Judge Clark Douglas isn't bad. He just writes that way.
It's the story of a man, a woman and a rabbit in a triangle of trouble.
"Here's to the pencil pushers. May they all get lead poisoning."
Facts of the Case
Roger Rabbit (voiced by Charles Fleischer, Rango) is an animated movie star who's been losing his touch lately. Rumors have been flying that Roger's bombshell wife Jessica (Kathleen Turner, Body Heat) has been having an affair, so studio head R.K. Maroon (Alan Tilvern, Little Shop of Horrors) hires local detective Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins, Mona Lisa) to investigate the matter. Valiant used to work in Toontown (the place most animated characters call home) all the time, but grew hateful towards "toons" after a wicked animated creep dropped a piano on his brother's head. Alas, after Eddie digs up evidence that Jessica has been playing patty-cake with Hollywood power player Marvin Acme (Stubby Kaye, Guys and Dolls), the detective finds himself sucked into the frantic world of cartoons once again.
It doesn't take long for the situation to spiral out of control. Acme is murdered, and Roger is accused of the crime. Roger frantically runs to Eddie for help, and the detective reluctantly agrees to aid the desperate rabbit clear his name. Meanwhile, the duo is pursued by the relentless Judge Doom (Christopher Lloyd, Back to the Future), a merciless figure who has created a special "dip" for the purpose of executing the otherwise-immortal toons. Can Eddie find the real killer before Doom finds Roger?
It's been twenty-five years since Who Framed Roger Rabbit was released, and I'm still in awe that it exists. The fact that director Robert Zemeckis and producer Steven Spielberg were able to convince the studio heads involved to greenlight a massively expensive live-action/animation hybrid that examines the joy of cartoons through a Chinatown-style murder mystery is remarkable enough, but I'm just as amazed that they were able to persuade Disney, Warner Bros., Fleischer Studios, Universal Pictures and others to permit their assorted animated characters to appear onscreen together. The very fact that it was made is remarkable; the fact that it's actually quite terrific even moreso. That Who Framed Roger Rabbit isn't generally mentioned in the same breath as Howard the Duck is a considerable tribute to Zemeckis' skill as a filmmaker.
Other movies had combined live-action and animation before, of course. We all remember Jerry the Mouse dancing with Gene Kelly in Anchors Away, the partially-animated interlude in Mary Poppins, the title character in Pete's Dragon—the list goes on. However, Who Framed Roger Rabbit was the first movie in which the live-action and animated characters genuinely seemed to be sharing the same space. Eddie Valiant and Roger Rabbit really seem to be playing off each other rather than merely acting in each other's general direction. That may not seem like much of an achievement to younger viewers raised on 21st-Century special effects, but there's no denying that Who Framed Roger Rabbit was a watershed moment for visual effects.
However, the reason the film holds up as well as it does today is that its central story still resonates. Though the movie is jam-packed with wacky gags, there's genuine emotion in Eddie Valiant's story arc. The movie tends to plunge forward at a relentless pace, but every now and then it will slow down just long enough to grab you by the heartstrings. Bob Hoskins serves the material well by playing it straight; he might as well be Philip Marlowe. There's a good deal of sincerity even in the silliest scenes, which is why the tender moments are so genuinely heartwarming and why Christopher Lloyd's Doom is such a genuinely creepy villain (call me sentimental, but watching that poor animated shoe get dipped is crushing each and every time). No, it isn't quite as astonishing a blend of story and special effects as 2001: A Space Odyssey or E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, but the story is more than a delivery vehicle for the film's nifty visual innovations.
The filmmakers also pulled off the challenging task of delivering central animated characters who are just as compelling as the many iconic cartoon characters who pop up at various points throughout the movie. In the tradition of many great animated characters, Roger is a figure who exists on that thin line between "endlessly lovable" and "endlessly annoying," a cheerful pest who always takes things too far but at least has the decency to feel suitably guilty about it afterwards. He's a lot of fun to hang out with, and Charles Fleischer's breathless voice work is tremendous. The impossibly buxom Jessica Rabbit is a treat, too, for the obvious reasons and for Kathleen Turner's sultry voice work. Jessica is every cinematic femme fatale turned up to eleven, and it's always a treat to see her turn up and stop every male character on the screen in their tracks. Even though it's a great pleasure to see Goofy, Mickey, Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Donald Duck, Betty Boop, Yosimite Sam and others, at no point do we wish that the movie actually focused on them, instead.
Another impressive achievement is the way Zemeckis and co. manage to incorporate some strong social commentary into the mix; drawing a number of blatant parallels between the way toons are treated in this film and the way American minorities were treated not so long ago. Daffy and Donald find themselves performing at "The Ink and Paint Club," where toons provide service and entertainment for an exclusively human customer base. Toons are essentially regarded as second-class citizens, and it's implied that there wouldn't be a whole lot of outrage if they were just wiped out altogether. This material never gets too heavy-handed, but it's there and it still packs a punch. There's plenty of thoughtful commentary on the movie industry, too, such as a scene in which the grayscale Betty Boop bemoans the fact that it's hard for a black-and-white character to find decent work anymore.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit (Blu-ray) has received a 1080p/1.85:1 transfer that is best described as…complicated. To be sure, the manner in which the film was made ensures that certain "flaws" will always be in place. The grain increases when animated characters share the screen with human, the image can be quite soft at times and color issues abound—but that's the way the movie was when it was initially released, too. However, black levels are very inconsistent throughout and lack much depth. Still, detail is generally strong and it must be admitted that the movie looks dramatically better than ever before. The image is bright and vibrant even when it's excessively grainy, and it's easier than ever to spot the countless cameos and visual gags Zemeckis stuffs into the flick. Sure, the movie could have been restored to an even greater degree, but odds are that such an overhaul would have been much too costly considering all of the different elements involved. The DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio track is pretty strong, spotlighting Alan Silvestri's wonderful score (which fuses Silvestri's own unique voice with Carl Stalling-style antics quite effectively) and presenting the dialogue and frantic sound effects with clarity.
The supplemental package from the special edition DVD release is reprised here, though it's a delight to discover that the three Roger Rabbit animated shorts have been given an attractive HD upgrade. Otherwise, you get a commentary with Zemeckis, producers Frank Marshall and Steve Starkey, VFX supervisor Ken Ralston and co-writers Jeffrey Price and Peter S. Seaman, an exceptional making-of piece entitled "Behind the Ears" (37 minutes), a somewhat fluffier "Who Made Roger Rabbit" featurette (11 minutes), a trivia track, a deleted scenes, some before-and-after scene comparisons, footage of some animated stand-ins a little bit of additional behind-the-scenes footage. A DVD copy of the film is also included, but my copy of the Blu-ray/DVD combo pack came with a sticker stating that the Full Frame version of the DVD had erroneously be included and was missing some of the promised bonus features. A replacement program has been established for those who wish to correct this error (honestly, I probably won't bother considering that I'll only be watching the Blu-ray version of the film, but I'm certainly glad the error is being addressed).
Who Framed Roger Rabbit is a genuinely special film: a groundbreaking technical achievement that doubles as a terrific piece of entertainment. The Blu-ray transfer is imperfect, but it's definitely a huge step up from the previous DVD release. Smile, darn ya, smile!
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