke some of those rules. He makes the Toons interact with the real people and real world frequently (stroke of genius handcuffing Eddie to Roger), as much as possible without feeling forced, as well as move the camera around a good deal because it makes things feel more 3-dimensional instead of looking like everything’s on a flat background. Finally, Williams uses light and shadow in a way not seen before. This is what truly gives it that hard boiled, film noir feel. The atmosphere is one of the more incredible elements of the picture.
And this flawless mix of live action people with cartoon animation helps us break into a larger theme in the film. You might not want to break down a movie like Who Framed Roger Rabbit. But I do, so if you can’t dig it, then see ya.
Really, though. This movie at its basic level is about difference, acceptance, and yes even straight up racism. For all its bright and vibrant glory, this Zemeckis feature is dark, macabre. It can be quite grim, at times. Judge Doom is even going so far as to execute Toons in such an awful way. His dip is comprised of turpentine, benzene and acetone; these are paint thinners actually used to remove animation from cels. It’s twisted and a nice little addition to the screenplay. Overall, we see the segregation of Toons from the real people. Doom represents a sort of uber-Republican, ultra-conservative viewpoint on city living. Like so many African American, Korean, Italian (and so on) citizens in big cities of America, the Toons find themselves at risk due to the white supremacy running these places. Doom is almost too obvious, as he’s bald, his skin is sickly white. Of course there’s more to him, but on a surface level he’s like a totalitarian dictator. And like many of them in history, he finds himself so disgusted with his own existence that he is self-hating, doing evil to those closest to him, trying to create a perfect world where the purity of real people is preserved. Such an eerie thing when you get down to it, as Doom’s revelation that he is in fact a Toon brings to mind someone like Daniel Burros, a Jewish man that went on to legitimately become a member of the American Nazi Party. I know, I know – awful heavy for a cartoon-live action hybrid. But the evidence is there if you’re looking. For me, it makes the whole thing better to have some depth.
Roger: “Yeah, check the probate. Why, my Uncle Thumper had a problem with his probate. And he had to take these big pills, and drink lots of water!
Eddie: “Not prostate, you idiotprobate!”
This is also the film that started my cinematic love affair with Bob Hoskins, rest his wonderful soul. He was a phenomenal actor, though I’m almost positive this is my favourite of his roles. Apparently an original choice, likely Stephen Spielberg, hoped for Bill Murray. I do love Murray. However, Hoskins brings this excellent presence to the role of Eddie Valiant. He is conflicted, he’s a hard man. He lost a brother at the hands of a mad Toon. All the while you feel this empathy for him, as well as a bit of anger at times, though eventually he comes to be the anti-hero, the underdog defying expectation. Murray could’ve surely played the part, probably well. Hoskins makes this into an utterly necessary performance as to why the story works. The chemistry between him and Roger Rabbit (voiced by the spectacular talent of Charles Fleischer) renders what could quickly fall into complete foolishness (the bad kind) into something far better, foolish in the right way, and emotional even to the point it tugs at the heartstrings.
And then there’s Christopher Lloyd, the enigmatic, wild, weird character actor known for his major role as Doc Brown in Back to the Future. For me, his role here as Judge Doom is the defining moment of his career because he is just unbelievably wacky and grim at once. Check his eyes when not wearing the shades – he doesn’t blink. He’s somewhere between goofy Republican and nationalist psychotic. This role almost went to Tim Curry, but apparently everybody in the room found him too terrifying, so Lloyd offers the creepiness while simultaneously keeping it funny, even if it’s darkly comic. Either way he rocks this performance. As a boy, I saw this around six years old; it came out when I was three. Lloyd always left an indelible mark on me and I’d actually credit him, as well as the movie overall, for being an early influence on my odd tastes.
I love, love, love Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Every last frame and cel. There’s so much to enjoy, right down to the score. Robert Zemeckis does a fantastic job directing, which could not have been an easy feat. Not even close. Bob Hoskins, Charles Fleischer, and Christopher Lloyd each add essential elements to the final product. The film noir mystery of the screenplay is a ton of fun, and this 1988 film makes 1947 feel so palpable. You’d swear the film sets are right under your feet, as if you’re walking the lots of the studios, even the cartoon streets of Toon Town right alongside Valiant.
I’ll never forget this film’s influence on me. Forever this stays on my list of favourite movies.

Leave a Comment

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s