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Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)

by on 2011/05/12

Is it animation or not? Some pieces are an easy call. Others? Not so much. Different viewers may have different definitions. Most agree Snow White counts, but what about A Scanner Darkly? Do rotoscopic tracings count? CGI? What about effects? A movie like Tron Legacy is mostly post-production; does it even count as “real” anymore?

These thoughts ran through my mind as I considered my latest selection, Who Framed Roger Rabbit. In recent years, director Robert Zemeckis has been nearly notorious for his obsession with motion capture projects. It’s been a long time since he’s treated us to a Back to the Future or Contact.

Framed suggests an early turning point, when his attention began to shift from backlot to canvas. A near equal split of live action and animation, the action is set in 1947, when showbiz mogul R.K. Maroon (Alan Tilvern) is cranking out an oddly familiar cartoon featuring the popular Roger Rabbit (voiced by Charles Fleischer).

In this reality, cartoon characters coexist with people, although they are treated poorly, often exploited, and sequestered in a ghetto called Toontown. Human detective Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins) is hired by Maroon to investigate Jessica Rabbit (voiced by Kathleen Turner). Roger has been distracted on the job, and the big boss wants to know why.

As we’ve seen in our month of film noir, such mysteries are rarely as straightforward as they first seem. The ensuing affair draws in various complications, friends and foes, ACME gadgets, an invisible rabbit named Harvey, and the largest cross-over assembly I have ever seen.

Characters sharing the screen include most of the prominent Disney and Warner Bros. staples. Bugs Bunny, Mickey Mouse, Daffy and Donald Duck, Goofy, Porky, Tweety, Dumbo, and too many more to name exist alongside other favourites like Betty Boop, Droopy, Felix the Cat, Heckle and Jeckle, and Woody Woodpecker. Clearing them all for use was no doubt a remarkable feat of copyright juggling.

I do wish the cameos appeared less gimmicky, but fitting them more organically into the tale would doubtless have been complex. I was glad to settle for the compromise here, especially with so many special references made. One argument between Eddie and Roger recalls a classic “rabbit season, duck season” scene. Much of the musical score suggests the Golden Age efforts of Carl Stalling. And, oh yes, two words: portable holes.

Certainly there are cringe-worthy bits. Watching Hoskins sing and dance is uncomfortable at best. Fleischer’s Roger is a melodramatic, hyperactive, nonstop irritation. The 1988 techniques are slightly shaky today. Sight lines often miss the mark and some animated elements look out-of-place. This picture might benefit from a modern restoration, to clean up the mismatched colours, halo artifacts, and grain on multiple exposures.

Still, the minor nitpicks don’t hold up against everything else that works. In fact, you could argue the uneasy interplay between animation and live action supports the very themes the narrative explores.

The most pertinent decision of all may not be whether it is animation but that it is about animation. In a literal and figurative sense, Who Framed Roger Rabbit provides the best of both these worlds.

* * * *

Rated PG

104 minutes

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