Monday, October 8, 2012

Toon Town

Film: Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on big ol’ television.

I remember when Who Framed Roger Rabbit? came out. I was probably too old to really be as excited by the idea of it as I was, but I knew it would be something I had to see. The whole sell of this is that all of the great cartoon characters from the past would appear on screen at the same time. We’d see Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse on screen at the same time. I mean, if you grew up on classic cartoons, it was something that had to be seen, even if it sucked. Happily, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? doesn’t suck. Instead, it’s both an homage to all of these classic cartoons and an homage to film noir.

The conceit here is that cartoons, or “toons,” are real and actually exist in the real world. In this world, we have Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins), a real man who used to work private detective cases for various toons. He’s been on the skids lately because his brother was killed by a toon during an investigation. Since that time, Eddie has avoided toons, Toon Town, and most things that don’t involve a whiskey bottle. However, he’s called in by cartoon maker R.K. Maroon (Alan Tilvern) to perform a job. One of his stars, cartoon Roger Rabbit (voiced by Charles Fleischer) has been unable to concentrate on his work because his wife Jessica (a cartoon human voiced by an uncredited Kathleen Turner) has been seen around town with Marvin Acme (Stubby Kaye), a man who owns a joke factory. Roger is devoted to his wife, and Maroon wants pictures to get him to realize that she is two-timing him by playing patty-cake (yes, literally) with Acme. So Eddie gets the pictures.

But then Acme ends up dead from being directly under a safe, and naturally the entire town thinks that Roger is guilty. Roger isn’t, though, and comes to Eddie for help. Eddie relies on former assistant turned barmaid Dolores (Joanna Cassidy) to protect Roger while he finds out what is going on. What he discovers is that the new judge in Toon Town, Judge Doom (Christopher Lloyd), wants to destroy the toons. There are also some interesting dealings going on between Maroon and Acme. And then there’s the fact that Acme’s will is missing.

I watched this today with my younger daughter. It had been years since I’d seen it and while I remembered the basic story, I had forgotten a great many of the details. For one thing, I’d forgotten how some parts of this film were mildly inappropriate for children. Eddie Valiant, for instance, spends a lot of his time drinking, he gets into a compromising position with Jessica Rabbit, and there’s a good deal of mild swearing—no f-bombs, but a few “damns” and “hells” and “son-of-a-bitches.” There isn’t anything here that I would say a kid couldn’t handle, but I was surprised when it turned up.

The best thing about Who Framed Roger Rabbit? is that it’s incredibly smart. It could have very easily focused on all of those classic cartoon characters. Instead, those characters are relegated to the background, having a line or two and otherwise being a part of the scenery. I’m certain the temptation was absolutely there to put some of these characters front and center. Instead, we focus on the story itself and the new toons—Roger, Jessica, Benny the cab, Baby Herman, and the rest. And watching it, you don’t even realize it. I know when I went to see this in the theater, I went because I wanted to see all of these classic characters on the screen interacting with people. And I got that, but I never realized how little of that is there. I was always happy when it happened, but never cared when it didn’t happen and we were instead focusing on the story being told.

This was also a coming out party for Bob Hoskins in a real way. He gives a tremendous performance here, which is no real surprise, but he also acted in a number of scenes across from nothing, with the toons only being added in later. It’s almost a lost art. With the way that CGI is being used today, actors get to work against actual people who are then digitally changed in production. Hoskins didn’t get that sort of benefit here, instead having to pretend to be holding Roger in key scenes, and he plays it perfectly. It’s perhaps my favorite Hoskins performance, and that’s saying quite a bit based on his career.

Needless to say, I love this film. It’s fun, it’s crazy, it’s innovative, and it’s remarkably whole in terms of world creation when it could be cheap and with plenty of wires showing. It’s also a solid film noir, and it works on that level, too. If you haven’t seen this, gather up a few kids who know who Bugs Bunny and Tweety are and watch it with them. Relive a bit of your cartoon-loving childhood and educate them in terms of classic film noir sensibilities.

Why to watch Who Framed Roger Rabbit?: One of the most innovative films ever made.
Why not to watch: You have a sad existence and can’t be cheered up by pure joy.


