“A Laugh Can Be a Very Powerful Thing”, by Bob Connally

22 Jun

On a Saturday afternoon during the summer between kindergarten and first grade, my dad took my brother and me to the Oak Tree Cinemas in north Seattle. Thirty years later I still remember sitting in a packed theater that afternoon, watching Who Framed Roger Rabbit? for the first time. Thirty years later I still love Robert Zemeckis’ groundbreaking film, for a few of the same reasons that I loved it then, but for many others as well. Almost all of us who love movies refer to the films we, “grew up on,” but the best movies that we love as children grow up with us. Few movies grow up as well as Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

Based on Gary K. Wolf’s 1981 novel Who Censored Roger Rabbit?, the film is set in a version of 1947 Hollywood in which cartoon characters live and work amongst humans. Roger Rabbit (voice of Charles Fleischer) is one of the biggest animated stars of Maroon Cartoons but his recent slump has studio head R.K. Maroon (Alan Tilvern) worried. In an attempt to get Roger’s focus off of his troubled marriage and back on his work, Maroon hires P.I. Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins) to take some compromising photos of Roger’s wife Jessica (voice of Kathleen Turner). Jessica is animated but she’s no rabbit (she is drawn like a human). Eddie gets some shots of Jessica playing patty-cake with Marvin Acme (Stubby Kaye), owner of Toontown, sending Roger into a tailspin. When Acme turns up dead the following morning, Roger becomes the prime suspect. With nowhere else to turn, Roger comes to Eddie for help in proving his innocence.

Much like Ghostbusters which I had received on VHS as a birthday present a few months earlier, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? was a decidedly different film for me as a 6-year old than it is now. At that time I responded mainly to the crazy rabbit and to the cavalcade of animated stars who made brief appearances throughout the movie. My brother and I spent roughly 20 percent of our childhoods watching Looney Tunes shorts (that includes time spent sleeping and being at school where I had trouble with math) so getting to see Bugs Bunny, Yosemite Sam, Porky Pig, and our absolute favorite, Daffy Duck on the big screen was a massive thrill for us. Not only were they in the film but they were in real three-dimensional space. Daffy was in a vicious piano duel with Disney’s Donald Duck and Bugs was skydiving with Mickey Mouse. I of course had no understanding at the time of the licensing issues involved in making all of that happen but I did know I had never seen Daffy and Donald in the same cartoon before so it was clear that this was something special.

Watching the movie now, I still thoroughly enjoy the wackiness of Roger and the other toons because the unhinged antics of cartoon animals will always be funny. As an adult however, I get so much more out of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? That comes not only with age but with an understanding of history, a love of film, and an appreciation for detail. The film noir aspects of the movie of course went entirely over my head at the time and honestly the biggest laugh I get when watching it now is when Judge Doom (Christopher Lloyd) reveals that his big evil plan is the creation of I-5 (or “the 5” for my Los Angeles readers. In Seattle, we say I). “Traffic jams will be a thing of the past,” is comic gold to me now.

I also have a much greater appreciation for the character of Eddie Valiant and the man who plays him. Yes, the unsung hero of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? is- strange as it may seem- its lead actor. Bob Hoskins was not a major star. He certainly wasn’t known for comedy and he wasn’t the first, second, or eighth choice of director Robert Zemeckis to play Eddie. The story goes that Harrison Ford wanted too much money, Eddie Murphy turned it down, and names such as Chevy Chase, Jack Nicholson, Ed Harris, and Charles Grodin were on the list, just to name a few. Bill Murray was considered too but, as legend has it, due to his not having an agent he didn’t find out he was in the running until it was too late. As it turns out though, it would be hard to imagine a known comic actor in the role.

