Who Framed Roger Rabbit:
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Review by Mark Bourne
"He doesn't draw Bugs Bunny. He draws pictures of Bugs Bunny."
A six-year-old boy, when told that Chuck Jones drew
a certain furred favorite (as recalled by Jones)
To enjoy movies and moviemaking is to enjoy Who Framed Roger Rabbit. This landmark feature from 1988 didn't just raise the bar of cinematic technique (specifically the seamless integration of live-action with animation), it did so in a way that put being deliriously entertaining at the top of the To Do list. Roger Rabbit is so enjoyable, such slap-a-grin-on fun, that it's all too easy to forget that what you're watching is also one astounding piece of pioneering filmcraft. Critics lauded it and, more crucially, this knockabout comedy became one of the biggest audience hits of the year, earning a zillion semolians at the box office and several Academy Award nominations. Combining the time-honored animation of both Disney and Warner Brothers with Robert Zemeckis' fanatically attentive directing and the production oomph of Steven Spielberg, Who Framed Roger Rabbit's interaction between human and cartoon stars has yet to be surpassed, or even imitated in any substantial way.
It's "a story of greed, sex, and murder" set in the 1947 Los Angeles of Philip Marlowe and dames with legs that go all the way up. Bob Hoskins stars as private detective Eddie Valiant. He's a gumshoe who loves the hooch and hates the "toons," the denizens of Toontown who ply their wacky trade in Hollywood's studio system. Zany toon headliner Roger Rabbit is implicated in the murder of Tinseltown's gag king, Marvin Acme (Stubby Kaye), who Valiant photographed trysting with Roger's wife, the voluptuous human-like Jessica (voiced by Kathleen Turner like liquid Bacall). Soon Valiant finds that he's a patsy set up in a conspiracy that could destroy the toons and change the face of Southern California forever. But the distraught dick does not work for toons. Why? It was a toon that killed his brother ("dropped a piano on his head," laments his would-be romance, Dolores, played with straight-faced ease by Joanna Cassidy). Standing in justice's way is diabolical Judge Doom (Christopher Lloyd), who schemes to erase Toontown off the map in the name of progress. (Forget it, Daffy it's Chinatown.)
It's all absurd and silly, and it's a delight. "If it didn't work, it would be over three minutes after it started," says Zemeckis of the opening scene, when the camera pulls back out of a Tex Avery-style cartoon to reveal that it's a shoot in progress within the human world you and I spend our time in. He needn't have worried Roger Rabbit earns our trust within those first masterful moments and, against giganormous odds, never violates it. Gluing it all together is Hoskins, as solid as a fireplug. His Valiant may be hardboiled but he's a good egg under the gruff exterior. (Cockney Hoskins also has the best Yank accent of any British actor on film.)
A key factor that makes Roger Rabbit work is that it creates something wholly new from ingredients that are endearingly familiar. Director Zemeckis and a Roman Legion of animators headed by Richard Williams and assisted by George Lucas' Industrial Light and Magic crafted an affectionate comic film noir pastiche and set it in an L.A. where Goofy was cleared of spy charges during World War II by our detective-protagonist. It's all Raymond Chandler fedoras and slat lighting and a smoky saxophone on the score. When Eddie Valiant enters his cluttered office, he hangs his hat on a Maltese Falcon before encountering the femme fatale, Jessica Rabbit.
And as noted in this DVD's new "making of" featurette, even the fundamental technical means to wed inked-in cartoon characters with flesh-and-blood actors had been around for years. 1977's Pete's Dragon was strictly for the kiddies (which Roger Rabbit, while PG, certainly is not). Dick Van Dyke danced with penguins in 1964's Mary Poppins. Seven years before Singin' in the Rain, in Anchors Aweigh Gene Kelly hoofed a splendid dance sequence with Jerry the Mouse of Tom & Jerry fame. Anticipating Roger Rabbit by almost fifty years, only Daffy Duck and Porky Pig (and Porky's car) are animated in the 1940 short "You Ought To Be In Pictures," wherein Daffy tricks Porky into quitting cartoons for live-action feature films, so Porky marches into the real office of his real producer, Leon Schlesinger, to demand out of his contract. "What's Errol Flynn got that I haven't got?" the pluperfect porker asks before heading out into the Warner Brothers lot. What Roger Rabbit brought to the table was that no one had done it this ambitiously and with such gumption before.
