Every week here at Cinematic Century I talk about movies that I love. The whole idea was to find my favorite movie of each year, and geek out about it. But, it’s always something special when I get to talk about not only my favorite film of a year, but one of my absolute favorite movies of all time. The type of movie that I would wrestle with referring to as my favorite movie, period. And, today we have such a film. I’ve actually talked about today’s pick, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, before and in great depth. Because this was actually the inaugural entry of my Film Library series where I talked about this movie and the book that it was loosely based on. But, I couldn’t possibly not talk about Who Framed Roger Rabbit again, because there’s no denying that it’s hands down my favorite film of the year. Some movies come somewhat close, but by and large 1988 just gave me a bunch of movies that I really like, and one movie that I love with my whole being. I feel like the somewhat obvious pick for 1988 could have been Die Hard, a movie I’ve also weirdly talked about on Film Library, and that also is amazing. I mean, it’s Die Hard, it’s one of the greatest action movies of all time. I also have a great deal of affection for Bettlejuice, still one of my favorite Tim Burton movies ever made, and a film that I was quite obsessed with for a while in my life. Or hey, we could have talked about the sheer audacity of They Live, one of John Carpenter’s weirder films, but one that’s still a hell of a good time. I also have quite a bit of nostalgic love for Scrooged, a film that I still watch every Christmas with my family and whose quotes have entered our familial lexicon to a shocking degree. I also really love The Thin Blue Line, a documentary that I watched several times in college and that always remains one of the most engaging documentaries ever made, but I’ve never quite found the right way to tackle a documentary on this project. I’ve only recently seen Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and have become a quick convert, seeing it as one of the funniest movies of the 1980’s. And, hey, who doesn’t love Bloodsport? But, none of those movies could possibly hope to dethrone Who Framed Roger Rabbit, a movie I’ve loved for a majority of my life and that seems to be a perfect combination of everything I love about movies in one perfect little story.
As I mentioned above, Who Framed Roger Rabbit started life as a novel called Who Censored Roger Rabbit? by Gary Wolf. That novel is somewhat different from the film, but its concept was enough for Walt Disney Productions to quickly buy its film rights after t was published. The film was in production for a while, director-less until Robert Zemeckis offered to direct it. But, since he had only directed box-office bombs up until that point, they refused. Work continued on the film for a few years until Disney decided to bring on Amblin Entertainment as a production partner, since Disney wasn’t quite sure they could justify the increasingly large budget. This was before the Disney Renaissance began, so the company wasn’t doing very well, and they saw this as an opportunity to help save their animation department. And, with Amblin’s help, specifically Steven Spielberg’s, the project was able to garner the help of several different classic animation studios in order to use their characters, often with some strange stipulations on what the characters could do and how they were portrayed. And, by the time they were finally able to get going Robert Zemeckis had just made two incredibly popular films, Romancing the Stone and Back to the Future, so he was able to become the director of the film, eager to tackle the incredibly difficult technological feat of this film. They then found themselves in the apparently incredibly difficult position of casting Eddie Valiant, which led them to consider damn near every working actor on Hollywood, before landing on British actor Bob Hoskins of all people. They then were able to get Richard Williams, famous animation curmudgeon, to come onto the product, even though he was famously against Disney’s bureaucratic style of animation. And, after a substantial amount of ground-breaking animation, bringing the world of cartoons into the world of 1930’s Hollywood, the film was finally finished. Disney was a little worried that the film was too risque, but Zemeckis was able to hold fast and release the film the way he anted to. And, it was a hit. The movie was a box-office smash, becoming one of the most successful films of the year, and was pretty unanimously enjoyed critically. The film has gone on to become a classic, and from the first time that I watched this film as a small child I have been incredibly in love with it.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit is set in a version of 1947 Los Angeles where human beings and “toons,” sentient cartoons, live in relative harmony. The toons primarily live lives devoted to making movies and shorts, while occasionally filling out service positions throughout the human world where they come in contact with regular people. Which is where alcoholic private eye Eddie Valiant comes into the picture. He’s been hired by the head of a popular animation studio, R.K. Maroon, to find proof that the wife of one of their star performers, Roger Rabbit, is cheating on him so he can get a divorce and get his head back in the game. Valiant doesn’t take kindly to taking a case involving toons, since he’s specifically tried to stay away from them ever since his brother was killed by one, but he’s in desperate need for money, and he takes the case. The most obvious place to start is by checking out a local nightclub where Roger’s wife Jessica performs, so Valiant heads out to catch her show. While there he meets Marvin Acme, the head of a major joke company, and the owner of Toon Town, the neighborhood where a majority of toons live. Valiant then meets Jessica Rabbit, who much to his shock looks like a seductive noir woman. And, after her performance, Valiant begins creeping around, and witnesses Jessica and Acme having an intimate moment, which he gets plenty of pictures of. Valiant then brings the photos back to Maroon, and the two show them to Roger Rabbit, who has a bit of a meltdown and flees into the night, swearing to fix thing. Which, becomes rather problematic the next morning when news breaks that Marvin Acme has been brutally murdered in his factory.