As Roger puts it Eddie is a, “sourpuss.” Ever since a toon murdered his brother by, “dropp[ing] a piano on his head,” Eddie has had a hateful prejudice of toons and he rarely smiles. He’s uncomfortable with Roger and finds seemingly even the idea of humor confounding. Hoskins plays this beautifully but it is not simply a good performance by a dependable actor as it might appear on the surface. Hoskins has a much more important job to do here. One that the audience isn’t supposed to notice, at least not until they’re thinking about the film afterwards. It’s up to him to make us believe that Roger, the weasels, Benny the Cab, and all of the other cartoon characters Eddie interacts with are as real as he is. As Roger Ebert put it in his release date review of the film, “Hoskins and the other [actors] adopt a flat, realistic, matter-of-fact posture towards the Toons. They act is if they’ve been talking to animated rabbits for years.”

Hoskins is aided in no small part by the dedication of Zemeckis and the animators- led by animation director Richard Williams- to the details that almost no one would notice. Who Framed Roger Rabbit? was not the first film to integrate animated characters with real people but it was far and away the most ambitious to date and it was innovative in its approach. It had always been believed by filmmakers that the camera simply could not move when people interacted with cartoon characters. On top of that toons couldn’t affect the people or the physical space around them. As Williams explained on the DVD extras, this was because filmmakers and animators had been, “lazy.” Determined to help Zemeckis make the film the best it could be he said, “[W]e’re supposed to be able to turn things in every direction. That’s our job. So you can shoot your movie and we’ll just fit the character in. [Zemeckis] said, ‘Well, isn’t that a lot of work?’ Yeah. Twice as much work.” Keep in mind too that this was still the era of totally hand drawn animation.

So in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? the camera moves, toons touch people and objects affecting them in the same way another actor would, or put another way, they “bumped the lamp.” The dedication to these aspects is covered wonderfully in a YouTube video by Kaptain Kristian Williams and as he notes in the video, “bumping the lamp” became an industry term in filmmaking based on the specific moment in which Roger’s head hits a lamp causing it to sway around. It’s just one of many moments like that in the film and one that was never meant to be noticed by an audience watching in the theater in 1988. The idea was to bring us into the world of the movie more and in service of telling the story.

This dedication paid off in a big way with Disney making an enormous profit on the film in spite of it being the most expensive movie ever made up to that time. With a $70 million budget (almost $149 million in 2018 money), the studio was counting on Zemeckis’ follow up to Back to the Future becoming a worldwide smash. The film went on to gross just shy of $330 million all over the world (roughly the equivalent of $700 million today). It also received 6 Academy Award nominations, winning 3 plus a special achievement Oscar for Richard Williams. There was no existing category to nominate him in but his work was impossible to ignore.

With such incredible success it’s hard to believe that a sequel was never produced. There were a few attempts over the years that never got off the ground, though Wolf did write a novel that served as more of a sequel to the movie than it was to his original book. The truth is though that Who Framed Roger Rabbit? is a perfectly realized film with a satisfying conclusion for its characters and it simply never needed a sequel. Aside from the novelty factor being gone, we didn’t need to see Roger and Eddie getting caught up in another case in 1952 or see a movie primarily set in Toontown. Some things are better left just as they are and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? is one of them.

I don’t get caught up in nostalgia. I can’t watch a movie now that I thought was great as a kid just because I thought it was great as a kid. A film has to have something for me wherever I am in life to keep me coming back to it. So I really love that every once in a while there is movie that has infinite rewatchability at any age. That I can still get so much out of a film my dad took my brother and me to see on a summer day thirty years ago. That I can treasure that memory while still enjoying the movie on its own merits as if I hadn’t grown up on it. That’s the mark of a special film.

Instead of a standard companion film recommendation, I would suggest some classic animated shorts to watch beforehand. First, Disney’s In the Bag from 1956 which features a song so catchy it’s been in my head since about 1987. Next, 1946’s Baseball Bugs because of course I’m going to pick something baseball related and it’s one of Bugs Bunny’s best. Finally, one of the great works of American art ever produced: 1945’s Draftee Daffy, in which Daffy Duck does everything we love him for. He’s cowardly, he’s devious, he jumps around shouting, “Woo hoo.” He does all of this while desperately trying to escape “the little man from the draft board.” It’s hilarious, brilliant, and honestly a bit shocking with its ending. It leads into Who Framed Roger Rabbit? beautifully.

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