Touchstone Pictures // 1988 // 104 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Nicholas Sylvain (Retired) // October 17th, 1999
It's the story of a man, a woman, and a rabbit in a triangle of trouble.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit is a wondrous achievement in film, a delightfully amusing story with a little something for adults and children alike. If you grew up with classic Merrie Melodies style cartoons, then you simply must see this film.
When I found out that I would be reviewing Who Framed Roger Rabbit, I never would have bet that I would end up drawing a comparison with the mammoth blockbuster Titanic, but think about it for a second. Just like its water-logged cousin, Who Framed Roger Rabbit is a technical and special effects tour de force, where the effects are so well done and integrated into the movie that the new "reality" is darned near seamless. In some respects, this film has a tougher task in integrating humans with characters and objects that are not "real" in any sense, and to do so in a fashion that we accept as "real" but yet retains their "cartoonish" qualities.
Also, unlike with its icy cousin, here the actors must be much more disciplined in their craft, as is always the case when people must act against things that exist only as a to-be-filled green screen. Boy, did there have to be a lot of green screens here! The film is littered with a multitude of famous and not so famous cartoon characters from the animation vaults of history, so many that you would have to pause frequently to catch them all in the more active scenes. At no time was I brought out of my suspension of disbelief as I enjoyed the humor (sometimes slapstick and sometimes of the subtle, nudge-nudge variety) and the film noir-ish qualities of the story.
Just as theaters did many years ago, first we get a Maroon Cartoon -- "Somethin's Cooking," starring Toon stars Baby Herman (voiced by Lou Hirsch) and Roger Rabbit (voiced by Charles Fleischer), directed by Raoul J. Raoul (Joel Silver in an amusing bit part). However, we neatly transition into the "real" world when Roger blows his take -- he's supposed to see stars, not birds, when the refrigerator drops on his head!
Poor Roger can't keep his mind on his business, as all the gossip of post-World War II Hollywood (and Toontown) has his stunning wife, Jessica (voiced by Kathleen Turner), making time with sugar-daddy and gag-king Marvin Acme (Stubby Kaye). The head of the Maroon Cartoons, R.K. Maroon (Alan Tilvern), hires rumpled, booze-soaked private eye Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins) to snap some pictures of the illicit affair for the princely sum of $100. Eddie is already in hock for $100 to Dolores (a gorgeous Joanna Cassidy), a long-suffering girlfriend who dipped into the till of her employer for Eddie. Though still depressed over the death of his brother at the hands of a Toon, Eddie has no other way to repay Dolores, so he takes the job.
Jessica Rabbit sings at a joint called the Ink and Paint Club ("Toon revue, strictly humans only!" says Maroon), and Acme never misses a show, so Eddie checks out the landscape. Donald and Daffy Duck put on a zany show, but slinky, sultry, sexy Jessica Rabbit is the clear reason why the club is packed. After she's done raising the temperature, Jessica goes backstage to meet Acme for some patty-cake. Literally. Eddie snaps a couple of candid pics and runs back to R.K. Maroon with the evidence. Roger is heart-broken that Jessica would play patty-cake with Acme, and takes the news very badly. Eddie is only concerned with the money, and slinks back to his office/apartment, check in hand.
Surrounded by memories of better days, and of his brother, Eddie drinks himself to sleep, only to be woken by police Lt. Santino (Richard Le Parmentier). Acme is dead because someone dropped a safe on his head, and all signs point to Roger as the culprit. Hot on Roger's trail is the creepy, cold-blooded Judge Doom (Christopher Lloyd) and his band of weasels, who are intent on capturing Roger and eliminating him with a special chemical mix called "dip." People used to think that nothing could kill a Toon until Judge Doom came up with his concoction.
Back at the office, Baby Herman insists that Roger couldn't have killed Acme. Marvin Acme was a patron to all Toons, and promised to leave Toontown to the Toons in his will, which Herman suspects is the motive for the true murderer. Eddie is unimpressed, takes a stiff drink, and tries to take a nap. At least, until Roger pops up out of the bed and implores Eddie to help him. Even the hard-hearted Eddie Valiant covers for the hapless Roger, at least when Doom's weasels show up.
With his office too hot, Eddie stashes Roger at Dolores' bar until he can figure out what really happened. Doom and his weasels soon suspect where Roger is hiding, and show up at the bar with a mixture of intimidation and bribery. Doom smokes Roger out of hiding with an old Toon trick, but Eddie saves the day with a double shot of bourbon. The odd pair make a fast getaway with the help of Benny the Cab, managing to shake the weasels after a brief car chase.
