WFTB Score: 15/20
The plot: When cartoon prop-provider Marvin Acme is murdered, suspicion falls upon Roger Rabbit, clumsy Toon and jealous husband of voluptuous chanteuse Jessica. Brought in to take incriminating photos of Marvin and Jessica, private dick Eddie Valiant has personal reasons for ignoring Roger’s desperate pleas for help; however, something about the case – most importantly Acme’s missing will – lures Valiant away from the bottle and into the path of the terrifying Judge Doom.
It’s 1947, Tinseltown’s Golden Age of animation; cartoon stars like Bugs Bunny, Mickey Mouse and Roger Rabbit (voiced by Charles Fleischer) work cheek by jowl with the humans and live a short ride away in nearby Toontown. Once upon a time, private detective Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins) was a reliable pal of the Toons, but since one of their number dropped a piano on his brother Teddy’s head, he’s steered clear of them to concentrate on boozing his life away, much to the dismay of sometime ladyfriend Dolores (Joanna Cassidy).
So it’s with little enthusiasm that Eddie accepts a job from studio boss R.K. Maroon (Alan Tilvern) to tail Roger’s comely wife Jessica (Betsy Brantley’s movements, Kathleen Turner when speaking and Amy Irving when singing Why Don’t You Do Right?) to see if she’s playing around with Toontown’s owner Marvin Acme (Stubby Kaye); and even though he’s knocked out by Jessica’s seductive allure, Eddie takes little pleasure in passing on photos of the pair playing pattycake.
The next day, Acme turns up dead and the finger points at Roger, making him a target for Judge Doom (Christopher Lloyd), an intimidating lawmaker with a gang of vicious weasels and barrels full of Toon-erasing ‘dip’ that he’s itching to use. Initially, Roger’s pleas to Eddie to help fall on deaf ears; but Roger’s such an unlikely murderer that the detective starts asking questions, especially about Jessica’s part in the crime. He needs answers fast, because by midnight Toontown will belong to the shadowy Cloverleaf Industries – unless Acme’s missing will turns up and reveals the rightful inheritors.
Let’s get the easy bits out of the way first. Firstly, whether you’re nostalgic about the cartoons or not, it’s such a joy to see so many famous characters sharing the same screen that the odd omission – no Popeye? – hardly matters. From Fleischer studios we have Betty Boop; from Tex Avery, Droopy; from Walter Lantz, Woody Woodpecker; from Warner Bros’ Looney Tunes there’s a host: Daffy Duck, Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig and cameos from the likes of Tweety Pie and Yosemite Sam; and there’s naturally a generous complement of Disney’s finest, including Mickey Mouse, Dumbo, several Dwarves and most of the cast of Fantasia. Although (as I’ve said elsewhere) I have no particular affection for Mickey or his friends, it would be foolish to ignore their vital place in animation history; furthermore, the sequence between Donald and Daffy Duck is a brilliant reminder of what cartoons can do at their best.
Secondly, the film is assembled with great skill. Films combining animation and live action are far from new, of course – Mary Poppins and Bedknobs and Broomsticks come to mind – but Roger Rabbit takes the concept to new levels of interaction, using puppetry to move solid objects around in a pleasingly three dimensional way (though some computer wizardry is no doubt used here, another year or two and the whole thing would’ve been done with soulless CGI). There’s also a lovely contrast when Valiant visits Toontown and becomes the sole ‘real’ character in a crazy cartoon world.
Hoskins is perfectly cast as Valiant, heavyweight enough to convince as a world-weary private eye (a beautifully economical sweep of the office fills us in on his past), yet nimble enough to play the clown when necessary, while Lloyd makes for a terrifying Judge Doom and Cassidy provides a robust love interest. Mel Blanc is thankfully on hand to provide Bugs and co. with their voices, while Kathleen Turner oozes danger and passion as Jessica, not least in the immortal line “I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way”. Charles Fleischer makes Roger an endearingly screwy optimist, though you might argue that he’s close to being sidelined in his own movie.
So what’s not to like? Well, there’s the tricky issue of the film’s tone. Who Framed Roger Rabbit leans heavily on corruption movies such as Gilda and Chinatown, and while this movie isn’t as brutal as the latter, it’s certainly not without violence – and I don’t just mean the cartoon violence dished out to Roger by Baby Herman. Maroon gets shot in the back – twice – while Doom’s execution of a cute cartoon shoe, leaving the Judge with a blood-red glove, is so disturbing that it’s always cut from television broadcasts.
More troubling, perhaps, is Jessica’s irrepressible sensuality; it’s natural for a cartoon to emphasise prominent features, but Jessica’s body shape and sultry manner are not exactly kiddie-friendly (Baby Herman, not a character I particularly like, also makes a tasteless sexual joke). She was certainly too hot for Disney, who shifted the film to its Touchstone division because of its risqué content.
On the whole, though, the movie gets it right: better to anticipate a discerning audience (and let TV cut bits out if they wish) than play safe and have the film turn out twee and saccharine; who says cartoons have to be for kids anyway? However, parents of younger children charmed by Roger’s inoffensiveness should be aware that the film has a few distinctly adult moments, Lloyd’s intense performance in particular containing plenty of nightmare fuel.
Much more than just a work of technical prowess, Who Framed Roger Rabbit stands as a loving tribute to Hollywood animation, with a decent film noir story and some surprisingly adult elements. Time only adds to its reputation: subsequent failures Space Jam and Looney Tunes: Back in Action have proven how tricky it can be to get live-action/animation movies right. Personally, I think it’s a shame that Robert Zemeckis has moved on to working with motion-capture; Roger Rabbit may be overly scary and overtly sexy at times, but most of Polar Express is a lot more disturbing than this funny and exciting offering.