Has the legacy of Who Framed Roger Rabbit been a blessing or a curse? Well, the quick answer would be, “a blessing…” but is it really? It would be easy to call it one, considering its big achievement in putting cartoons in the live action world; it’s especially rooted into the entire history of animation. For a brief history lesson, when animation first began, filmmakers right away experimented with pasting cartoons onto film reels with live actors, which began numerous popular film series such as Walt Disney’s Alice Comedies. Over the decades, many other efforts combined the two dimensions into one: The Three Caballeros, Song of the South, Fun and Fancy Free, Melody Time, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Pete’s Dragon, and of course, Mary Poppins. This 1988 hit however took the creative process to unimaginable levels that still astounds the mind today. Yet Robert Zemeckis’ film actually put out more of a curse, for reasons less about this impressive feat, and more about its simple issues.
Some viewers may feel repulsed watching this for a number of reasons, one could be that a few visual effects shots look quite terrible now, particularly when protagonist Eddie Valiant is in Toon Town; there’s also an awkward use of stop-motion in the climax. Although the repulsive feeling may grow more into confusion as the feature starts with a classic film noir style then switches rather suddenly into a silly cartoon style. There are instances when it works by putting all this grown-up stuff into cartoons: a rough-talking baby smokes a cigar, a cab says, “hell,” a man makes a woman duck by grabbing her low-cut blouse and pulling her down, a super seductive femme fatale has a massive bosom, but these components don’t always work when the tone goes back and forth so suddenly.
Then there are the many, many questions that remain unanswered about this alternate reality of toons and humans living together: Do toons pay taxes? If so, to whom? Is “Plane Crazy” Mickey Mouse a separate individual citizen of Toon Town from “Fantasia” Mickey Mouse? If Betty Boop is still black-and-white, why is Mickey Mouse colored despite dating back to the 1920s? If the human laws of physics don’t apply in Toon Town, why do the toon laws of physics apply in human town? Do toons even need to eat and drink if they technically can’t die? There are so many more existential questions about toons that the film doesn’t even bother to address.
The sets and props also suffer from inconsistency with whatever rules the world is setting. Looking back at the opening Roger Rabbit cartoon, “Somethin’s Cookin’,” the set for the cartoon contains all four of the kitchen’s walls, plus the ceiling, but after the director yells cut, the set is made of only a couple of walls and no ceiling. Where did they all go? Besides the art direction that raises even more questions about the rules of toons and humans living together, there are also some nitpicks that can actually be quite distracting. In the newspaper article on Mr. Acme’s murder, the “patty-cake” pictures feature Jessica’s more “Disneyish” pre-production phase design rather than the official design.
Alright, enough bad stuff, onto the good stuff, starting with the crisp attention to detail of including all these characters from some cartoon of the time. They’re not just popping up in the background, they take the front line in ridiculously clever ways; the most noticeable probably being when Donald and Daffy, the two most famous angry ducks of all time, try to kill each other on stage with dueling pianos! Then immediately after, Betty Boop appears as down-on-her-luck since “toons went to color,” exactly like how so many Hollywood stars lost their jobs since “pictures went to sound.” As these toons are pasted into the picture, some of the techniques include tracing the toon over a live actor or prop on set, much like the rotoscoping technique Max Fleischer’s cartoons used. Rotoscoping is when an animator draws a toon’s movements on top of an actor’s performance frame-by-frame for a fluid, humanistic motion. In this case, it feels like not only a practical technique but a loving tribute to the past pioneers of the medium.
It’s especially worth mentioning how these famous cartoons, like the rest of this film, get violent… very… VERY… violent. It combines the graphic content of 1980s kids’ media with the graphic content of 1940s cartoons to show their sincere similarities. It’s vulgar in ways quite unlike how parents thirty years ago thought animation was childish. Yet in this reflection back to cartoons from Hollywood’s golden age, the mature content is completely accurate in its depiction, with its bombs, dynamite, guns, bang! Especially for those extra-familiar with the time, any art historian would know how poorly Betty Boop sustained popularity once the Hay’s Production Code forbid scandalous feminine dresses. Or a better example: Porky Pig actually flat-out says, “son of a b*tch” in one short.
This faithful recreation of toons at that time proves how animation is not kids’ stuff after all, the medium was originally meant to impress adults, and a filmmaking achievement as big as this proves that cartoons grow up like a kid grows up. The attention paid to the shadows on the toons, and the long research required to discover how those effects got achieved, makes it feels less like kids’ stuff. That depth to PG-rated media applies today as well, even with fully animated films. The allegory to prejudice that Zootopia explored so simply yet so deeply makes it feels less like kids’ stuff.
You should also know that Who Framed Roger Rabbit left a harsh stain on Hollywood, as it caused too many filmmakers to rely on creating digital characters for live actors to act with. It’s no longer an impressive technical feat, but a lazy way to replace sensical storytelling. Not to say the incredible CGI technology existing today should end immediately, rather, it can never replace the humanity of a story.
If there is a specific movie you’d like to see graded, or if you are interested in guest blogging for my site, please email me at Trevor@TrevorsViewOnHollywood.com for your recommendations.
Have a great weekend, and happy watching!