Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988)
Directed by Robert Zemeckis
November 24 at BAM, part of its "Chuck Amuck" Chuck Jones series
Though developed by profit-hungry Disney execs as a flashy advertisement for the dying art of theatrical animation, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? remains the most cynical studio-stamped film about showbiz from the 80s. A letter to Los Angeles that reads like a limerick scrawled with a poison pen, the movie depicts Hollywood's postwar growing pains with more exactitude than the central cartoon-meets-human conceit would suggest. This is a film concerned not so much with an unholy intermingling of ink, paint, and flesh as with the entertainment industry's ghettoization of artists (and ethnicities), its entrepreneurial shift from celluloid to real estate (merchandise was soon to come), and southern California's forsaking of safe and friendly public transit for the parasitic automobile. And while that last subplot was, of course, borrowed from the un-produced finale to Robert Towne's Los Angeles trilogy—the title of which, Cloverleaf, also appears here as a generically evil conglomerate—the appropriation is hardly simple homage. Jeffrey Katzenberg modeled the film's success not only on the golden age of Hollywood animation, but also on the trippy, dour New Hollywood of the early 70s. Roger Rabbit thus became a shocking blend of realistic pessimism and hallucinogenic humor, like Head and Five Easy Pieces collapsed into a single nightmare for kids raised on stutter-y Filmation Saturday mornings.
Like so many nightmares, however, this one masqueraded as a wet dream. Producer Steven Spielberg wheedled the likeness rights for everyone from Betty Boop to Bugs Bunny to Mighty Mouse, and who wouldn't want to rub elbows (if not more) with those icons? In this alternate universe, 'toons are actors who communicate freely and often naughtily with human beings: they complete grueling and masochistic tasks for very little pay, they inhabit their own private and easily avoidable section of town, and most of them can only be killed by an ominous concoction of paint thinner and film dissolver called the Dip. (That this is a studio fantasy dreamed from the top-down should be apparent, given this interpretation of “the talent.”) The story revolves around several new and inspired creations who colorfully illustrate these principles and allow us to explore the lopsided rules of this curious world: there's Roger himself (voiced by Charles Fleischer), an exuberant, ever-babbling cartoon celebrity; his friend and co-star Baby Herman (voiced by Lou Hirsch), an infant who smokes cigars and molests script-girls; and Roger's chanteuse wife Jessica (voiced by Kathleen Turner), who manipulates the town's big shots with Tex Avery-style top-heaviness.
After one of those big shots turns up murdered, Roger becomes a suspect, and he turns to private detective Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins) for assistance—even though the latter has been stuck in whisky-soaked atrophy since witnessing his brother's death at the hands of a 'toon years earlier. So Roger takes it upon himself to preach the power of laughter to Eddie a la Preston Sturges, even while the darkly dressed, vaguely Teutonic lawman Judge Doom (Christopher Lloyd) hunts him down with a license-to-Dip and an eye on 'toon holocaust. This whodunnit isn't exactly out of Raymond Chandler, but it's hairy enough to provide the film's nonstop craftsmanship spectacle with adequate narrative purpose. (Particularly thrilling are moments when 'toons grip palpable objects—usually guns—or vice-versa.) And directors Robert Zemeckis and Richard Williams (who led the animators) skillfully follow these plot strands to a climax that manages to be both gag-filled and bleak. While it's no surprise that 'toons persevere over evil and avarice at the story's end, the historically accurate material interpolated throughout suggests a more sinister coda: no 'toon or private dick could stop the eventual roaring of the freeways, nor the eventual close of animation's golden age. And when you think about the number of trolleys and soup-to-nuts cartoon studios that exist in Hollywood today, Roger Rabbit transforms from an impassioned revival of craft into a nasty social tragedy.