Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Who Framed Roger Rabbit

The 31 Days of Oscar Blogathon is an event coinciding with Turner Classic Movies' "31 Days of Oscar" month-long celebration, in observance of the Academy Awards. In both events, the theme is the same: recognition of Oscar-nominated films throughout history. The blogathon is hosted by Once Upon a ScreenOutspoken & Freckled, and Paula's Cinema Club. See the links above for a list of participating blogs.

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.

I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang
Cabin in the Sky


  1. I have read "Who Censored Roger Rabbit?". The book is totally different from the movie. You really can't even say that the film is based on the book, as all the film makers really took from it is the names of the characters. The story is completely different.
    This is, of course, a rather long winded way of answering the point you raise above. The pro-public transportation angle is unique to the film

  2. Ray my brotha! What's up? I've heard about the book and that it was different than the movie, but I never realized how much so. I think it's even got more of a noir feel to it, if I recall correctly?

  3. I disliked Who framed Roger Rabbit so much when it was released that it sent me on a decades-long aversion to Roger Zemeckis movies (although I am hearing good things about Flight - wouldn't mind seeing that). It's probably true that Cameron couldn't/wouldn't make a movie like Forrest Gump (I don't like Cameron's movies, either), but is Forrest Gump any good? I haven't seen it.

  4. I liked 'Gump' when it came out, but I don't think it's held up all that well over the years. 'Flight' is very good; it made my top ten for 2012.

    What didn't you like about 'Roger'?

  5. Very nice post on a great film. I find so many people discount Roger because of the cartoon portion but there's so much that's great about it, as you note. I find it still impressive in many ways - the live action/animation exchanges are wonderful and still hold up better than anything else I can think of.

    Thanks for submitting this to the blogathon.


  6. What didn't I like about Roger? Any of it.

    I haven't seen Roger since it was released, so I can't remember all the details of why I disliked it (though I did write an in-depth appraisal of the film in my magazine, Discourse Quarterly, at the time). I do remember that the movie seemed to be made by creators who had no idea
    why the original cartoon characters were interesting, charming or funny in the first place. Roger Rabbit, for example, is supposed to be a character somewhat in the mold of a Chuck Jones character, but with none of the wit, life or humor of a Chuck Jones character. I don't remember
    Roger Rabbit doing or saying anything amusing throughout the entire film. The film seemed like a lot of hard work to create something that had no spark of life or inspiration in it. I also hated the way the characters were drawn, with that wimpy soft airbrush look that Disney still uses on their DVD packaging of old animated movies.

    I didn't care about the characters or what happened to them. Apart from the technical wizardry, the story seemed cliched, with (for example) the villain coming to life again at the end after he's seemingly been defeated (if I had a dollar for every time I've seen that...)

    The LA freeway plot you mentioned is inherently interesting, but I'd have rather seen it more realistically portrayed, as in Polanski's Chinatown. Without "toons".

    The only good thing I can say about Roger Rabbit is that most of it doesn't look inadvertently creepy like Zemeckis' later animated movies like Polar Express and A Christmas Carol. Yech!

  7. I admit that Roger as a character wasn't that interesting, and did seem derivative from other classic cartoon characters, and I even remember thinking as much as I watched it.

    My justification, however, is this: even in 1988, modern audiences have become used to seeing the antics of toons like Daffy Duck, Woody Woodpecker, Goofy, and many others, but back in 1947, this kind of slapsticky animated humor would still be relatively new to audiences, so I imagine Roger was developed with that in mind. Audiences of that period would probably like him better, even if he's not in the same class as a Bugs Bunny.

    Cliche plot? Yeah, I suppose, but I was a teenager and therefore much less discerning, so I liked it. And the cliche factor doesn't bother me that much now. What can I say?

  8. >back in 1947, this kind of slapsticky animated humor would still be relatively new to audiences, so I imagine Roger was developed with that in mind. Audiences of that period would probably like him better

    Hmmm... I guess that's possibly true, since the film takes place then. At the same time, animated antics had been around since nearly the turn of the century (Gertie, Out of the Inkwell, Krazy Kat) and audiences were also familiar with the crazy antics of vaudeville. Plus, the animation field was, at the time, littered with studios that went defunct because the public just didn't find the animated characters interesting (Van Beuren, for example). Besides, what about audiences now? We're the ones that have to watch the unfunny characters in the film.

    >What can I say?

    No apology needed. If you like it, you like it!

  9. I don't think the movie makes clear how big a star Roger's supposed to be. My impression is that he's big, but not Bugs/Mickey big. Maybe for the sequel we can see him trying to adjust to modern times.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.