We've been watching a lot of classic Disney cartoons around here lately, so I thought I'd revisit "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?"--a love letter to classic animation. A very expensive, time-consuming, difficult-to-comprehend-the-scope-of of love letter. Director Robert Zemeckis did the impossible with a crew of hundreds of hard-working artists, craftsmen and coffee-fetchers and the result is the first and only blend of 40s-era film noir detective story combined with zany animated madness.
So how does it hold up, all these years later? As a visual effects break-through: excellent. The "toons" and the real-life actors truly seem to interact and react to one another. The animation is masterful and there's plenty of hat-tipping to classic Disney and Warner Bros. cartoons and their characters. The sets and costumes are fun and inventive. I especially liked the references to the Metro Red Line streetcars that zig-zagged across Los Angeles before the freeways took over (in a fit of insanity, according to the movie--long before we were obsessed with "going green").
Still weird: Bob Hoskins in the title role. He's one of the short, squat character actors that permeated the 80s (Danny DeVito and Joe Pesci complete the trio) and he's no leading man. He spends the first half of the movie in a drunken, explosive rage and the dark alleyways and piles of garbage and dust that surround him don't exactly announce: children's movie.
But when he starts playing off his toon co-stars, you can't help but be in awe of his focus and ability to pretend. The DVD contains many "making of" shots of Hoskins acting alongside big, rubber dummies of the toon characters, held up by mimes; with Charles Fleischer (the voice of Roger) who wears a bunny suit to get into character; and with...nothing--just a blue screen. As you can see in this still, he's playing a scene with Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny. Only instead of the famous stars, he's actually interacting with two markers placed on sticks held by off-camera crew members, all the while pretending to fall at terrific speeds to his impending doom. Pretty impressive, Bob.
More weirdness: it's really not a kid's movie but it's clearly not entirely an adult film as well. It's in that in-between place where darkness meets absurd comedy and no one can classify what it truly is. Also, Jessica Rabbit hearkens from the pages of 60s-era Playboy, not from any classic cartoons that I can name. Her effect on her male co-stars portends Internet cartoon porn by several years. And Christopher Lloyd as Judge Doom is the stuff of nightmares. These dark concepts plus the fact that every frame of animation was hand-drawn with no computer enhancement make Roger Rabbit a once-in-a-lifetime kind of experience--a freak of film history.
Roger Rabbit - the ride