The number of walk-ons and cameo appearances here is remarkable. Along with A-list stars such as Daffy and Bugs and Mickey, there's Dumbo and Droopy Dog and distracted extras from Fantasia wandering the back lot. Yosemite Sam rockets over a wall as ornery as ever. Tweetie plays a naughty twick on Valiant. Porky Pig discovers his catchphrase. The studious cartoon cognoscenti will recognize scores of more obscure vintage characters from the 1920s and '30s, even Koko the Clown from the "Out of the Ink Well" series circa 1919. Once the movie finally enters the surreal, overcrowded L.A. Harlem that is Toontown, you'll be hard-pressed to find a better use of your remote's freeze-frame button than to catch everyone hopping, flying, whirling, bouncing, and singing the 1931 Merrie Melody "Smile, Darn Ya, Smile" before the cameras. (This DVD's "Toontown Confidential" feature identifies them in captions for you.)
Even while paying homage to the refined animation technique of Disney, the cut-glass character-making of the classic WB cartoons, and the screwball physics-be-damned kineticism of Tex Avery, Zemeckis approached Roger Rabbit as if he were shooting a fully human film. To fulfill the illusion that each toon has mass and occupies three-dimensional space, Zemeckis' cameras move as if the characters are really there, thus breaking a previous cardinal rule of animation technique. Because every scene and camera movement was meticulously prepared to the Nth degree beforehand, Roger and Jessica and the other toons are as real as Eddie and the other humans. When Bob Hoskins lifts Roger by the ears, we can feel the weight in his hand. We see light and shadow change realistically across the rabbit's elastic body and witness the effects of his bulk thumping into window blinds or crashing through a wall.
The fact that each frame of animation (24 per second) had to be hand-drawn and hand-painted into the action impresses us even more today, surrounded as we are by new computer-based techniques that make it all so much easier now. It took multiple separately composited layers to get, say, Baby Herman's very real Stogie or each toon's authentic-looking shadows or the shimmery sparkles on Jessica's slinky dress, which redefines "3-D". All totaled, more than 80,000 individual animation elements are up there on the screen.
Yet with all that, Zemeckis' $70 million technical tour de force doesn't get pulled down in the undertow of its own cleverness. It's not the truckload of special effects that make Roger Rabbit so pleasurable. On the contrary, the movie succeeds because while we're enjoying it we don't notice the enormous work involved. Never does it point at its own inventions or sacrifice the tenets of good filmmaking just to get an impressive shot onscreen. It only asks us to have fun, not to admire it or ponder its works.
(Speaking of pondering, it's clear that the toons exist as a repressed underclass in this Hollywood, though to see that as some deliberate "comment" on race relations is to read too much into it. Heaven help the deep-thinking killjoy who tries to discern the presumed God-like status of a toon's human creator. Imagine Chuck Jones or Friz Freleng or Walt Disney working under deadline pressure to bestow life and mind to a creation that springs fully formed from his non-Zeus-like head. "I'm not bad, I'm just drawn that way," says Jessica in the movie's only affirmation of Descartian ontological proofs. Thinking hard about Roger Rabbit defeats its purpose and will only set your eyes spinning in opposite directions, an activity best left to a Tex Avery creation.)
