‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’ – An Animation Thesis…

My next pick for animation thesis isn’t an all-animated film, but it contains a lot of animation… Pure animation, too. Not VFX trickery and lifelike creations.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit

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A Walt Disney Pictures/Amblin Entertainment film released under Disney’s Touchstone banner, spearheaded by Back to the Future trilogy director Robert Zemeckis and executive producer Steven Spielberg, featuring vivid and delectable animation provided by Richard Williams and his powerhouse team from London. Truly, the greats came together this one, special time and delivered a masterpiece…

Who Framed Roger Rabbit, to me, was what roared feature animation awake in the late 1980s. Much is written about the 2nd Golden Age of Animation, or the “Renaissance” era of animation. Often times, The Little Mermaid is called the beginning of it all. Other times, people will suggest that Disney’s scrappy little 1986 animated romp The Great Mouse Detective was it, others pinpoint it at former animation-turned-competitor Don Bluth’s spectacle, An American Tail, also a Steven Spielberg venture.

Truthfully, both of those mouse movies that came out in 1986 laid the groundwork for animation’s 2nd Golden Age. Great Mouse Detective was a profitable little movie that strengthened Roy E. Disney’s stance on feature animation, which the new executives were willing to get rid of. An American Tail further showed these same commanders that, yes, animation is a very lucrative thing. Up until An American Tail, few non-Disney animated movies rivaled the company at the box office, let alone outright beat them. Even though more animated features were released starting in the 1960s, Disney Feature Animation continued to hold the records. An American Tail, for the first time, beat the then-current record, which was held by The Fox and the Hound.

So the hole was open. It was time to go through, but when would that occur? Disney Feature Animation immediately started plugging up their release schedule, intending to get a new feature out every calendar year. Bluth was locked and loaded with a whole slate of pictures. Other movie companies had yet to pick up on this growing revival…

1988 was the year it all happened… Don Bluth and Steven Spielberg, with George Lucas at their side, struck back with The Land Before Time. Disney’s Oliver & Company was a contemporary, albeit very gimmicky hit. There was also… The Pound Puppies movie, which captured the imaginations of everyone, everywhe- Anyways… Right smack-dab in the middle of the feature animation crop of that year was Who Framed Roger Rabbit. A critical darling, it went on to become the year’s second highest-earning film, with a monster $156 million gross. That made An American Tail‘s $48 million haul look like nothing. Finally, an animated blockbuster for the first time in years! Roger Rabbit was what woke everyone up, and by mid-1989, other studios were getting in on the animation game. The Little Mermaid definitely kept the fire burning a year and a half later…

Who Framed Roger Rabbit is set in a world where cartoon characters co-exist with us, and basically are the actors of their animated pictures. Adapted from Gary K. Wolf’s Who Censored Roger Rabbit, this was one heck of a premise, and one that has been imitated quite a few times but with little success. Lots of animated films nowadays work off of its “what-if” set-up, a trope often associated with Pixar. Even Disney themselves have tried to mimic this kind of story! Walt Disney Productions had been trying to turn this book into a hybrid film ever since the early 1980s, mere years before Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg came to the company and changed the whole game. This early version of Roger Rabbit had a completely different design for the titular character, said protagonist’s voice was done by Paul Reubens (Pee-Wee Herman), and Darrell Van Citters handled animation direction…

Like most projects that were in development during the post-Walt years, it ran into trouble. Roger Rabbit‘s pick-up was one of Thomas Wilhite’s big pushes, it was launched a year after he was named head of development in the film department. Wilhite was quite a radical compared to his comrades and predecessors, who were very much the establishment. A group of people who assumed power of Disney’s studio after Walt’s passing, and a group of people who kept the studio stuck in one place throughout the 1970s, they had wrung the once-roaring mouse out. Wilhite, alongside Walt’s son-in-law/executive Ron Miller, sought to finally change this. Roger Rabbit seemed like quite the ticket to the blockbuster Disney had been clamoring for since the late 1960s.

From 1979 to 1983, we started seeing more Disney films that aimed beyond the traditional family audience. Films like The Black HoleThe Watcher in the WoodsTRONTexTrenchcoat… They all went belly-up at the box office, and a good number of them didn’t get glowing reception. Roger Rabbit was kicked around for a little while, before disappearing sometime in 1983, when Wilhite was let go.

For a brief period, Ron Miller actually had tried very hard to re-energize Disney, and not just in films. The completion of EPCOT Center was certainly no accident, same with The Disney Channel, same with Walt Disney Home Video, same with Tim Burton’s little side-projects, same with many other ambitious projects. The threatened takeover from Saul Steinberg was what knocked the Miller train off the rails, Roy E. Disney successfully got him ousted in favor of three outsiders: Michael Eisner, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and Frank Wells…

This new trio took great interest in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, restarting the whole film while basing a lot of it off of the early 80s treatment, not so much the original book. Steven Spielberg and Amblin were approached, then the costs ramped up, and then Richard Williams’ studio was called in to do the animation. In return, Disney and Spielberg would help him finish his passion project, the ill-fated The Thief and the Cobbler. That of course did not happen, and regrettably so.

