Digital Polyphony

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Liquid Nostalgia #27

Who Framed Roger Rabbit: A Look Back

 

Who doesn't love cartoons?

You in back shutup. Because if you don't love cartoons, you have no soul. It's a proven fact and potentially the long-lost eleventh commandment that Moses accidentally mis-inscribed as "Thou shalt not commit adultery" because there are probably more people following the "love cartoons" commandment than that one. You can't blame Moses for that one, you don't ask God "sorry, could you repeat that? I didn't catch it." 

Cartoons are some of the greatest forms of entertainment in the history of entertainment and for all ages at that. Now when I say "Cartoons" I don't mean stuff you might see today on Nickelodeon or anime or the like. When someone says the word "cartoon" I think of the likes of Loony Tunes, Merrie Melodies and Disney. You know, those old shorts from the 30s to the 50s they would play before feature films or the golden age of Disney animated features with Pinocchio or Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. To this day, even though both Warner Brothers and Disney haven't done nearly the great and legendary work when Walt was around or when Mel Blanc did voices, everyone of every age through a damn good portion of the world still know every character, probably can recall a lot of the shows that were their favorites as children and probably don't turn the channel when they see it on television.

It's that mindset that spawned and thus made us all fall in love with Who Framed Roger Rabbit, the still-incredibly live action/animated film that was brought to us by people who were also part of that mindset: notably Robert Zemeckis and Steven Spielberg. And that's what Who Framed Roger Rabbit is: a love letter to the great and wondrous world of cartoons, their timeless quality and their universal appeal.

I have a very personal stake in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Out of all the movies I recall seeing as a child, it's one of the few I can remember vividly so vividly the many times I would watch it. I was eight, my family had just purchased its first VCR and Who Framed Roger Rabbit was the first movie bought on it. I learned a lot about myself and movies by watching it. One, I certainly loved animation at the time. I could name and point out numerous characters from Disney and Warner Brothers and be ecstatic when I would play a "where's Waldo?" with them and find or hear them. Second, as a reflection of who I am now, I think I can pinpoint my own love of film noir and mystery movies back to Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Who knows? Maybe if it weren't for Who Framed Roger Rabbit, I would never have been as fond of something like The Third Man, The Maltese Falcon or Chinatown.

Thirdly, though, I saw how animation can be as suited for adults as they were for kids. Even at the age of eight, I certainly could tell the jokes and gags that weren't exactly meant for my demographic. Who Framed Roger Rabbit had a universal appeal with jokes intended to go over kids' heads. I wised up though and even then loved the darker tones and places the movie went. Murder and death isn't something you saw every day in childrens' entertainment, which is why Who Framed Roger Rabbit goes beyond being labeled as such. It's more a film noir first...it just happens to have a bunch of cartoons running around. 

I can remember in elementary school doodling and drawing Roger and Baby Herman in class and even making little comic strips withe them and other characters. It was just goofy dumb gags that were hilarious to an eight or nine or ten year old but probably unintelligible to anyone with half a brain. The doodles came through and I loved drawing Roger and his bow tie and suspenders and a baby with a cigar is just hilarious. I could never get Jessica Rabbit right, though. I'd get lost in the cleavage and lose focus.

It's also a film I revisit regularly. Everyone has those films in their minds: those that you suddenly have a strange urge to want to see. For me, it's a combination of nostalgia and admiration (plus the fact its just a damn good and entertaining movie). Nostalgia that the movie is so vivid in my fading childhood memories and admiration for the years spent making the thing to begin with and the entire technical process that screams its love and fondness of nostalgia to begin with. It's a film that celebrates nostalgia as much as we are nostalgic about it. 

 


 

  A Brief History of Who Framed Roger Rabbit

 

-Based on the novel Who Censored Roger Rabbit?, the project had been circulating around Hollywood since the early 1980s. A first draft of the script by Seaman and Wolf was delivered in 1981. Hollywood's "Golden Boy" Steven Spielberg was set as executive producer to help get the film financed. However it sat dormant for five years as directors, including Terry Gilliam who later regretted turning it down, were sifted through. A young Robert Zemeckis became attached, however only until he found success with Back to the Future and Romancing the Stone did Disney greelight the project. More importantly, though, is Zemeckis had written into his contract that he would have final cut.

-Animator Richard Williams headed the animation devision of the film, working closely with Zemeckis during the live action sequences. Williams had a massive team under him including some old animation staples as consultants, such as Chuck Jones.

-Numerous drafts later, reportedly over 40 with various changes great and small, production began in London and in Los Angeles. External shots in London were made to look like LA, but mostly it was interior sets. 