Throughout his career, Zemeckis has typically appeared to be a director's director, with storytelling coming in a close second place to his enthusiastic gee-wizardry. His best movies, such as the Back to the Future trilogy, manage to spin good yarns without letting us forget how much Zemeckis loves the nuts-and-bolts of filmmaking. Sometimes the polished whirring machinery of it all threatens to stifle the human components (as in the underrated Contact), or pulls too much from The Boy Director's Box of Tricks (What Lies Beneath), or applies technical lipstick over someone else's excesses (Forrest Gump).
However, even his technically industrious successes (e.g., Cast Away, Used Cars, and I Wanna Hold Your Hand) don't completely squeeze away the fact that the most interesting thing a movie can be about is people. A George Lucas movie looks like its creator hasn't seen anything other than George Lucas movies for the past twenty-five years. But a Robert Zemeckis movie looks like he's seen everyone else's movies twelve times a piece, happily absorbing the techniques that make their pistons and gears hum smoothly along. He ain't aiming for the highbrow and you can't hail his stories for their originality. But his films are well made and can be a hell of a lot of fun, and that's why we have Hollywood in the first place. Like Peter Jackson, he's a filmmaker whose love for his job is evident in every frame.
Roger Rabbit may be the best example of Zemeckis' strengths. Here his directing is downright lapidarian. Each scene is crafted with micrometer precision, with every bezel and facet of the camerawork, performances, and setting cut to a maniacally fine level of detail.
So it's no surprise that Roger Rabbit's plot is its one weakly realized component. The corporate conspiracy to dismantle the Red Car line may be based on real-life history as much as Chinatown's waterworks chicanery, but it still feels like an afterthought. Nonetheless, this is a rare case where the story existing only as a support platform is okay. The script is wry and witty and pulls you along like the Road Runner on a particularly scenic stretch of Southwest road. (The pacing is so caffeinated that when I first saw Roger Rabbit in '88, my then-girlfriend exited the theater scowling because it was "too frenetic." I should have known right then that the relationship was done for. Roger Rabbit is that kind of date barometer.) Hoskins' extraordinary skills (and patience) become clear especially when we watch this DVD's making-of supplements. At least half of Roger's character comes from the versatile voice work of Charles Fleischer, who took to the role with such Actors Studio Method elan that he worked on set wearing a full-sized Roger Rabbit costume, floppy ears and all. (Fleischer also voiced Benny the Cab and two of Judge Doom's henchmen, the weasels.)
The all-toon revue at the Ink & Paint Club is by itself is a joyous grab bag. The explosive "Hungarian Rhapsody" piano duet between ducks Daffy and Donald is a battle royal of the speech impediments. There's Betty Boop slumming as a cocktail waitress because showbiz hasn't been good to her since cartoons went to color. And that's where we and Valiant are introduced to Jessica, whose torch song, "Why Don't You Do Right?" glistens with such pheromone-popping hubba-hubba that the whole notion of human-toon relations takes on new dimensions.
Finally, after the firm hand of justice aided by Valiant's looney-tooney footwork gives Evil a joybuzzer handshake, the denouement offers a dose of warm nostalgia for all those cartoon rabbits, dogs, ducks, mice, woodpeckers, and little wooden boys some of us like to think we're still growing up with.
If Roger Rabbit's virtues existed solely in its technological sleight-of-hand, then it would have joined subsequent big-budget showcases that turned mixing cartoons and human beings Cool World, Monkeybone, and the most recent Star Wars movies immediately jump to mind into dull, charmless failures. Instead, it reminds us of Chuck Jones' dictum, which he learned in his salad days as a newbie animation director: "If you are in the trade of helping others to laugh and to survive by laughter, then you are privileged indeed."
At last, after a bare-bones release that disappointed fans who knew that this is a movie screaming for a fully-packed-clown-car Special Edition, we get a two-disc whopper, and it's as keen as a special delivery box from Acme to Wile E. Coyote ("Super Genius"). On board are two versions of the movie anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) and full-frame pan-and-scan (1.33:1) plus THX Certified audio, a good commentary track, and more supporting supplements than you can shake a Singing Sword at.