Taking the live-action/animation hybrid approach to levels unheard of, Who Framed Roger Rabbit ended up becoming a very expensive venture. Eisner and Roy had objections to the more adult-oriented content of the film, but Zemeckis had final cut privilege, and thankfully prevailed in making his film. As a compromise, Who Framed Roger Rabbit was released under the Touchstone banner, which Ron Miller had launched in 1984 for Disney films that wouldn’t be appropriate for family audiences.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit opens up with a sequence that not only establishes the film’s concept and worldbuilding, but is also a damn excellent cartoon… even if it may not have a proper ending!

The Maroon Cartoon production that starts everything off is a blast, because Richard Williams’ approach to animation is unlike any other. A perfectionist, Williams not only had his crew do it all by hand, but also called for moving shots and effects that CGI could easily and quickly produce. This approach is on full display in the dizzying remains of The Thief and the Cobbler, along with his 1977 feature Raggedy Ann and Andy: A Musical Adventure, and his commercial work. Right from the start, Roger Rabbit‘s opening cartoon is abundant in stunning camera pans, ridiculously-good staging, and ace lighting.

Then, Williams and co. keep a general 1940s aesthetic throughout, definitely channeling the Disney and MGM productions of the era. The slapstick and action are definitely more Tex Avery and Warner Bros-esque. A balanced meshing of the styles, it makes for a Golden Age cartoon on steroids, and something visually far more exciting than most of the “realistic” CG features made in the last 15 years or so. It’s too bad Richard Williams’ way is not so practical, because it produces some of the best animation you’ll ever see.

Equally impressive is the Toon Town chapter, the segregated neighborhood where all the animated stars live, an anything-goes sector filled with wacky architecture, tons of characters (including several cameos), and all sorts of visual delights. While we don’t spend too much time in Toon Town, it is quite a sight to see, and is also loaded with many surprises.

Outside of being an airtight detective story, Roger Rabbit is rich with themes and ideas. In Roger Rabbit, the villain intends to destroy all of Toon Town to make way for a new interstate, and in general the toons are a victim of prejudice. Even protagonist Eddie Valiant hates toons, all on the grounds that a toon murdered his brother. Toons don’t hold jobs outside of Toon Town, they’re only there to act and perform. Judge Doom, our antagonist, is revealed to be a toon in disguise as well as Eddie’s brother’s killer, a maniac looking to wipe out his own kind with the combination of materials that animation studios used to clean cels back in those days… The “Dip.” All of this is set up so subtly and so well, and very few animated films since then have gone for this kind of layered, real-world mirroring. Zootopia, from Walt Disney Animation Studios, perhaps comes the closest in the modern era, using the predator-prey dichotomy as their core.

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At the same time, Roger Rabbit‘s world building presents a scenario that’s quite similar to how the American film industry treats animation. Animation, to Hollywood, is like a sideshow, only brought out for family movies and kiddie things, but used for little else. Family movies can indeed be weighty and have themes, but animated features can’t really ever be more than that. Films like Inside OutZootopia, and Kubo and the Two Strings… That’s the limit, says Hollywood… and if something is being made for adults, it has to be a sophomoric comedy like Sausage Party.

Ever since the release of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, you never really saw any other mainstream animated feature like it. Here in America, the animation pendulum swings two ways: One way is the family-friendly feature, the other way is the hyper-inappropriate film. (again, see Sausage Party) There is unfortunately no middle ground for a smart PG-13 or R-rated film that’s free of gimmicks. Who Framed Roger Rabbit was given the coveted PG, but you young’uns who might be reading this must understand… The PG rating in 1988 actually meant something. Nowadays, the studios rig the ratings. The studios, despite pigeonholing animation as a children’s medium, want “big kids” to come see their $70-120 million+ movies. Watch any Illumination movie or most of DreamWorks’ current films or something like My Little Pony: The Movie… Do any of those movies really deserve a freakin’ PG rating?

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Rude humor. Thematic elements. More like, “the studio wanted this rating, so here’s our cryptic justification for that.” If released and submitted today, Who Framed Roger Rabbit would likely get a strong PG-13 rating. There’s cussing, Jessica Rabbit, plenty of innuendos, and some flat-out frightening scenes. A lot of these little elements are why the current Disney management has no desire to relaunch that long-gestating sequel. The moment where the poor anthropomorphic shoe was used to demonstrate the power of the dip is a scene I’m lucky to have never seen as a small incredibly-sensitive child, ditto Judge Doom’s revealing of his true self. Yet Roger Rabbit is not the kind of “edgy” animated movie that’s so prominent today. It makes Jeffrey Katzenberg’s own Shrek look like an amateurish kids’ film by comparison. While there were attempts to make some more “edgy”-type animated films in the 1990s, they all failed, so the studios just stuck to imitating Disney by the middle of the decade and onward. Shrek also set a template, studios sought to pepper all their mediocre films with toilet humor and innuendos, hoping to get that adult dollar. We still see that kind of thing today, and it’s mostly an issues with films that are very clearly aiming at little ones.

