Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988)

The Movie: Hollywood, 1947; cartoon characters, called toons, live in a nearby place called Toontown and act out cartoons in the same way human actors act out movies. Cartoon producer R. K. Maroon (Alan Tilvern, in his last role) is having problems with one of his top celebrities. Roger Rabbit (voice of Charles Fleischer) keeps flubbing his part, and Maroon is convinced that it’s because he is too distracted by his wife, Jessica (voice of Kathleen Turner). Maroon hires detective Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins, who was also Smee in Hook and Mario in the Super Mario Brothers live action movie) to obtain some incriminating pictures of Jessica so he can prove to Roger she’s bad news.

Eddie has a history. He and his brother used to be the top cops in Toontown, renowned for their competence and nobility. Unfortunately, all that changed when one malicious toon killed Eddie’s brother by dropping a piano on him. Now, Eddie refuses to go near Toontown and has as little to do with toons as he is able. Unfortunately, due to his depression and alcoholism he is down on his luck, so he has no choice but to take Maroon’s money. He gets some compromising pictures of Jessica with Marvin Acme (Stubby Kaye), the prankster-like owner of the Acme Corporation, and Roger is suitably upset. It all goes downhill when Eddie finds out the next day that someone murdered Acme by dropping a safe on his head, and all clues seem to point to Roger as the culprit.

Eddie starts to have his doubts when he meets Judge Doom (Christopher Lloyd, probably best known for his role in the Back to the Future movies), the sadistic lawman determined to bring Roger to justice. Doom has done the impossible, he has discovered the recipe for a substance called the Dip, which can destroy toons. Combined with Doom’s sadistic weasel henchmen, Roger looks screwed.

Eddie discovers that Acme’s will was missing, and that the will was the most probable motive for his murder. Against his will, Eddie is dragged right into the middle of it when Roger himself comes to his office and claims that he was framed. Pursued by Doom and his weasels, Eddie must find the will, and soon, or it will be the end not only of Roger, but of all of Toontown as well.

The Review:

Is that a rabbit in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?”

Like many other people, I saw Who Framed Roger Rabbit at a fairly young age. Then I didn’t see it again until college; my school had a few regular events that showed interesting movies. Admittedly, at the time it didn’t make a big impression on me. However, my mind was mostly focused toward other issues; specifically the issues that led to me obtaining the coveted title of Nine-Fingered Menace. In the past two or three weeks Who Framed Roger Rabbit came up on my Netflix queue and I sat down to watch it again. I was surprised to find one burning question lodged in my mind for nearly the entire movie: “how the hell did I manage to miss all of this?”

Who Framed Roger Rabbit works on many levels due to the simple fact that it is one of those movies where multiple levels of stuff are happening. While I haven’t really been able to test it, I’m sure you could go through the movie many times and each time notice something you didn’t catch on an earlier screening. There are numerous cartoon characters, both well known and obscure, from Disney, Warner Brothers and probably a few other sources as well, constantly carrying out their business in the background and foreground. The same goes with the live extras. Even some of the major characters can sometimes be glimpsed in the background while the one or two of the others are doing something unrelated in the fore.

And there are plenty of other details as well. There are odd, risqué little messages on men’s room walls (“for a good time call Allyson Wonderland”) and in other obscure locations; such as the oven Roger gets roasted in during the cartoon he films at the very beginning of the movie being of the “HotterNelle” brand. There are also lots of little cultural references. Roger Rabbit is at its core a noir, and it somehow manages to shoehorn in almost every trope of the genre.

Finally, there is a practice, as old as animation itself, where the animators slip in risqué details that you won’t notice because they go by too fast. It’s not done so much anymore, because with DVDs you can play the scenes frame by frame and catch them easily. I have only heard of one or two of these details in this movie, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there were more. I can attest that the rumors involving a scene of Jessica Rabbit are true.

That’s it for the small details; the big ones are just as impressive. One thing that caught my notice was the relationship between Roger and Jessica Rabbit. Jessica is the personification of what 99.99999999+% of us heterosexual males fantasize about, but know in our heart of hearts we’re never going to get. Roger, on the other hand, is the exact opposite not only of Jessica, but of the kind of man we’d expect to see with someone like Jessica. He’s short, he’s goofy, he’s spastic, obnoxious and socially awkward. In other words, he’s us to some extent.

And yet, the really odd thing is that while everything about Jessica screams femme fatale, she is obsessively in love with only one man, Roger. She has no interest in any other man; she doesn’t even pretend to seduce Eddy to get him to help like her character type would in any other film; she just asks for his help and drags him along. It’s clear that none of the human characters understand what she sees in Roger, but it’s also clear that it’s not just Jessica. Early on Betty Boop makes an appearance, and when identifying Roger’s wife for Eddie she expresses some envy that it was Jessica who landed Roger. Obviously this is wish fulfillment; but for us dreamers at least, it gives us a small ray of hope.

For my next analysis, I must offer a minor spoiler alert, because I’m going to have to reveal the villain’s plan. It’s not a major spoiler; even if you haven’t seen this movie, if you possess even the smallest fraction of the intelligence I’m convinced my readers have, you will already have connected most of the dots by the big reveal. Still, if haven’t seen this movie and spoilers still bother you, skip ahead HERE.

Still there? Okay, what I find most notable about Doom’s ultimate evil plan is that it is based on a historical event. Basically, he wants to wipe out Toontown in order to build a freeway; and among other things he has bought the streetcar line so that he can dismantle it. Beginning in the 1930s, General Motors and some of the other major automobile companies started buying out streetcars and other public transportation in America’s cities in order to dismantle them, so that people would depend on their products instead. It wasn’t 100% successful, but it’s why these kinds of systems are so rare these days.

The world Doom describes that he is trying to bring forth; one of isolation, cheap, disposable commercialism and instant not-so gratifying gratification; is of course our present day society. What I find so perversely ironic about this coming from the villain is that Who Framed Roger Rabbit is a Disney flick, and Walt Disney himself was one of the main architects of our commercialist society. I don’t know if the screenwriter was conscious of it or not, but there is definitely some subversion here.

End Spoiler Alert

One final thing I should bring up is that despite the ad campaign around it, Who Framed Roger Rabbit is not a kids’ movie. My parents wouldn’t let me or my siblings watch it for years, and I’m now in a position to see why. First of all, there are a lot of adult elements here, most of which would go right over the heads of younger viewers. There are also a few rather disturbing elements as well. I’m rather jaded about what I see in my movies at this point, but the scene where Doom first uses the Dip still bothers me.

Overall, Who Framed Roger Rabbit is a fun, well made movie. It has a great cast, great special effects, and a good storyline. It works well as both a noir and a rather perverse little comedy. If you haven’t seen it in a while, definitely worth a rewatch. Just be sure to keep your eyes open for the not so obvious details.