Develop any genre long enough and eventually you’ll invite some kind of deconstruction of it. By the late 1980s, cartoons had kind of run their course from a Golden Age into the Saturday Morning era that seemed to be more about product placement and toy sales than actual entertainment. Add to that the cessation of new theatrical animated content from the great old animation houses such as Disney, Warner Brothers, Fleischer, Universal and MGM, and you get the perfect conditions to simultaneously pay homage to that bygone era while taking the mickey out of it, both literally and figuratively. The result is a movie that is entertaining and bewildering, inspiring and subversive, hard-to-categorize but impossible to forget: Who Framed Roger Rabbit?.
It’s 1947, and in Los Angeles, people live side by side with their animated counterparts, the Toons. Animated shorts, it turns out, aren’t drawn by an army of artists chained to their desks. They are shot on sound stages using Toons’ near indestructibility and frantic need to entertain to produce the kind of mayhem that makes cartoons what they are. One such star, Roger Rabbit, can’t focus on his work because his voluptuous femme fatale of a wife, Jessica, is off playing pattycake with Marvin Acme, maker of novelty gag products. Eddie Valiant—a boozy private eye who has hated Toons ever since one murdered his brother a few years back—is hired to photograph Jessica and Acme together, but his routine snoop job becomes a murder case when it looks like Roger dropped a safe on Acme’s head. Meanwhile, Cloverleaf Industries will own Toontown—the animated neighborhood where Toons live—and redevelop it if Acme’s last will and testament can’t be found. For Valiant, it’s time to sober up and crack this case. For Roger, it’s time to see if he really can resist the siren call of “Shave and a Haircut.” And for Jessica, it’s time to see if she really is a bad girl, or if she’s just drawn that way.
Visually, this movie is a riotous mix of live action and animation that has been done before, but never with such virtuosity. In fact, the trick almost works too well, often leading its audience to wonder exactly how much work it took to make cartoons and live actors interact as well as they do. (Short answer: a lot.)
But all that quickly gives way to a steady onslaught of Golden Age cameos, references and in-jokes as a host of characters we already know fill the screen alongside those who have faded from memory, and a few new ones made specifically for this movie. Much of the story is a fun examination of the conflict between a world without enough wackiness and one with too much of it. By the time we get to Toontown itself, our story becomes a showcase of every animation style that made the Golden Age what it was, and what began as a noir send-up of the cartoons of yesteryear ends up as its madcap elegy.
The specific kind of cartoon action and tonality we revel in with Roger Rabbit simply wasn’t being produced anymore by 1987. In fact, it had all shut down long before and lived on as re-runs, which invites a lot of irreverent joking about these cartoons themselves. The result is a fairly adult treatment of a cartoon tradition what was once beloved, discarded, and still kind of missed, but not so much to prevent taking some ribald liberties with it. Donald and Daffy Duck swear at each other over a dueling piano act. Betty Boop struggles to find work because she’s still black & white in a color cartoon world. An ad for Porky Pig’s all-beef sausage. Bathroom graffiti advertising, “for a good time, call Allyson Wonderland.” These kinds of jokes are everywhere in Roger Rabbit, sometimes tucked away where casual viewers might miss them, but visible enough to satisfy their animators, who seem to revel in taking a spray can to their profession’s creative legacy. And that says nothing of the movie’s more overt humor, such as Jessica Rabbit’s impossible defiance of gravity, Eddie Valiant’s desire to have sex with a Toon, Roger’s implied bedroom prowess, and Baby Herman’s treatment of a production assistant. And doesn’t even touch a few references to the animation industry’s racist history as well as an offhand Nazi joke.
For kids of the age, Roger Rabbit seems like a joyous return to form, but the reality is more bittersweet than that. Who Framed Roger Rabbit is a fun film, but it’s also the lowest low of the abandonment of theatric animation, especially from Disney, which farmed the picture out to a third party and then released it at arms length through its Disney-but-not-Disney subsidiary, Touchstone. Nowadays, Disney and Warner Brothers wouldn’t even think of allowing the direction that Who Framed Roger Rabbit takes with its tentpole characters. But when this movie came out, these properties were so neglected that beating them up was the only kind love anybody was willing to show them.
We see this most in the movie’s moment of truth, when Judge Doom lays bare his plans to literally erase all of Toontown, and admits that event though the crime will take place in broad daylight, nobody will care enough to stop him. That moment of cartoonish villainy so perfectly reflects how so many animation studios viewed their own work that, 30 years later, the scene is almost heartbreaking to watch. Thankfully, Roger Rabbit’s lasting victory isn’t in clearing his name, but in saving Toontown both on the screen and off. It’s too bad we never got a lot of cartoons of Roger himself, but we can thank the guy for all of the ones that were made afterwards because of how the success of his eponymous movie reminded us that once upon a time, these silly little films meant something. And you know what? They always will.