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Dissecting the Classics – Who Framed Roger Rabbit

January 26, 2018 | Posted by Aaron Hubbard
Who Framed Roger Rabbit

Welcome to Dissecting the Classics . In this column, I analyze films that are almost universally loved and considered to be great. Why? Because great movies don’t just happen by accident. They connect with initial audiences and they endure for a reason. This column is designed to keep meaningful conversation about these films alive.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit

Wide Release Date: June 22, 1988
Directed By: Robert Zemeckis
Written By: Jeffrey Price and Peter S. Seaman
Produced By: Frank Marshall and Robert Watts
Cinematography By: Dean Cundey
Edited By: Arthur Schmidt
Music By: Alan Silvestri
Production Company: Touchstone Pictures and Amblin Entertainment
Distributed By: Buena Vista Pictures Distrubition
Bob Hoskins as Eddie Valiant
Christopher Lloyd as Judge Doom
Charles Fleischer as the voice of Roger Rabbit
Kathleen Turner as the voice of Jessica Rabbit

What Do We All Know?

Who Framed Roger Rabbit is one of the most unique movies ever made, with unprecedented collaboration from Disney and Warner Bros. and brought to stunning life through some of the most amazing special effects of all time. But beyond being a novelty or a technical marvel, the movie has a good story with memorable characters, combining cartoon slapstick with a detective story to surprising effectiveness. And far from being a cult classic, the film was a genuine box-office smash, outgrossing every other movie in 1988 not called Rain Man. The film brought a renewed interest in the Golden Age of Animation and played a vital role in shifting the culture to one that was ready to usher in the Disney Renaissance.

Thirty years later, I believe that Who Framed Roger Rabbit more than holds up as a genuine classic. I don’t even have the benefit of nostalgia, as I never really watched this movie as a kid and only grew to love it as an adult because of it always being recommended. Now, I fully concede that my love of Private Eye movies and my love of animation are contributing factors to me enjoying this movie. But recognizing my biases doesn’t mean I’m admitting the movie is anything less than great. With that out of the way, let’s dive deeper into the movie.

What Went Right?

The setup is a pretty standard detective movie trope; Bob Hoskins plays Eddie Valiant, a detective getting over the death of his brother with alcohol. He’s hired to investigate a woman accused of cheating on her husband; the twist of course is that said husband is a cartoon bunny named Roger Rabbit. The movie is set in an alternate 1940’s Hollywood where cartoons are real, living and working side by side with humans. Eddie thinks he’s done with his job when he shows Roger pictures of his voluptuous wife Jessica Rabbit playing patty cake (not a euphemism) with Marvin Acme. But when Acme is murdered, Roger becomes the primary suspect, hunted down by Toontown’s ruthless Judge Doom, who has no problems with killing Toons with a toxic substance called “Dip”. Eddie must overcome his own bias against Toons (one of which dropped a piano on his brother) to help Roger clear his name and solve the mystery of who killed Acme. thus we have Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

The story mostly serves as a setup for situational humor, with a heavy emphasis on slapstick, word play and jokes that are either exceptionally obvious or way out of left field. There is a nice bit of heart to the story as well, as Roger and Eddie start working together out of necessity but eventually develop a meaningful friendship. The movie is also filled with memorable characters from the Golden Age of animation; there’s an extended piano duel between Donald Duck and Daffy Duck, Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny share screen time; Betty Boop, Looney Tunes, Hanna Barbara cartoons and Disney cartoons all show up for short scenes that don’t distract from the story. That alone creates a level of novelty, but I’ve always respected how the movie never leans on these characters. Instead, it’s the films own creations (Eddie, Roger, Jessica, Baby Herman, Judge Doom, the weasels, and the taxi) that get the spotlight and carry the movie.

What continues to astound me every time I watch this movie is the level of technical expertise on display. Cartoons sharing the screen with real life actors was nothing new even in 1988; Disney films like Mary Poppins had integrated the two for decades. But this film was the first to try to make the cartoons feel real; there is an unprecedented amount of physical interaction between real life actors and props and cartoon characters and props. Once you start noticing things like how every cartoon has a shadow, or how Jessica believably interacts with Eddie’s wardrobe, or how the weasels are carrying real guns, it’s hard not to be constantly wowed by it.

There’s a scene where Eddie bumps a lamp and the animators change the lighting on Roger in every single frame of the scene to accommodate the changes in lighting. It’s something you barely notice the first time because the movie is trying to make you believe these characters are living in the real world. But it works; not perfectly, but often enough that our suspension of disbelief is rarely challenged. The movie goes above and beyond the call of duty and it makes the film something more than just a great, entertaining movie and more into a masterpiece. Youtube essayist Kaptainkristian does a much better job getting into all the technical aspects than I can, and I highly recommend checking all of his stuff out.

What Went Wrong?

Watching the movie in a vacuum, I can’t detect any major flaws. And really, that’s not that surprising, because the movie is so meticulous in its construction just so that it can function at all that any major mistakes were likely caught in the process of making the movie and fixed. That said, I think there is such a thing as doing something too well. And that something is the design of Jessica Rabbit.

Now, Jessica is a well thought-out, three dimensional character with her own agency and a vital role in the story. And I don’t have any real problem with the level of sexuality either… except that it’s almost self-defeating. See, Jessica’s line about “I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way” isn’t just a cute turn of phrase; the whole point of the line is that Jessica is a lot more than she appears to me. Her hypsexualized appearance, movement and voice are all meant to evoke the femme fatales you see in private eye film noirs that the film borrows liberally from, but she’s nothing like them at all, proving to be a moral character and a loving wife. And yet… they may have pulled of their trick a little too well. I’m willing to bet that most people don’t think of Jessica Rabbit as anything besides the ultimate male fantasy drawn by a cartoonist, and that she keeps topping lists of “Sexiest Cartoon Characters” because of her exaggerated curves is kind of annoying to me. Again, not that there’s anything wrong with the sex appeal, but just that people tend to think that’s all there is to her.

And In Summary…

I love doing this column most weeks, but I have to admit that occasionally it can be to watch a movie that I used to really love and see that it doesn’t quite hold up. On the flip side, there are movies that get better every single time I rewatch them, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit is one such movie. I’ve always liked the movie and thought it was great, or I wouldn’t have picked it for this column, but watching it again for this column proved, at least to me, that it’s more than just great. It’s a film that takes a very difficult task and does it so seamlessly that most viewers won’t even notice just how well they did their job. And it does it while presenting a fun story with memorable characters, and one of a kind moments that are only possible due to unprecedented cooperation between major animation studios. The film is a true landmark, one of the best of the 1980’s and increasingly one of my favorite movies of all time.

Like This Column?

Check out previous editions!

Jurassic Park, Back to the Future, Chinatown, Taxi Driver, The Matrix, Batman (1989), Casablanca, Goldfinger, X2, King Kong (1933), Beauty and the Beast (1991), The Dark Crystal, The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Godfather, The Godfather, Part II, The Silence of the Lambs, Alien, Aliens, Casino Royale, Superman: The Movie, Superman II, Batman (1966), The Maltese Falcon, Spider-Man, Spider-Man 2, 12 Angry Men, Aladdin, The Wizard of Oz, Dial M For Murder, Godzilla (1954), The Hurt Locker, The Breakfast Club, Iron Man, The Shining, Dr. Strangelove, A Clockwork Orange, Eyes Wide Shut, Blade Runner, Rosemary’s Baby, Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Princess Bride, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, Toy Story, Star Wars – Part 1, Star Wars – Part 2, The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, Die Hard, Spirited Away, Airplane!, Dirty Dancing, RoboCop

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