The fully animated menus are good fun. They're hosted by chatty and irascible Benny the Cab, who berates you if you wait too long before making a menu selection.
Here's where the "family friendly" meaning kid-oriented items are found.
On the map Benny shows you, click the selection titled "Movie Theater" to play the full-frame (1:33.1) pan-and-scan version of Roger Rabbit (you have permission to gnash teeth at the association of the term "family friendly" with a flat, cropped picture). The clean, vivid image is outstanding. We'll talk more about that when we get to Disc 2. The audio comes in excellent Dolby Digital 5.1.
Click "The Acme Warehouse" and search for easy Easter Egg animated gags and three featured items:
- Who Made Roger Rabbit (10:57): The young'ns get their own crash-course in movie-making with a simple but quite good featurette hosted by Charles Fleischer.
- Trouble in Toontown is a set-top game. Save the Acme watertower by throwing pies, thumping weasels with mallets, and avoiding the deadly Dip. Cute, and Fleischer voices new Roger stuff, but it's not likely to thrill any kids who have spent more than fifteen seconds on an Xbox.
- The real attractions here are all three Roger Rabbit shorts produced and distributed separately after the feature's success. Roger, Baby Herman, Jessica, and other ensemble players star in Tummy Trouble (7:45), Rollercoaster Rabbit (7:50), and Trail Mix-Up (8:53). They're revved up to the style of Tex Avery's great Warner and MGM years (i.e., they're "frenetic"). They can't quite recreate the old manic magic, but they're enjoyable enough and Droopy has a cameo in each. All three are in anamorphic widescreen with Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtracks that take full advantage of surround capabilities.
A selection titled "Valiant's Office" takes you to audio and caption setup menus and a THX Optimizer.
A selection titled "The Ink & Paint Club" leads to trailers for Schoolhouse Rock and Ultimate X.
The original theatrical trailer is also here, Easter Egg'd on Benny's dashboard.
Appropriately labeled as the "Enthusiast" version, here's where to find the entire widescreen movie and a generous collection of strong extras.
The image: Roger Rabbit deserves a picture that's been given blue-ribbon attention, and here's an outstanding anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) image that really delivers the goods. The source print is all but flawless and the transfer is sharp, precise, and rich with vivid color and detail. It's a first-rate picture all the way.
The audio: The strong, full, and clean sound comes in two options Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1. Both are excellent, with the DTS option predictably taking the lead by a nose. Because these tracks are not full rebuilds and are pulled from the original Oscar-winning Dolby Surround elements, both keep most of the action up front with surround dynamics used to good effect but without extraordinary razzle-dazzle. Although this isn't the soundtrack to show off your system's extreme highs or lows, Alan Silvestri's rambunctious score is especially well served. (The DTS option is not available on the Disc 1 version.)
French and Spanish language tracks (Dolby Digital 2.0) are available with both versions, as are English subtitles and Closed Captions.
The commentary audio track brings together director Zemeckis, producer Frank Marshall, screenwriters Jeffrey Price and Peter Seaman, associate producer Steve Starkey, and ILM Visual Effects Supervisor Ken Ralston. It's an informative, well-managed, scene-specific group commentary that offers first-hand insights into the difficulties Roger Rabbit presented throughout its years-long production process. Emphasis is heavy on the pre-computer techniques used to get all the animated and live-action pieces to coexist. Sounding like the few surviving members of a vast expedition, the participants enjoy watching and reminiscing about the film from behind their mikes. Engaging and enjoyable.
In a new making-of documentary, Behind the Ears: The True Story of Roger Rabbit (36:37), Zemeckis, head animator Richard Williams (who won a special Oscar for his work in the movie), Hoskins, Fleischer, writer Peter Seaman, composer Alan Silvestri, and others recount the arduous "seat of the pants" effort needed to pull the whole thing off. Plenty of on-set footage brings home the hard work of everyone involved. A highlight is the original animation-live-action pitch clip with an unknown actor playing Valiant. Fleischer looks suitably goofy in his Roger Rabbit rehearsal get-up, and Hoskins' real English accent out-Cockneys even Michael Caine. It's one of the better "how we did it" pieces on the shelves.