-Spielberg, as is often the case with anything he is attached to as a producer, was integral to getting the many different companies and studios to lend their characters to appear in the film. His popularity was at an all-time high and his name had weight. The only major rights he couldn't acquire were for Popeye and Tom and Jerry, who of which he really wanted, and the Terrytoons.

-After many actors gone through considerations for the lead, and a good number of them having screen tests (such as Tim Curry as Judge Doom), British character actor Bob Hoskins was pegged as the lead, Eddie Valliant, Christopher Lloyd as the ominous Judge Doom and voices of various actors such as Kathleen Turner for Jessica Rabbit, Charles Fleicher as Roger Rabbit (and he would dress as Roger on set to deliver lines), Mel Blanc reprising his many Warner Brothers roles, Wayne Allwine as Micky Mouse, Tony Anselmo as Donald Duck and the original Betty Boop, Mae Questel.

-The animation process took over a year and a half - each frame of live action shot had to have a piece hand-drawn into it with 326 animators. Interaction of real-world objects were done by animating over the puppeteers who were on set - all sets were built off the ground or had hidden areas where puppeteers would hide off camera and manipulate objects. No computers were used, however over 85,000 animation cells were. Like the script, original characters too went through various stages, such as this early one of Jessica Rabbit.

-Richard Williams refused to work in Los Angeles, despising Disney, and the animation duties were split between and Dale Baer, who supervised the Los Angeles portion.

-Overall production took over two years to complete, seven and a half of which was on-stage in London. The film was the most expensive of its time, budgeted around 30 million dollars but escalating to about 70, not to mention overschedule throughout. Michael Eisner considered shutting it down, but Jeffrey Katzenberg convinced him to push forward. It was Spielberg, afterall.

-All the money and pain paid off as Who Framed Roger Rabbit was released on June 22, 1988 to commercial success and critical praise. To date the film has grossed nearly 250 million worldwide. It was nominated for various awards, including Guild awards, Golden Globes and BAFTAs, but notably nominated for seven Oscars, winning three for special effects, editing and sound and an addition given to Richard Williams for special achievement.

A rare behind the scenes still of the Ink and Paint Club/Jessica Rabbit scene.


 

Top 10: Cartoon Character Cameos

 Who Framed Roger Rabbit is a nice little noir film that celebrates the murder-mystery movies of the 1940s and 50s and just happens to have a ton of cartoons running around in the process. The gags and puns, from dialogue such as "Is that a rabbit in your pocket..." to dry bits like a rabbit who can only escape his cuffs if the moment is funny are strewn throughout. I considered going through and making a list of great little moments, but I realized what we all most remember or love about the movie are the characters themselves - you know the ones. So here's a list of ten or so that really stood out for all the right reasons:


10: Felix the Cat

A fitting and perfectly placed cameo as Felix is one of the most iconic old cartoons in history, created during the silent era. He greets people to Toontown as the theatrical masks of comedy and tragedy. This is only one of two times Felix appears in Roger Rabbit, the other a shot in a old photo, but a damn good one for the cat that, I assume by this point, might be deceased or something. He feels distant as one of the founders of animation and only appears here, which is both endearing and sad. 

 


9: Yosemite Sam

"My biscuits are burnin'!" he screams. Probably a cameo that really comes out of nowhere and, more or less, has no point other than to show us Toontown from afar. At the same time, it's funny to see Sam really being Sam at his best. I always wondered what the story is behind Sam being on fire. Was it a prank? Did Bugs put matches in his back pocket again? One does wonder...

 


8: Dumbo

The first major cameo, if I recall, Dumbo works for peanuts and is on loan from Disney. Him and half the cast of Fantasia. Dumbo is smartly used as a bit of an introduction to Eddie Valiant's character also as we certainly get the impression he looks down on toons a bit. As if him swigging whiskey and saying "toons" with a spiteful tone under his breath didn't let us know that already. 

 


7: J. Thaddeus Toad, Esq.

"Tally Ho!" is a damn big phrase to miss and it just happens to be the very famous line by J. Thaddeus Toad, aka Mr. Toad. Toad comes the very under-appreciated Disney film, the Adventures of Ichabad and Mr. Toad based on the Wind and the Willows by Kenneth Grahame. Mr. Toad's story was on a double bill in the film alongside the Legend of Sleepy Hollow. I've always been fond of the film and both those stories and seeing Mr. Toad, even if briefly, was great to see.

 


6: Tweety

I was a big fan of the cat and mouse shorts. Not always literally "cat and mouse" because the Road Runner ones were in the same vein, but also Tom and Jerry and especially Sylvester and Tweety. Now my favorite cat only makes a brief appearance at the end, but Tweety is given his share of screentime and doing what Tweety always does. He sees fingers...he must pull fingers. It's probably an addiction and he should get himself to rehab.