Suspecting R.K. Maroon was in on a secret deal to steal Toontown from Acme, Eddie and Roger sneak into Maroon studios and confront the executive. While Eddie is bluffing Maroon (claiming that he has the will), Jessica knocks Roger unconscious and drives him away. Eddie forces Maroon to admit there was a plot against Toontown, but an unknown assassin shoots Maroon just as he is about to spill the beans and escapes into Toontown.
Nervous but resolute, Eddie pursues the assassin into the cartoon-depths of Toontown. After some hijinks, Eddie finds Jessica Rabbit and escapes an attempt on his life by the unknown assassin. In the chaos of the gunfight, Roger is thought to be kidnapped by the assassin, so the race back to Hollywood is on! Mishaps and bad luck cause Eddie and Jessica to fall into the assassin's hands, who means to eliminate all of the witnesses. Meanwhile, Roger having merely attempted to hide, he pops back up and races off to save his wife and Eddie from a fatal end.
The climactic final confrontation features Eddie Valiant's lethal song and dance act, the unknown assassin and murderer of Acme is revealed as well as punished, and Toontown is forever made safe for the legions of happy Toons. The End.
Sadly, the technical qualities of the disc pale in comparison with the technical feats that brought it to the big screen.
Video is average Buena Vista quality. In a word, indifferent. Specifically, a non-anamorphic transfer with resulting (minor, but visible) shimmering from digital enhancement, a moderate sprinkling of dirt and film defects and a dash of video noise. Sharpness and shadow contrast are adequately unspectacular, but at least the blacks are solid and the flesh tones accurate. Colors are well-saturated (a necessity with the cartoon characters!) and do not bleed.
Audio is an average for a 5.1 mix, given the dialogue-heavy nature of the film. Channel effects are occasional but noticeable but your subwoofer will find little to do. Dialogue is clearly understood, and the sound is centered in the middle of the spectrum, with the lows and highs lacking in depth and clarity.
The only criticism I have for the film itself is that its nature as an amazing technical achievement, integrating live action and cartoon elements, tends to overshadow the flesh and blood actors as well as the script. Eddie Valiant is the only human character who is fleshed out with a background and full range of emotions, although Dolores comes in a close second. Judge Doom has a comparable amount of screen time, but is pretty much a one-dimensional (dare I say, cartoonish?) villain -- which is not to detract from Christopher Lloyd, who does convey a powerful, chilling sense of evil.
The injury to the script is that the backstory could have done with a little more development. The economic and social forces driving the clash between the (real life) streetcar companies and highway development is presented only in broad strokes, leaving this part of the story little more than a thinly detailed plot device. Furthermore, the close relationship between Eddie and his deceased brother could have been presented better on-screen, rather than relying only on Bob Hoskins and some props to convince us of this major character motivation.
These are minor flaws, and do not detract from its status as a significant film (which did win four Oscars for technical achievements). What is not minor is Disney's cavalier treatment of Who Framed Roger Rabbit on DVD. The transfer is non-anamorphic and screams rehashed laserdisc, and Disney didn't plan to include any extras aside from a promised trailer, which then is left off the disc itself! A film of this stature deserves some attention, in featurette form or otherwise, to how the technical achievements were made possible. Furthermore, there ought to be some material covering the identity and background of the mass of cartoon characters imported from the screens of history.
As if that were not bad enough, Disney saw fit to edit a few frames out of the movie (where Baby Herman walks underneath a woman's skirt at the beginning) to remove a mildly offensive hand gesture that only determined people with a fast pause trigger will ever see. Not only is Disney not concerned with preserving the artistic integrity of the film, but they have the unmitigated gall not to mention this edit on the disc. These few frames may not affect the essence of this film, but it sets a bad precedent for future Buena Vista releases, as we have no confidence where it would stop, or when we would ever be told up front about it. The irony of doing this to a film that is based on a book titled "Who Censored Roger Rabbit" ought to have caused some Buena Vista executive to choke on their cigar. For shame!
This synthesis of live action movies and cartoons is a landmark film, and eminently worthy of a rental for adults and children alike. If you are considering a purchase, I would advise you proceed with great care, given the outrageous price ($30) for such a bare bones and middling quality disc as well as the likelihood that Disney will want to sell you a deluxe edition for an even higher price some time in the future.
The film is absolutely, positively, without a doubt acquitted. Buena Vista ought to be held in a tank filled with dip until they agree to release this film properly in penance for this disc.
Review content copyright © 1999 Nicholas Sylvain; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Touchstone Pictures
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (French)
Running Time: 104 Minutes
Release Year: 1988
MPAA Rating: Rated PG