For most millennials, it was a right-of-passage movie. One of those we were too young to watch for the first time. Countless kids found out the hard way that yes indeed it is possible to get night frights from a PG flick no matter how “family friendly” it promised to be. Yet, it still found a way to be one of those rare experiences that lingered for both all the wrong reasons and all the right. Because underneath all the potentially traumatic moments (we’ll get to those later) rests a vibrant, uniquely fun exploration of creativity and pure golden-age Hollywood entertainment. Sure there may be one too many colorful moments of juvenile smoking, double entendres, or copious amounts of alcohol consumption; and yeah, there may be a moment of pure nightmare fodder here and there; but nestled in between those frames, that would look utterly ridiculous outside of any other context, sets a fun, fantastical achievement of cinematic storytelling–which, in many ways, has yet to be matched.
The film captures that endearing quality of world building, zany antics, and quality storytelling that makes it so we cannot help but look back on it with love and affection. It’s one that merits countless rewatches and ages both incredibly well and not so well all at the same time. Kind of like us (or, at least for me; but maybe that speaks more to my twisted adolescence than anything else). But my point is this, Who Framed Roger Rabbit is a film that makes a lasting impact and represents perhaps the greatest potential of artistry for the medium. It’s a unicorn if there ever was one in the realm of American blockbuster pictures: a whacky acid-trip romp that collides the zany animated visuals of Toon Town with the gritty flare of real world noir. Honestly, does it get any more ‘80s than that?
Inspired by Gary K. Wolf’s 1981 novel, Who Censored Roger Rabbit?, the fun-loving, visionary vehicle of Robert Zemeckis, Disney, and Touchstone Pictures delivered a detective caper for the ages. We’re thrust into the thick of golden age cartoon entertainment, high-class piano bars, and post-war city life and all the PTSD that comes with it. Famed cartoon leading character, Roger Rabbit, spends his time both in Toon Town and the bright lights of the real world big city. But it all takes a dangerous turn when he’s framed for the murder of R.K. Maroon–CEO of network television’s biggest cartoon properties. Enter Eddie Valiant, a drunken, comical private investigator of his own eccentric pedigree. Grappling with the loss of his brother, Eddie balances a less-than-stellar love life and the enveloping wackiness of Toon Town’s most vibrant characters as he attempts to find out the truth behind the rabbit frame job. Packed with gangster weasels, Friday night lounge singers, cigar smoking cartoon babies, wild chase scenes, silly situational humor, and maybe the most frightening villain under the Disney banner–Who Framed Roger Rabbit transcends the typical family flick crossing over, instead, into a fully-fledged Looney-Tunes-meets-James-Cagney-whodunit-noir-romp. Indeed, it may very well be the only film of its kind. Certainly the single-greatest display of cartoonery alongside real-life production design. Sure, it’s Disney … but maybe slightly buzzed, and I mean that with the highest regard. The roller-coaster of laughs alongside the somewhat serious commentary sandwiched in between the fantastical and the actual gives us one of those rare moments in which we truly feel movie magic come to life.
The Dip & Judge Doom
Listen we have to talk about it. We’re all victims here and there’s a certain comfort, I think, in shared vulnerability and collective survival. Who Framed Roger Rabbit has been scarring childhoods since 1988 and, to be honest, it may be the most genius component of the entire film. Think about it, is there anything more capital “A” American for a kid than Saturday morning cartoons? Animated television has been a childhood cornerstone for generations. Our first favorite characters, stories, and shows are found in these “toons”. They’re as much a totem of our innocence as they are a pure form of entertainment. So, I ask you, is there anything more utterly frightening than watching the very symbol of our hopeful youth let out a helpless squeal as it melts to death in a barrel drum of green acid? But that’s the genius of The Dip, right? We immediately buy into the stakes of film from that moment on. A more effective vehicle to instantly make Toons in the real world feel believable could not have been crafted. If Toons can be killed, or–um–simmered to oblivion, we instinctively know two things: this shit feels real, and it is really, really messed-up.
Of course, not to be outdone is Judge Doom himself. Christopher Lloyd, in addition to being forever immortalized as the beloved Dr. Emmet Brown and Al the Baseball Angel, delivered a performance for the ages as the ruthless Toon-hating judge draped in black. Honestly, the scene with the dip and the shoe along with the few other moments where he plays the character “straight” would be enough to cement him as a memorable sinister villain. But when he wigs out to full toon monster after getting run over by a steamroller … well … that may be the single most traumatic scene of my childhood (right next to Artax in the quicksand, of course). As I recall countless nightmares containing those beaty-cartoon-eyes and that high-pitched voice, I marvel at the fact that I still came out of the end of it okay. And not just okay, but an avid re-watcher and advocate of the film. Again, that speaks to the genius of Zemeckis’ vision. Roger Rabbit is a unicorn because only a film like this could scar us for life and still leave us feeling like we had a lot of fun. Potentially horrifying as they may be, the very existence of Judge Doom and his dip bring a three-dimensional element of storytelling to the zany narrative that, yes, feels a bit like an acid trip, but is absolutely vital and creatively stimulating within the context of the picture. So, dare I ask, would Who Framed Roger Rabbit be as monumental without the freakish villainy? Perhaps we needed that frightening edginess after all. Either way, my therapist is still cashing in Roger Rabbit residuals.
