After the trailer for Melissa McCarthy’s The Happytime Murders premiered, critics were calling the comedy title the new Who Framed Roger Rabbit. The concept of having humankind acclimate with talking puppets sounds pretty familiar, but to call it the new Who Framed Roger Rabbit would be misunderstanding what made the Robert Zemeckis comedy so good in the first place.
Three years after his immensely successful sci-fi comedy, Back to the Future, director Robert Zemeckis brought another eccentric romp to the screen andWho Framed Roger Rabbit couldn’t have been done by anyone else. Zemeckis was stubborn and had a strict vision for the film. Disney had particular rules about what not do in the film: don’t do extreme close-ups, fancy lighting, or anything that would make it difficult for the animators. But Zemeckis stood his ground and broke the rules, creating one of the most influential animated films of all time.
Animation/live action hybrids are not an original idea as we’d already seen Mary Poppins and Pete’s Dragon use the concept decades earlier. But while their use of animation was used for a more whimsical feel, Roger Rabbit had more of a dash of gritty realism. In Mary Poppins, it always felt like the human characters were talking to cartoons. But in Roger Rabbit, the toons were given their own shadows to look like they were inhabitants in that world. With intricate lighting and animation, Zemeckis meshed the gritty colors of film noir with vibrant technicolor to unite the live action and animated worlds.
Adapting from the novel, Who Censored Roger Rabbit, writers Jeffrey Price and Peter Seaman sought out to create a pastiche of the film noir genre. Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins) is a hostile detective with a personal vendetta against toons after his brother was killed by one. Once a reputable detective for toons, he’s now a drunk who takes on sleazy jobs to keep the cash flowing in. His path crosses with Roger Rabbit, a toon actor who’s been framed for murder by the incredibly shady Judge Doom (Christopher Lloyd).
It’s a classic “whodunit” mystery straight out of a pulp novel. Price and Seaman embrace the cheesiness of the film noir genre with sharp dialogue and witty one-liners. But underneath the gags and the disappearing-reappearing ink, there’s a prevailing theme: segregation. Toons are primarily seen as entertainers for humans. They’re either getting anvils dropped on their heads or singing cabaret in underground clubs. They literally work for peanuts while the humans control their home and future. And in the end, it’s Eddie Valiant who ends up saving Toontown and the entire toon race as we know it. Does that make him a “toon savior?”
Despite being a product of the 80’s, Who Framed Roger Rabbit is as fresh now as it was then. Even with our current technology, no film has been able to achieve that hybrid of 2D animation. And with CGI and 3D taking precedence, it doesn’t look like it will have any competition in the future.