Who Framed Roger Rabbit
seen on TV @ TCM
I've seen Who Framed Roger Rabbit lots of times before, but in watching it the other night, I noticed something new, or at least, something jumped out at me that I had never considered before. This is a pro-public transportation movie - and not in a subtle way, either! The master plan of Christopher Lloyd's character, Judge Doom, is to tear down Toontown and build a freeway - in a time, the late 40s, long before freeways were depressingly common all over California - and Bob Hoskins' character Eddie thinks the idea is nuts. I think his exact words were, "Only a toon would come up with such a wacky idea" or something like that.
More importantly, however, Eddie is shown as someone who doesn't ALWAYS need a car to get around Los Angeles. In an early scene, we see him trying to get on a streetcar, but all he has is a check, so he sneaks to the back as the streetcar takes off and sit on the rear with some kids. One of them asks him why he doesn't have a car, and he says something like, "Who needs one? We've got the greatest public transportation in the world!" Every time we see him in a car, it's either borrowed, or it's that toon car. Obviously he had a car at one point in his life, since he can drive, but when we see him in this movie, he's not dependent on it.
I think this is a wonderfully subversive aspect of the story, especially when you consider how the development of freeways eventually led to the further sprawl of LA, making people more reliant on cars and foreign oil, that have polluted the atmosphere and so on and so forth. One wonders how Eddie reacted when the freeways finally did come (if they came; in a world with living cartoon characters, anything's possible, I suppose).
Part of Judge Doom's plan involves buying the streetcar business, the Red Cars. They have quite a history, which you can read about here. In the movie you can see them mixed with cars and pedestrians on the streets with no problem at all; indeed, it seemed as if there was less car traffic in general.
This may not seem like such a big thing compared to the visual wizardry of the film, but to me it is, especially when you consider how public transportation and people who choose not to drive usually get treated in the media. I've never read the book on which Roger is based, so I don't know if this was as pronounced an element there, or whether the screenwriters were aware of it or not, but it's refreshing to see a movie that portrays public transportation in a positive light.
Roger won three Oscars, including Visual Effects, and perhaps it's appropriate to write about that now given the current problems facing the visual effects industry. On that, I'll simply say this: it seems to me that Hollywood created this problem for themselves when they chose to continually push spectacle-filled, yet empty-headed, blockbuster sci-fi/fantasy/horror films at the expense of character-based, real-world films, yet we the audience clearly demanded this stuff in copious amounts, so we don't get off easily either. Movies like Life of Pi, which won this year's Visual Effects Oscar, are the exception, not the rule, though - films that utilize the outstanding skills of companies like Rhythm & Hues in service to an equally outstanding story - and that, too, is as important a problem.
Let's get back to Roger, though. Director Robert Zemeckis and the animation team led by Richard Williams, who received a special Oscar for his work here (he's the genius behind The Thief and the Cobbler, and the story behind that film is a tragic one indeed), put together a one-of-a-kind film that still holds up well in this age of performance-capture effects. It's the light and shadows that sell the animated characters most. One needs them in order to believe that humans and toons inhabit the same space, and the illusion is carried off expertly.
Zemeckis, of course, continued to experiment with visual effects throughout his career, whether in sci-fi flicks like the Back to the Future trilogy, to performance-capture films like The Polar Express, and even straight drama, like the unforgettable plane crash scene that opens Flight. I think that his films have a greater sense of... humanism, for lack of a better word, than most of James Cameron's movies. I couldn't imagine Cameron making a movie like Forrest Gump, for instance. As great as he is, he tends to let the spectacle overshadow the characters, at least in his more recent stuff. Zemeckis tends to avoid that more than Cameron.
One more thing: if you love Roger, there's an awesome graphic novel you oughta check out called Three Fingers. It's a darker spin on the idea of toons and humans co-existing. Created in the style of a documentary film, it chronicles the history of a Mickey Mouse-like toon movie star, unique among other toons in that he was born with only three fingers (and an opposable thumb, of course). The implications of this difference, and what it means for toons everywhere, lies at the heart of this story. It's excellent.
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