Brian Sibley reviews the Disney-Speilberg smash-hit, Who Framed Roger Rabbit.
Roger Rabbit is an anarchist. Probably because he’s a Toon and comes from Toontown, where all the tedious restraints of real life – from gravity to commonsense – are non-existent, and where the only laws are those of mayhem and madness…
Hollywood, 1947: in a gloomy room behind a seedy bar, private detective Eddie Valiant is handcuffed to a three-foot high rabbit in red dungarees and a blue-and-yellow spotted bow-tie. Leaning on a rickety crate, Eddie struggles to free himself with a hacksaw.
The rabbit – number one star of the R.K. Maroon cartoon studio – slips off the handcuff in order to hold the box steady. Eddie stops sawing and gazes with open-mouthed incredulity into Roger Rabbit’s crazy-blue eyes. “You mean you could have taken your hand out of that handcuff at any time?” he asks. “Not at any time,” replies Roger, “only when it was funny!”
Who Framed Roger Rabbit (without a question-mark and without a doubt) is a movie-phenomenon. The loony, lop-eared rabbit and his Toontown chums – some new creations, some old stagers like Mickey Mouse, and Daffy Duck – have smashed all American box-office records and, after eighteen weeks in the top ten, has earned the Disney-Spielberg studios over $145 million.
In one sense, of course, the idea behind the movie – humans getting together with cartoon folk – is as old as the animated film. It began in the early 1900s when Earl Hurd and Wallace Carlson were seen giving life to their drawn characters. By the ‘twenties, Max Fleischer was producing “The Greatest Novelty Creation of the Screen” in which Ko-Ko the Clown (who, incidentally, has a walk-on part in Roger Rabbit) popped “Out of the Inkwell” and consorted with his creator. Then, a few years later, Walt Disney reversed the concept and sent a girl named Alice into Cartoonland, the Toontown of its day.
It wasn’t until the 1940s that Disney (and, less successfully, MGM) experimented further with the idea of combining animation and live-action: Donald Duck chased bathing-beauties on Acapulco Beach, Jerry Mouse danced with Gene Kelly and went swimming with Tom the Cat and Esther Williams, while Brer Rabbit sang “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah” with Uncle Remus.
Later came Mary Poppins, Bedknobs and Broomsticks and Pete’s Dragon, all of which required the movie-goer to suspend his disbelief and accept the fanciful notion that cartoon characters were really just like real people – only slightly whackier!
Who Framed Roger Rabbit, however, is something of a departure. Technically, it achieves greater realism than any previous combination of live and drawn actors. Director Bob Zemeckis shot the film (more or less) as a conventional picture, using camera angles and movements that made no concessions to the problems of adding animation. Those problems – such as how to make Roger emerge from a sink and spray Eddie Valiant with real water – have been tackled and overcome by the combined talents of the George Lucas special-effects emporium, Industrial Light & Magic, and an army of animators under the direction of Richard Williams. The results are staggering: cartoon characters cast shadows and have a three-dimensional roundness, complex frame-to-frame size changes are accomplished with apparent effortlessness and ingenious illusions are perpetrated, such as Toons toting real guns and real people travelling in cartoon cars.