 


5: Droopy

A spot-on use of a pretty underrated animated Tex Avery character, Droopy, or Droopy to some, was a perfect fit as a bored elevator operator in Toontown. His sight gags are right up Droopy's alley as he pretty much makes Eddie's elevator ride as painful as possible. Then, as always, he nonchalantly leaves us. 

 


4: Porky Pig & Tinker Bell

You couldn't end the film any other way, could you? Like a lot of cameos, the scenes of Disney and Warner Brothers characters are usually shared (entirely for contractual reasons) but this one really was destined to just happen with ease. Porky and Tink are known for their "sign offs" and hearing "That's all folks!" and Tinker Bell waving her wand to end the picture was just smart. Hell, I wouldn't be surprised if it was one of the first ideas they had when thinking of the animated characters to put int he film and how to use them. It's just obvious yet brilliant at the same time.


3: Betty Boop

Probably the most impressive cameo, Betty Boop was the animated starlet of her time and giving her a great scene is one thing. Getting the actual actress who originally voiced her (and still sound the same at that) was another. Mae Questrel first voiced Betty in 1931 and having Betty reemerge decades after being dormant and still retain that authenticity was just a great thing to see.

Plus, she had some damn good and memorable lines in the movie. What a lucky gurl.


2: Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse

An obvious choice? Sure, but still not the best. This is on here for a number of (obvious) reasons that I probably don't need to detail. You know the two iconic, poster-child characters for their respective studios and this is the one and only time they have ever appeared on the screen together. Plus, let us not forget, they're voiced by Mel Blanc (the one and only right choice) and Wayne Allwine (who carried the Mickey torch since the 70s). One of the things I like about the film is the Toon world. Turns out, all these characters are friends. They go to each others' homes, probably have dinners and maybe skydive on weekends. That little bit of "maybe" just sets your imagination on fire, doesn't it? I like to think that maybe Bugs and Mickey go fishing or see movies together too. I know what they probably don't do, though...play dueling pianos...I think they saw how their friends handled that fun time.


1: Daffy and Donald Duck

This one isn't just a great cameo duo of our two most favorite ducks, but it's the entire scene they appear in. Unlike a lot of the cameos, this one has the characters really doing something interesting and entertaining and original...not to mention one of the longer cameos as well as dueling pianists. They just got everything right with this one, including the voices (voiced by the original actors) and mentality of both ducks. This is a show I would pay to go see and really gave the Ink and Paint Club and the world of Roger Rabbit a unique identity. Not just the best cameo, but an important one narratively (yes, I know that's not a word) and thematically.


The Real Reason, though:

Everything and Everybody

Hell, even this screencap doesn't do it justice, I would have to put up three or four to get everyone. What makes Who Framed Roger Rabbit? so rewatchable is all that background action. Blink, and you might miss one of your favorites, and the ending where all of them coming together, from MGM to Disney to Warner Brothers to Paramount to Universal all as one. Not everyone showed up, as I previously mentioned, but damn...that's a lot of childhood memories in one place.

 


Who Framed Roger Rabbit has held up incredibly well over the years. The timeless quality of the cartoons, not to mention their iconic status, combined with the special effects is impressive to this day. Animation and live action had been done many times before, but never with this much refinement, interaction and believability. It's as fresh today as it was then, and as equally as unique when pitted up against the countless other special-effects driven films from the 90s and 2000s.

There were rumblings not too long ago that Zemeckis wants to do a sequel. I don't ever see that happening. This was just those once-in-a-blue-moon/stars-aligned movies where everything (mostly) came together just right. Besides, would we really want a sequel? In the same way 3D films after Avatar bastardized the 3D concept into merely a "novelty," another movie cramming everything and everyone together would probably do the same thing. It wouldn't have that magic, and that magic is what has sustained Who Framed Roger Rabbit for twenty plus years.

Is it a greatly important, trendsetting film celebrated in film schools? No, not really, outside of its technical merits. But it is a magical one, is it not?  It is a fond little memory that brings a smile to a person's face when you mention it and they, like myself, think back to when they first saw it. Then, like me, they'll want to see it again and realize it's every bit what they remember.That's because they are not only remembering the film, but all those characters in it that make up another portion of their childhood (as in, everyone's childhood) with Bugs, Mickey, Daffy and so on.  It's a love letter to film and animation of an era that will never be repeated. Who Framed Roger Rabbit, though, is the timecapsule for all of us.

 

 

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