Roger has become the obvious suspect, and Valiant ends up getting drawn into the case, the police assuming he knows more than he’s letting on. And, while answering questions he meets a new figure in the town, Judge Doom, a fervent toon-hater who has developed a special chemical that can kill them. He and his toon weasel henchmen are deadset on finding Roger, and have decided that Valiant is their best bet in finding him. Which, turns out to be correct, because when Valiant returns to his home he finds Roger waiting for him. Roger proclaims his innocence, explaining that he went to confront Jessica and Acme, but just ended up writing a love letter on a scrap of paper instead. Valiant also learns that some of the toons believe that Acme had a secret will that left Toon Town to the toons themselves, but the will wasn’t found. And, while Valiant stashes Roger in a bar belonging to a friend of his named Delores, Valiant starts to piece more of the puzzle together. He learns that Maroon forced Jessica Rabbit into the situation with Acme specifically to blackmail Roger, and that Maroon’s company is being sold to a mysterious conglomerate known as Cloverleaf that has also been buying up a lot of he public transportation in Los Angeles. All of this smells fishy to Valiant, and he goes to confront Maroon. Which, doesn’t go well, because after clearly learning that Acme’s will will have major ramifications for the toons and the city, Maroon is killed by an unseen assailant. But, Valiant does see Jessica Rabbit flee from the scene, and leaps to the conclusion that she killed Maroon, which certainly adds up once he realizes that she’s also kidnapped Roger.
Which means Eddie Valiant is going to have to do something he swore never to do again. He has to enter Toon Town. So, Valiant heads into the zany world of Toon Town, and tracks down Jessica Rabbit, where he learns that things still aren’t what he thought they were. Judge Doom killed both Acme and Maroon, and wants to kill her and Roger because Acme gave her his will, but when she read it she found that it was blank. They attempt to flee Toon Town and stop Doom, but in the process are captured by him and his weasels, and brought to Acme’s warehouse where the full details of their plot are revealed. Because it turns out that Judge Doom is the owner of Cloverleaf. He’s purchased all of the public transportation in Los Angeles so he can dismantle it, and now plans on purchasing Toon Town so he can raze it and turn it essentially into a massive strip-mall, hoping to capitalize on the impending age of the freeway, which he thinks will dominate Southern California and turn him into an incredibly wealthy man. The only thing that could have stopped him was Acme’s will, but the point will soon be moot, because in mere hours he’ll have the legal ability to destroy Toon Town with his toon-killing dip. But, Valiant isn’t going to let that happen. Working with Jessica and Roger he’s able to defeat the weasels by getting them to laugh so much they die, and ends up doing battle with Doom himself, which is when he learns something shocking. Judge Doom is actually a toon, and specifically the toon that killed his brother so many years ago. But, keeping his head, Eddie is able to defeat Judge Doom, ending his genocidal plan. And, as an extra bonus, they realize that the paper that Roger wrote his love letter on is actually Marvin Acme’s will, and that he’d used a special ink that disappeared and reappeared, giving the toons the ability to own their land and keep it safe from any future encroachments, and letting everyone live happily ever after.
There are few movies that have had such an impact on my sense of storytelling as Who Framed Roger Rabbit. When I was a kid I liked it because it was full of all sorts of different cartoon characters that I loved, interacting in ways that I’d never seen them do before, not realizing that they came from different companies. But, as time went on, I found myself increasingly drawn to the noir aesthetic, largely because this film had such a defining impact on me as a kid. And, I still think that it’s one of the better neo-noirs that Hollywood has ever produced. People can certainly dismiss the film as a kids movie, and thus undeserving of any real critical evaluation, but I think that that’s patently ridiculous. This is a very impressive film, utilizing then cutting edge technology to make a film really unlike anything that had ever been attempted. There had been films that tried to synthesize animation with live action before, but none to this degree, and with this amount of success, really bringing the world of the toons to life. But, technical gimmickry aside, I think one of the reasons that I still love this movie so much is that it’s a surprisingly solid noir tale. It’s full of all the twists and turns that you’d expect from a hardboiled detective story, down to the fact that will you boil the plot down it’s all about shady land deals in Los Angeles, which is just kind of perfect. It’s a story about Hollywood, about crime, and about the ways that those two fundamental aspects of American culture interact with each other. It you took the toons out of the movie, it would still be a very engaging noir film, but adding them in makes this movie something really special, and a film that I truly and wholly love.
When I wrote my first Film Library post about this movie, and the novel Who Censored Roger Rabbit? I found myself shocked by the fact that novel seemed to be making the toons a metaphor for minorities, something that at the time I said was strange since the movie didn’t pick up on that. But, in the ensuing years, that idea has really percolated in my head, and when I watched the film again for this article I really saw the movie in a completely different light. I don’t know if before now I’d been watching the film from a nostalgic place, unable to see anything in it that I hadn’t seen as a kid, but when I recently rewatched the film it became glaringly obvious that this film served as a metaphor for not only segregation, but the ways that Hollywood used and abused people of color in the Golden Age of Hollywood. The toons are largely used as a metaphor for the black actors and actresses in Hollywood at that time. They were expected to be highly over the top caricatures, silly people who just existed to make people laugh, and who were then pushed back to their own neighborhood, unless white people wanted to lust after them in sleazy nightclubs. These “toons” were treated like commodities that could be used to sell tickets, and then generally disenfranchised, before their neighborhoods are callously destroyed in order to make white people even richer. There’s a lot going on in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and it’s made in such a way that you can completely enjoy it on its surface, just having a good time with a fun noir romp featuring a bunch of cartoon characters. But, like all the best stories, there’s a lot more going on beneath the surface, and the more you care of unravel and examine, the deeper you peer, the more you can get from it. And, honestly, I’m sure there’s more to glean from this film. The more I learn about classic Hollywood, the more that there will be to love about this movie, because it’s a veritable masterpiece of American film making.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit was written by Jeffrey Price and Peter S Seaman, directed by Robert Zemeckis, and released by Buena Vista Pictures Distribution, 1988.
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