Play the movie with the Toontown Confidential option turned on and get a running trivia track in text-caption form. Similar to the popular caption commentaries found on the Star Trek movie special editions, this feature points out behind-the-scenes info, in-jokes, trivia, and onscreen minutiae that we might otherwise miss. Perhaps the best part is, as mentioned earlier, the naming of vintage cartoon characters who make quick cameos throughout the movie, with contextual information such as a character's first appearance in an animated picture. It even tells you when to hit the freeze-frame button for the more fleeting guest shots.
A scene deleted from the theatrical print, the Pig Head Sequence (5:31), is restored here in full-frame with an introduction by Zemeckis, Visual Effects Supervisor Ken Ralston, and Supervising Animator Simon Wells. Rightfully determined to be a superfluous speedbump in the film's pacing, it shows us Valiant kidnapped by the weasels to Toontown, where they rough him up by applying a porcine toon head over his own mug. The sequence ends with Valiant using turpentine to wash the pig head down the drain, and that's why in the theatrical cut he exits his bathroom shirtless when he encounters Jessica.
On the Set (4:51) uses behind-the-scenes footage from two with Benny the Cab scenes: on the L.A. streets and over the bridge near Dodger Stadium. It documents the enormous difference between what Hoskins and the crew experienced before Benny was overlaid onto the little go-cart used for shooting.
Before and After Comparisons (3:08) uses split-screen clips from Valiant's entrance into Toontown to demonstrate the difference between Hoskins' work with stand-in dolls or blue-screen backgrounds, and the same clips as seen in the finished film.
In Toon Stand-ins (3:16), Zemeckis and Associate Producer Steve Starkey narrate on-set footage of the Terminal Bar fight scene to show how full-sized dolls helped the actors work on sight-lines and physical interactions with the "invisible" characters that wouldn't be added to the footage until long after shooting ended.
The Valiant Files: Some two dozen click-through image galleries are Easter Egg'd around Valiant's office. Use the cursor to play hide-and-seek by opening drawers, the safe, and so on. To avoid having to hunt down the items, select the Valiant File Cheat Sheet icon just right of the light bulb for a menu that gives you easy access to each gallery:
- Character Development: Roger, Jessica, Baby Herman, Benny the Cab, the Weasels, and Miscellaneous
- The Art of Roger Rabbit: Development, Chuck Jones' Artwork, "Something's Cookin'," Toontown, Deleted Ideas, Deleted Titles (how about that Die Wundersamen Abenteuer Von Herbert Hase Im Trickfilm Land?)
- Production: Production, Set Decoration Posters, Special Effects
- Promotional: Three sets of publicity images, such as early poster art and Zemeckis posing with Roger
- Theme Parks: Designing Toontown at Disneyland, Disneyland, Walt Disney World
- Two versions: full-frame (1:33.1), anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1)
- Two single-sided, dual-layered discs (SS-DL)
- Dolby Digital 5.1 (English), DTS 5.1 (English), Dolby Digital 2.0 (French, Spanish)
- English, French, and Spanish subtitles
- Commentary audio track with director Zemeckis and others
- New making-of documentary, Behind the Ears: The True Story of Roger Rabbit
- Toontown Confidential caption commentary
- Deleted Pig Head Sequence
- On the Set with Benny the Cab
- Before and After Comparisons
- Toon Stand-ins
- The Valiant Files: Image galleries
- Who Made Roger Rabbit kid-oriented documentary
- Trouble in Toontown set-top game
- Trailers for Schoolhouse Rock and Ultimate X
- Original theatrical trailer
- Some Easter Egg gags
- THX Optimizers
- Custom hinged two-disc keep-case in paperboard slipcover
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