That’s not how you make an animated movie appeal to adults. Who Framed Roger Rabbit is first and foremost about its characters and its premise, the execution plays it straight: There are some things in the world that you don’t show to really young kids. The film may have mainly been a live-action picture, it did show that, yes… Animation can be for adults, too! Animation can be more than just a kids’ matinee movie or a family-friendly venture, it can be more than just a raunch-fest that operates on the well-worn (and never all that funny) novelty of “cartoon characters swearing and doing naughty things.” Who Framed Roger Rabbit remains a rare breed, some three decades later.

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You also did not see many other hybrids like it, either. Roger Rabbit set the gold standard in hybrids, very few live-action films utilizing pure animation have come close to it. I see more and more distributors announcing live-action/animation hybrids left and right, which makes me think of schlockfests like The Smurfs and Alvin and the Chipmunks, not so much films like this and Enchanted. I also see that the upcoming Sonic the Hedgehog movie will be a hybrid… It’s like, why? Roger Rabbit has a reason to be a hybrid, it’s to show the contrast between the “cartoon” world and the real world… And what better way to do that than with live-action for the real world, and animation for the cartoon world? To me, that’s much more genuine than just sticking funny-looking characters in with live actors, or creating hyperrealistic talking animals (Peter Rabbit) or fantasy creatures (Monster Trucks). It’s work, yes! But it’s a trend I don’t care for. Go all-animated, or don’t go at all.

Yet despite all the cool elements and all of its ideas that were not present in post-Golden Age animation up until that point, Who Framed Roger Rabbit is bolstered by an immense amount of heart, and a pure sense of escapism. It fits right in line with many of Spielberg’s films of the era, also being a period piece. The live-action parts aren’t just live-action parts, the film has a retro, dreamy quality to it yet also shows a seedier, darker side of 1947 Hollywood. Whatever happened to those kinds of movies that ruled the 80s? Why can’t we have them now? The closest we have to that is arguably Brad Bird, who in the 1980s had attempted to make an animated film like this based on The SpiritThe Incredibles, a similarly retro-tinged superhero/spy adventure of his, almost feels like something from this era.

No, after Who Framed Roger Rabbit came out, and after the box office failures of Cool World and Bebe’s Kids, this kind of “big kids and up” animation went the way of the quagga. The Nightmare Before Christmas was one last gasp, also groundbreaking, also a Touchstone release, also a work unbothered by executive interference, and look at how mainstream that movie became a decade after its release! One thing I think that’s overlooked about the 90s “Renaissance” in animation is that the weirdos – for once – came out and had a say in animation and film. Not just Tim Burton, Disney’s most radical animator circa 1981, but several others: MTV’s Liquid TelevisionAeon Flux, Matt Groening’s The Simpsons, Klasky-Csupo’s shows, Ren & Stimpy, and so on. It’s as if an underground gathering of freaks took over some of the scene for a little while, and it was quite glorious…

While I wouldn’t put Roger Rabbit in with the weirder stuff of the decade, it certainly felt “underground” then and certainly feels like just that today. An animated work that wasn’t concerned about kids in the audience, for once. Look, I love Walt Disney Animation Studios and Pixar, but that “responsible filmmaking” thing gets stale when everybody else is doing it. DreamWorks is often praised for trying to buck this with Shrek some 16 years ago, they really didn’t, and its success only lead to a string of family comedies with some added, gimmicky edge. Animation for preteens, essentially. Now it’s just all-ages stuff. Trolls, Boss Baby, this, that.

No, Roger Rabbit truly is animation for adults.

On a technical level, it’s just something else. The animated characters blend in so wonderfully with their surroundings thanks to all the lighting, effects, and movie magic. Sometimes I wish a fully-animated movie would use these techniques, successfully integrating characters with moving CG backgrounds in ways Tarzan and Treasure Planet never did. That would be much cooler than most of the stuff being made today.

Adding to all of this greatness is a wonderful score by Alan Silvestri, excellent acting from everyone on board, and the rock-solid storytelling. It’s a detective story, a noir, a buddy comedy in some ways, it’s an adventure… A lil’ bit of everything and then some, plus all those cameos!

What are we left with? It’s a thoroughly good, fun, visually splendid love letter to animation and its first Golden Age. Not a cynical deconstruction of the era, but a celebration wrapped in an enthralling story. The film itself is more than an animation thesis because of that, presenting the importance of cartoons and animation. What is a cartoon? What is an animated feature? A cartoon certainly brings laughs like no other, and that’s Jessica Rabbit’s justification for marrying Roger. “He makes me laugh.”

… and what’s wrong with a little laughter? And what’s so wrong with laughter coming from a hand-drawn, hand-painted-on-a-2D-plane character? Who Framed Roger Rabbit shows what’s so right about that. Cartoons and animation more than definitely have a place in this world.

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