In honor of Easter, we're buying one of our favorite bunnies a drink. What could possibly go wrong?
It's hard to believe that it's been 25 years since Who Framed Roger Rabbit, that landmark blend of hand-drawn 2D animation and live-action film-making, was released. It's finally available on Blu-ray--it came out earlier this month--and it looks terrific, even if the bonus features on the disc are lacking. They're just reissues of previously released material. Still, if you missed out on the previous DVD release or are jonesing for that pristine high-def look, you really need to get this.
I can't deny that Roger Rabbit is a necessary piece of my movie collection for it’s technical wizardry alone, but it’s always been a film I've been torn over. I love how it looks. I love seeing all those great animated characters share the screen. I love Bob Hoskins’ performance as detective Eddie Valiant. But, I've always had issues with the story. I’ll talk about that later.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit was a joint venture between Disney and Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment group. In their agreement, Spielberg and director Robert Zemeckis—fresh off his 1980s successes Back to the Future and Romancing the Stone—got full creative control and a share of the profits, while Disney retained all the merchandising rights. It was an arrangement that would cause considerable tension at Disney during production.
Disney liked having Spielberg on board and it saw Roger Rabbit as a way to resurrect its languishing animation department which had only released two films in the early 1980s, the moderately successful The Fox and the Hound and the disastrous The Black Cauldron. The Great Mouse Detective was in production and it would eventually be a big step towards Disney’s return to animation glory, but the studio needed to be attached to a project with some prestige and genuine innovation. Roger Rabbit was that project.
It wasn't a cheap project by any means. It was originally budgeted at $50 million, which probably made Disney CEO Michael Eisner's brain explode. This was a guy known for making movies on the cheap and getting the maximum bang for his buck. The final budget did get pared down to just shy of $30 million, but once production started, costs mounted and Eisner couldn't do much about it except whine, complain and send Jeffrey Katzenberg to keep an eye on things since Spielberg and Zemeckis had creative control. Before it was all done, Roger Rabbit would cost about $70 million.
The cost was driven largely by the slow, painstaking efforts it took to blend the animation and live action together. Keep in mind this was long before computers took hold in Hollywood. As a reference point, Roger Rabbit was released the same year (1988) that John Lasseter and Bill Reeves at a struggling computer company named Pixar produced a short cartoon called Tin Toy, which would become the first computer-animated short film to win an Oscar. So, comparatively speaking, there wasn't a whole lot of technology available to the Roger Rabbit crew, but there was a lot of artistry.
The animation was done in England under the direction of Richard Williams. After the live action sequences were shot, photostats of each individual frame of film were sent to London. Where props, puppets or robotics took the place of cartoon characters in the photos, the animators simply drew over them. Well, maybe not that simple. It was a time-consuming and deliberate process that had to be very attentive to the sight lines of the live actors and shifting camera angles (a locked down camera would've been easier for the animation scenes, but Zemeckis insisted on a more realistic look). All told, there were over 82,000 frames of animation drawn in Roger Rabbit. The film spent a year in post-production.
What resulted was a technically astounding film that integrated hand-drawn animation and live action on a scale never seen before or since. Critics were mostly enthusiastic. Roger Ebert with the Chicago Sun-Times called Roger Rabbit "not only great entertainment, but a breakthrough in craftsmanship." Janet Maslin with The New York Times said, "Who Framed Roger Rabbit [is] a film whose best moments are so novel, so deliriously funny and so crazily unexpected that they truly must be seen to be believed." The bunny cleaned up at the box office too, taking in over $150 million in the U.S. alone. The film would be nominated for six Oscars, winning three for film editing, visual effects and sound effects editing. Williams would also receive a special achievement award from the Academy for his impressive animation work.
Twenty-five years later, the technical achievements still hold up. Who Framed Roger Rabbit is a wonderful film to look at with plenty of memorable scenes: Eddie Valiant's walk through the toon-populated R.K. Maroon Studios, Donald and Daffy Duck's epic piano duel at the Ink and Paint Club, any scene with Roger's beloved (and bodaciously buxom) Jessica Rabbit--yowsa! Where I've always had my troubles with the film, however, is in the overall tone of the story. I get that the biggest joke of Roger Rabbit is the normalcy with which humans and toons interact. The problem for me is when these worlds collide, what's funny in Toontown often isn't funny in downtown Los Angeles.
Also, the parallels between Roger Rabbit's Ink and Paint Club and real-life Harlem's Cotton Club of years past are concerning. Toons, like African Americans, were there for entertainment purposes only and weren't welcome in the club as guests. It's obvious Zemeckis and screenwriters Jeffrey Price and Peter Seaman had something to say about the second-class treatment of toons by humans, but it's only touched upon. It's never fully fleshed out. Perhaps that's a sidebar to the film that would've gotten in the way of the 1940s detective noir story it was trying to tell. It still manages to cast a pall over the proceedings without really explaining what the toons' status in society was. Maybe I'm overthinking this, but I always see the toons like oppressed minorities and it detracts from my overall enjoyment of the film. Toons just don't seem to be having very much fun outside of the safe, non-exploitive confines of Toontown. They may sing "Smile, Darn You, Smile," but they don't seem to have a lot to smile about.