Awesome Movies: Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

WTF is Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

Who Framed Roger Rabbit is a 1988 film by Touchstone Pictures (aka Disney) that blends live action and 2D animation. Loosely based on the novel Who Censored Roger Rabbit?, the story takes place in a universe where cartoon characters, or Toons, live side by side with humans and serve as actors in cartoon movies.

The story, which is partly satirical, follows a hardboiled 1940s-era detective (played by Bob Hoskins) as he tries to solve a murder while trapped in an odd-couple buddy-comedy relationship with suspect number one. Along the way, he has to confront his deepest fears, and learn to find his sense of humour.

Just like any hardboiled detective story, it turns out that everything’s more complicated than it seems, and that what looked like a murder born from revenge could be part of a larger, more complex plot that could destroy Toon Town and Hollywood, both.

Why is that awesome?

Roger Rabbit is ambitious, and risky, and something that required a lot of hard work to pull off.

At the time it was made, we didn’t have CGI. Animators had to sit there and draw the Toons manually. They had to do insane amounts of post-production to blend everything together. The actors didn’t even get a green tennis ball to talk to – they had to act with thin air. Everything was awkward and new, but the finished product was strangely believable. You found yourself willing to go along with it, and to entertain the idea that Bob Hoskins was actually hanging out with cartoon rabbit. It wasn’t perfect, but it didn’t look stupid, either.

Part of the reason it doesn’t look stupid is because the story matches film-making techniques that were used. The animated characters are supposed to look a little cartoony and out of place. The entire conceit of the movie is that it’s like, what if Betty Boop (who appears in a cameo) just walked up to you on the street, and everyone thought that was normal? Wouldn’t that look kind of surreal?

Another part of the reason it doesn’t look stupid is because the filmmakers clearly went out of their way to create instances in which the animated characters and the live actors touch each other and interact with the same physical world. Roger smashes a glass, and it’s a real glass. A human police officer picks up an animated hammer that launches a spring-loaded boxing glove. The hardboiled detective has a metal gun and an animated one, for special occasions.

By constantly showing us the interaction between the two worlds, the movie convinces us to believe that these two things are equally real. If that doesn’t seem impressive, think of all the non-interactive examples from the early days of special effects, where there were obvious split-screens, or people weren’t quite looking where they were supposed to be looking, or no one could touch the thing they were seeing. This movie goes out of its way to do the opposite of that, using methods that were probably really time-consuming to carry out.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit also achieves a good balance in terms of its story. This is mostly a comedy, and, given the cartoon content, and the satire of film noir, it would have been easy to make in nothing but joke after joke. Instead, the writers smartly know when to ground the story in more serious themes.

It’s funny when we learn that the hardboiled detective’s brother was killed when somebody “dropped a piano on his head,” but we also feel the pain of that loss along the way. Roger Rabbit is a wacky cartoon character, but he also experiences real fear at the way Toons have persecuted by the movie’s villain, Judge Doom. Watching Doom execute Toons who displease him is genuinely disturbing, and drives home the stakes of the case.

Even though we’re laughing, we also understand that Roger’s going to die if they don’t clear his name, and that the hardboiled detective needs to find a way to deal with what happened to his brother. The story has weight because of its stakes, and that allows the jokes to land while still maintaining a sense of tension along the way.

The climactic scene, in which All Is Revealed and the hardboiled detective is forced to use his sense of humour to literally save people’s lives, feels earned. It’s funny, but it’s also suspenseful, and it makes emotional sense, in relation to what we’ve been told.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit is the combination of a really risky, technically challenging concept paired with a really solid, entertaining story that ends up delivering something unique. There’s nothing else quite like this, and you can’t imagine taking anything out, or doing anything differently than it was done. It is the perfect realization of what it was trying to be, and that’s what makes it awesome.

Image: Who Framed Roger Rabbit?; Touchstone | October 24, 2014