June 3, 2009

Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)
Grade: 85/100

Director: Robert Zemeckis
Stars: Bob Hoskins, Christopher Lloyd, Charles Fleischer

What it's about. Set in 1947 Los Angeles, with the exception that the cartoon characters from Hollywood shorts are alive, live in neighboring Toonville, and interact with flesh-and-blood actors.

Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins) is a jaded private eye, washed up and alcoholic since his brother was murdered by a toon years ago. Roger Rabbit (voiced by Charles Fleischer) is a madcap toon whose acting has been slipping lately, because of alleged infidelity by Roger's voluptous toon wife, Jessica. Studio executive Maroon (Alan Tilvern) hires Valiant to catch Jessica in the act, to convince Roger to break off with his femme fatale.

Valiant soon photos Jessica playing pattycake with Stubby Kaye, who turns up dead the next day. Roger is suspected, and goes on the run with Valiant, who tries to prove that both Roger and Jessica are innocent. Their task is made more difficult by the film's villain, Judge Doom (Christopher Lloyd), and his toon weasel henchmen. Doom seeks to destroy toons and wipe out Toonland in order to build a lucrative freeway.

Joanna Cassidy shows up intermittently as Valiant's loyal albeit world-weary girlfriend, Dolores. The speaking voice of Jessica Rabbit was provided by Kathleen Turner, and her singing voice was dubbed by Amy Irving. Turner was the female lead in director Zemeckis' Romancing the Stone, while Irving was at the time the wife of executive producer Steven Spielberg. Their 1989 divorce made Irving among the wealthiest actresses in Hollywood.

How others will see it. Who Framed Roger Rabbit was a box office smash, and the film also scored with critics. It won four Oscars, and was nominated for three others. The film has strong appeal for all ages.

How I felt about it. Mixing animated characters with real-life actors was hardly novel by 1988. After all, Anchors Away (1945) had Gene Kelly dancing with Jerry, MGM's #1 cartoon mouse. But the special effect had never before been done on such a scale. The costly $70 million production eschewed computer animation in favor of hand-drawn cel animation, added after Hoskins and company had filmed their scenes.

Much of the credit for the film's quality has to go to Hoskins, the deadpan dick with a heart of gold, and Fleischer, whose Roger Rabbit voice is nearly as flexible as the character itself. The actions of the animated characters are zany and inspired, and it is nice to see the top toon echelon of both Warners and Disney working together: Daffy with Donald; Mickey Mouse with Bugs Bunny.

The suspense is a little suspect. We never believe for a moment that Roger and Jessica will be effaced by "dip." We are also unsurprised that Marvin Acme's newfound will gives Toontown to its toons. We doubt that Judge Doom would allow Roger to have a 'last request' drink, and the motivations of Judge Doom are curious. Toons aren't known for their venture capitalist activities.

Still, Jessica's great line ("I'm not bad, I'm just drawn that way") is deservedly famous, and Roger is a riot when he lifts his head out of the dishwater to momentarily gasp for breath. A talent like Roger deserves a comeback, don't you think? He hasn't made any cartoon shorts since 1993. Disney, are you listening?