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MMYIF: Who Framed Roger Rabbit

My Misspent Youth In Films...

Who Framed Roger Rabbit
Directed by: Robert Zemeckis
Starring: Bob Hoskins, Christopher Lloyd, Joanna Cassidy
Released: June 22, 1988

A toon-hating detective is a cartoon rabbit's only hope to prove his innocence when he is accused of murder.

What I Thought Then

This was a fun movie that was also a crazy-impressive technical accomplishment starring a rabbit whose comic sensibilities closely mirrored my own. Also, I was always surprised to hear Bob Hoskins' natural accent after seeing this film.

What I Think Now

It's still very impressive, on a technical level. Think about all of the challenges of a modern digital film but without being able to do any compositing. All you can do is draw on the existing frames, and anything you draw will obviously be drawn. That means a lot more effort needs to be made during principal photography to stage the shots for later insertion of animated characters. When a cartoon weasel is holding a real prop gun, that gun had to be on set and moving around in such a way that would be totally concealed by the animation. There are a couple of big set pieces early on that really sell the illusion--notably Jessica Rabbit's nightclub performance and the scene of Roger in the rot-gut room where he keeps bumping the overhead light. Those are so convincing that it's easy to overlook the occasional moment janky animation where characters don't seem to sit right in the moving camera frame.

Of course, anyone will tell you that the real hurdle of making this film was securing the rights to "Golden Age" cartoon characters, including major players from both the Disney and Warner Bros stables. The movie took seven years to make and went through a lot of complex negotiations to get there. Supposedly a sequel has been in some stage of development hell ever since, and given the legal complexities as well as how successful the original was--to say nothing of the fact that the technical side would be far, far less impressive these days--I doubt it will ever actually happen. Which is a good thing, too, because Zemeckis has stated that he has a great script that would involve a digital Bob Hoskins. At some point Zemeckis drank the George Lucas Kool-Aid ("Digital now! Digital tomorrow! Digital forever!"... I'm paraphrasing), his recent animation-heavy films have been a parade of technically impressive dead-eyed soulless drones.

Anywho. Given all of that, it's kind of amazing that this movie is as good as it is. The story feels very true to its noir roots, but it has a lot of cartoon sensibilities and some genuinely hilarious moments (Jessica's answer to what she sees in Roger--"He makes me laugh"--gets me every time). The story's a bit thin, but it holds together well enough. Christpher Lloyd's Judge Doom is a harrowing presence, and Hoskins is wonderfully charismatic, even as he spends most of the movie interacting with characters that aren't there--a skill that was not nearly as prevalent in 1986, when filming started. Kathleen Turner's uncredited voicing of Jessica Rabbit (Oh, hey! Kathleen Turner's in this!) is just note-perfect. And if you want a real treat, check out the casting section of the Wikipedia page and read through all of the actors who were either offered parts and turned them down or who auditioned but were turned away. Imagine Tim Curry as Doom! (Oh, hey! Tim Curry's not in this--he was too scary!)

In terms of things that don't work... I mean, it's a very white movie. I feel like a modern film set in 1947 would have tried to better represent the era's actual racial dynamic. There's an animated bullet that's supposed to be a Native American, and I don't think it would really pass muster to modern eyes. There's a non-trivial amount of casual misogyny. The movie more than implies that toons are second-class citizens, but it doesn't really have anything to say about that; the theme of the movie really starts and ends with "making people laugh is good". A couple of the jokes don't land, and there are a few shots of animation that don't quite composite into the live-action plates that cleanly. The whole idea of making Jessica cartoony by making her boobs bounce the wrong way (no, really, that's what they did) is kinda weird and doesn't really work, but it's not nearly as cringe-worthy as Leena Hyena. But overall these are fairly minor quibbles for thirty-year-old movie.

Recommendation?

Yes. It holds up remarkably well, especially if you have nostalgia for Golden Age animation.

Tune in next week for even more input...

In My Misspent Youth In Films, Kurt is going through the movies he grew up on. Read the explainer or see more posts.

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