In 70 seconds we get a snapshot of everything great about this film. The campy, formulaic schtick that makes cartoons so beautifully cartoony; a tightly orchestrated bar brawl; vibrant animation; and a damn near flawless infusion of real world-ers acting “alongside” the toons. It feels timeless. Almost as if we could step back into this scene as a fly on the wall watching it unfold to hilarious degree. Not an ounce of video game syndrome or feeble editing. Sharp, packed to the brim with humor, indicative of the picture’s greater vision. Every bit as brilliant as it is fun.
What Roger Rabbit Means to Us
In some ways, Who Framed Roger Rabbit was as big for me as The Avengers would be much later. I loved (and love) the whole film – the 1940’s Hollywood setting, the ‘Toons alongside living actors, Eddie and Roger and Jessica and Judge Doom – it’s fantastic. But for the younger me that plunked his dishwashing money down to watch this movie in the theater? It was the chance to see all those classic cartoon characters occupying the same reality. Yes, I loved the story and wanted Roger and Eddie to figure out the mystery and save the day – but even more than that I wanted Daffy and Donald and Mickey and Bugs to be on screen together. I wanted a universe where Dumbo and Yosemite Sam and Porky and Tinkerbell and all the others co-existed. I’d grown up on those characters, and the chance to see them interact, even if only for a few moments, felt like a dream come true. Every once in a while Robert Zemeckis talks about ideas for a sequel – and I’d love to see it. Come on, Disney, whaddaya say? ‘Pppplease?”
– Bob Cram, Jr.
The first time I watched Roger Rabbit was in the confines of my own home close to three decades after it had first hit theaters. I had wanted to watch this film ever since I had stumbled across clips of Daffy and Donald Duck playing rival piano players. Where was this clip taken from? How had I never seen it? Well, for those who have seen the film, Daffy and Donald are really just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the animated characters Zemeckis, Spielberg, and Disney managed to secure the rights to include in the film. That alone would be enough to watch it, but—like Mitch has already mentioned—the fact that the visuals blend the animation and live-action so seamlessly is what makes this a rare treat. It’s unlikely my childhood equivalent Space Jam would have been created (or had the same level of success) if Roger Rabbit hadn’t opened the door eight years earlier.
– Marmaduke Karlston
Successful by any standard; landmark in cinematic achievement; and immortalized in generations of movie watchers, this one earns its status precisely because it broke traditional mainstream movie making conventions while finding lucrative success. Operating then on a $70 million budget, Roger Rabbit brought in a haul of $330+ million from the worldwide box office; a total strong enough to be the second highest grossing title of 1988. Impressive in its own right, but let’s adjust that for inflation. In 2020, that plays out to a budget of $155.8 million with an overall box office gross a staggering $735 million. Folks, that’s Marvel money. To think something this original and this blatantly non-IP-driven could merit blockbuster treatment let alone earn that staggering amount at the cinema is gloriously bonkers.
Roger Rabbit marked the first film in 14 years featuring both animated and live-action characters to be nominated for Academy Awards. It ultimately took home three statuettes which shows that this mythical movie achievement was treasured right from the start. Who Framed Roger Rabbit seems to be that rare form of entertainment that captures unique genius at the right time, appears to have been generously appreciated within its moment, and continues the trajectory of fun-filled yet formational influence through the eras.
Beloved enough to earn its own immersive corner in the thick of Disneyland, but niche enough to flourish just under the mainstream, Roger Rabbit continues to influence pop culture in the most deliciously absurd and subversive fashion. They really didn’t make many flicks like this at the time and they certainly don’t make them like this today–at least, not with that budget. But at the end of the day, I can’t help but wonder how tragically different the arena would be without the miracle of this inherently fun, sharp movie.
Maybe then it’s time we take a moment to appreciate the rare, blockbuster auteur himself, Robert Zemeckis. This is the artisan that gave us culture defining tentpoles like Back to the Future and Forrest Gump; who brought the expansive studio drama to the forefront with Contact Flight, and Cast Away; who gave us the animated playground of The Polar Express; and, who consistently brings out top-tier performances from the likes of Tom Hanks, Harrison Ford, Michelle Pfeiffer, Michael J. Fox, Jodie Foster, and Denzel Washington; the visionary who found a way to vault cinema into the future of storytelling through ground-breaking mechanics and genre-altering visuals for over four decades. Zemeckis’ work is synonymous with prestige popcorn flick perfection. I mean, outside of Spielberg, the man is mainstream American movies. In many ways it feels right for him to be the mastermind behind the rare, eccentric gem that is Roger Rabbit. Who else could have done it?
For better or worse, Who Framed Roger Rabbit is a cult-classic representing both the underbelly of what weird cinema can conjure and the unbridled creativity of big-budget studio filmmaking. Roger Rabbit may not be “revered” for the same reasons as say The Breakfast Club or Mad Max: Fury Road, but it reached infamous status while still boasting an unrefined re-watchability and that means something. Everyone that has entered the orbit of the second most famous animated rabbit, his uncomfortably gorgeous animated wife, and the overly drunken P.I. has never forgotten it. Whether one watch or one hundred, it’s a movie that finds a place in the corner of our psyche and changes the way we understand popular entertainment. If you ask me, it’s a flat-out great flick too and every bit deserving of canonization among cinema’s influential elite. And if you’ve ever wondered what Disney after a couple of drinks looks like, pop this one in for a good time because they certainly don’t make ‘em like this anymore.
So, here’s to Roger Rabbit, the only film that could damage and define our childhoods. The only flick that could tip the scales of pop culture with the subtlety of a perfectly dropped piano on the head.
What are your fond (or traumatic) memories of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Do you have a fun fact or piece of trivia on the film? Share it in the comments below!