We head back to the 80’s this Christmas. HOME Digital Reporter Patrick Foley reviews the first classic on the big screen as part of our festive season…
It’s hard to imagine Who Framed Roger Rabbit? getting made today. Or any day, in fact. A story about an alcoholic detective, investigating a murder pinned on a celebrity rabbit, set in a world where humans and cartoons exist as one, which demands the appearance of characters from the world’s biggest animation studios seems like a hard sell for any producer. And yet somehow Roger Rabbit came to be. It survived undoubted interference from concerned studio heads desperate to ensure their prized properties were not used in any way that might affect that year’s bottom line. It slalomed around catastrophic test screenings featuring mass walkouts of dissatisfied audiences. It managed to feature a now-iconic femme fatale whose mere inclusion could have pushed the film past PG. And for somehow navigating these developmental potholes, it takes its place as one of the most highly regarded, influential and inventive films in the history of animation.
It’s testament to the storytelling that the original characters – Roger and Jessica Rabbit, Benny the Cab and Baby Herman never feel upstaged by the superstar cameo appearances. The movie remains the only time that the parallel poster-children of Disney and Warner Bros (Mickey Mouse/Bugs Bunny and Donald/Daffy Duck) have featured on screen together. And yet these scenes pale in significance when compared to the most memorable moments that stick with you from the film – Jessica’s jaw-dropping introductory dance, the agonising death of a living shoe dropped in the ominous ‘dip’ or Judge Doom’s nails on a chalkboard. If you just came for a variety show of animation’s finest, you stayed for the characters you began to love as you invested in the dark and disciplined story.
This is all without mentioning Bob Hoskins’ downtrodden private eye. Eddie Valiant is our anchor in this world of madness. Whilst never far from a witty one-liner, Valiant’s pessimism and world-weariness is what really draws us into the film, making it truly believable. There is no eye-winking to the camera or overly-hammy extravagating from Hoskins. When the time comes for him to embrace the ridiculous, it comes naturally thanks to the growing respect he shows for the Toons. Even in the wonderfully imagined Toontown scenes, Valiant keeps us grounded in the real.
Roger Rabbit is not without its flaws upon re-watching. The true identity of Judge Doom, whilst brilliantly hinted at throughout the film, still feels like a curveball that adds little to the plot beyond sending the level of horror in the last few scenes into overdrive (those eyes will stick with you…). And compared to the seamless CGI that can now impose us into hyper-realistic fantasy worlds, there are some reminders in the effects that there were still hurdles that 1988’s technology could not get around.
But these are small gripes that cannot take the inarguable shine away from Who Framed Roger Rabbit? – A building block of the modern animation age. If it were somehow made today, it would inspire countless imitators. Hollywood executives would spend hours around tables trying to figure out how to replicate the magic – no doubt concluding that adult humour, referential comedy, or live-action animation are key. But it is the inventiveness, the characters, and the story that bring Roger Rabbit to life. It’s good. And not just because it’s drawn that way.