A lot of movies get called groundbreaking, but few from the 1980s really earn that designation quite like director Robert Zemeckis‘ and executive producer Steven Spielberg‘s 1988 Who Framed Roger Rabbit.
The film was released in June of 1988 — 35 years ago last week — and was groundbreaking for multiple reasons. It was the first major motion picture to seamlessly blend live-action and animation characters, utilizing technology that had never been seen before.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit was also the beginning of the Hollywood trend, still with us today, of marshaling large amounts of intellectual property to create a whole. Through a then-miraculous feat of licensing, the film was able to bring together animated characters from both Disney and Warner Brothers. This brought us such once-in-a-lifetime moments as the historic dueling pianos duet between Donald Duck and Daffy Duck, and also the only time in any medium in which rival stalwarts Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny have shared a scene:
And beyond all that, it was just plain a great movie; consistently hilarious, while using that amazing roster of characters to tell a compelling story that could appeal to both adults and kids.
Arriving on the eve of Disney’s “Waking Sleeping Beauty” era, Who Framed Roger Rabbit is set in a postwar Los Angeles in which humans and cartoons (known as “toons”) interact.
The film begins with a brilliant animated short, with hero Roger Rabbit babysitting “Baby Herman,” which is hilarious even before we see that the “baby” is really cigar-chomping showbiz vet:
After that, the film settles into its main plot: Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins) is a private eye, still depressed about the death of his brother at the hands of a Toon, and distrustful of Toons for some reason. (The human/toon divide passes on the opportunities for a racial allegory that such a story would likely have taken up if the movie were made decades later, although Bojack Horseman would eventually explore such ideas further.)
Eddie soon takes a case involving cartoon human femme fatale Jessica Rabbit (spoken by Kathleen Turner and sung by Amy Irving), who has been caught playing “patty cake” with a rich industrialist who soon ends up dead, with Roger Rabbit (Charles Fleischer) suspected of the crime (the film’s very title, however, is a bit of a spoiler when it comes to whether he’s actually guilty).
The “patty cake” scene is an ingenious way to bring the sexualization of film noir elements into a kids’ movie. And it also introduces us to Roger, who may appear at first glance like a Disney counterpart to Bugs Bunny but is in fact strikingly un-Bugs-like. While Bugs Bunny was always the coolest bunny in the room, Roger is a lot more neurotic ― constantly whining, worrying, and crying. (There is, eventually, an innocent, non-adulterous explanation for the patty cake.)
It turns out the real villain is Judge Doom (Christopher Lloyd), who has an evil plot to take over L.A. that recalls that of Noah Cross in Chinatown (minus the incest, of course).
It’s all lots of fun, including a third-act visit to Toon Town, and the expected happy ending.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit was a huge hit, the biggest box office performer of 1988. It won three Oscars, for Best Film Editing, Best Sound Effects Editing, and Best Visual Effects, in addition to a Special Achievement Oscar, while the film won a Special Achievement Oscar as well.
But Disney never did much of note with the Roger Rabbit character after that. The film never had a full-on sequel, although Roger would appear occasionally in shorts and specials, and was featured for a time as a character at Disney’s theme parks.
Even so, the legacy of Who Framed Roger Rabbit is secure as Hollywood’s first major live-action/animation hybrid film, as is its status as a great movie in its own right. The film is now streaming on Disney+.
CULTURE (counter, pop, and otherwise) and the people who shape it.