  1. There's something about this movie that rubs me the wrong way. When I saw this when it came out in theaters, I was an adolescent, but even so, I think the vulgarity and drinking that you allude to rubbed me the wrong way. Instead of getting a thrill from it, I found it, well, a turn-off. Really, that's what this movie does to me. Turns me off. And I reeeeeeeeally love the classic Warner Brothers cartoons. I don't know. This is definitely one of my "everyone else loves it but I really don't" films. I don't even think it's a *bad* movie, I think it's technically innovative and very imaginative; I just don't like it.

    I know you'll totally hate me for saying this, but I feel the exact same way about "Back to the Future." It's bizarre, but I would never, EVER voluntarily watch either of these films. I get that people love them, and objectively, I can understand why. I just don't join in.

  2. While I'll disagree with you on this one (my wife feels kind of the same way as you), surprise surprise, I agree on Back to the Future. There's something about that film I find just...creepy. I mean, Marty discovers that his mom is turned on by danger, she tries to have sex with him...just ick. There's a reason I haven't rewatched Back to the Future for this yet.

    As for Roger, when you watch it again (and you should), look at it this time through the eyes of someone who has learned to appreciate film noir. Look at it as an homage to the style, and I think you'll find more to like.

    1. You know, right as I hit the "publish" button, the thought crossed my mind about the noir point. Trust me, I will rewatch it before I write about it - I don't think it's fair to write about a film I haven't seen in over a year unless I remember it perfectly or unless the viewing will traumatize me. So yes, I think I shall be re-evaluating Roger through the noir lens.

      Amazing to find another not-a-fan of Back to the Future! Marty and his mom... *shudder.*

  3. I love this film, but I'm sad to hear there are people out there who don't love Back to the Future.

    I've never really seen many of the noirs this film is riffing on, but I loved the tone and the use of the famous toons on the sidelines.

    1. For every film you love, there's someone who hates it. Worse, for every film you love, there's someone who has a legitimate reason to hate it. Back to the Future addition to the near-incest, there's also the whole, "we named our son after the guy who almost had sex with my wife and...y'know, he looks a LOT like that guy from high school..."

    2. Yeah, that's a pretty epic issue right there "Honey, doesn't our son look like that guy you took to the dance at school? You know, the one we named him after?" But I think that plot hole is nothing in comparison to BTTF2, where Biff is able to travel between realities in a way Doc explains is impossible in the first film. Anyway, I digress. I'm sure I dislike films you love, so I've got no problems with you not worshipping BTTF.

    3. If I recall correctly, don't they think his name is Calvin Klein? And wouldn't they be surprised when Calvin Klein becomes famous and looks nothing like him? I could be misremembering, though, as it's been some time since I've seen it.

      Time travel films frequently have this paradox problem. It's one reason I'm rarely excited about time travel films.

    4. You are correct about CK. There's an awful lot you need to overlook to really enjoy BTTF, but I'm more than happy to do so.

  4. I like Who Framed Roger Rabbit a lot. It sounds like you and Siobhan made the same assumption many Americans make - "animated = for kids". As you found out, this movie was made for adults both in subject matter and presentation. "I'm not bad; I'm just drawn that way." By the way, if you read the book you will find that it is a lot more adult than the movie. It is a true noir where Jessica Rabbit, for instance, is being blackmailed not for pattycake, but for being in toon porn early in her career (think The Big Sleep).

    I love the noir aspect of the movie. And like you, seeing the classic characters together on the screen was worth the price of the ticket alone. I loved the Daffy Duck/Donald Duck battle.

    I love Back to the Future. The "near-incest" (a kiss, really?) angle didn't bother me because it was both played for laughs and obviously not going to happen. I can understand you, though, because that's the very same reason I was bothered by Little Miss Sunshine, whereas most people liked the movie.

    1. In my defense, I was 20 when I first saw Roger Rabbit, so it was an easy assumption to make. I'd simply forgotten in the last however many years it's been since I'd seen it.

      In Back to the Future, as I recall, a kiss is all that happens, but she was hoping for quite a bit more, at least initially. Yeah, it's played for comedy, but I still think it's icky.