***½/**** Image A Sound B Extras A+
starring Bob Hoskins, Christopher Lloyd, Joanna Cassidy, Charles Fleischer
screenplay by Peter S. Seaman & Jeffrey Price, based on the novel Who Censored Roger Rabbit by Gary K. Wolf
directed by Robert Zemeckis
by Bill Chambers Who Framed Roger Rabbit opens with an animated short ("Somethin's Cookin'") starring Roger Rabbit (voice of Charles Fleischer) and Baby Herman (Lou Hirsch) in which Roger, sitting for the lady of the house, is thwarted in his attempts to keep his young charge from climbing the refrigerator. You'd hardly know it, but we're seeing these characters for the first time--and the ineffable period authenticity of "Somethin's Cookin'," a cartoon commissioned specifically for Who Framed Roger Rabbit, betrays the scrupulous eye of director Robert Zemeckis almost immediately. Animated by the legendary Richard Williams, "Somethin's Cookin'" is fashioned in Tex Avery's mix of elegance and elasticity; later, when Bugs Bunny makes an appearance in the movie proper, he still has the slopey head of yore. (Warner actually insisted on the modern versions of Looney Tunes appearing in the film, so Zemeckis had dummy footage mocked up to get their approval that he had no intention of using in the finished product.) The prologue ends prematurely when Roger sees bluebirds instead of stars--in the picture, cartoons are shot on soundstages: Roger Rabbit exists for real, as do Mickey Mouse, Bugs, et. al, and they hail from a Hollywood subdivision called Toontown. They are invincible, but they are also actors who bring their personal lives to work, so sometimes they just can't generate stars on command.
Toontown represents, more or less, what Chinatown does in Roman Polanski's film of the same name: private detective Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins) avoids it like the plague. He used to help out Toons in need, but then one dropped a piano on his brother's head, poisoning the place--and Toons--for him forever after. Valiant must screw his courage and return to this Otherworld at some point, natch, and its Silly Symphony lushness exceeds our wildest expectations--though Peter S. Seaman and Jeffrey Price's rudimentary screenplay quickly shutters Valiant and co. inside a backlot warehouse of no particular distinction. What's most interesting about the climax is how it turns Chinatown upside-down: Eddie confronting his demons in this place of former tragedy leads not to cynical confirmation of his prejudices but to him rediscovering his sense of humour. ("Smile, darn ya, smile," indeed.) As Jonathan Rosenbaum has written, the Toons in Who Framed Roger Rabbit are isolated, second-class citizens facing genocide thanks to a plot to sacrifice Toontown for a freeway (Seaman and Price have admitted to cribbing Chinatown's entire waterworks scandal in revising Gary K. Wolf's book Who Censored Roger Rabbit)--in addition to studio politics and a just-developed method of killing Toons known as "The Dip," a mixture of acetate, benzene, and turpentine that dissolves these otherwise-indestructible beings. (There can be no Superman without kryptonite.) But Toontown itself is not the ghetto. It is, like any ethnic neighbourhood, a place teeming with colour and community.
In fact, with cel animation on the verge of extinction, the genocide parallel holds more currency today than it did at the time of the film's release, when critics linked Toontown to everything from pre-civil rights Harlem to Auschwitz, although I recognize we're getting into offensive territory here. Still, the resurrection of Who Framed Roger Rabbit now, on DVD, only shames the CGI alternative: the picture's integration of hand-drawn characters and environments into the realm of live-action feels so spontaneous that it mops the floor with the comparatively inorganic Episode II, whose M.O. is, after all, essentially the same as Who Framed Roger Rabbit's. It's difficult to imagine the amount of work that went into this--in fact it's impossible, which is why the illusion is so seamless. Legend has it that Bob Hoskins's young son gave him the silent treatment after the premiere because he thought his father had worked with Bugs Bunny and had the gall not to introduce them.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit is a comedy, to be sure, but it's also a bona fide film noir, all slat lighting and tilted fedoras and Edward Hopper dives. The homage wouldn't be complete, of course, without our hard-living, reluctant antihero, Valiant; a femme fatale in the form of Roger's sultry, duplicitous cartoon wife, Kathleen Turner-voiced Jessica Rabbit (whose hourglass figure indulges Zemeckis's obsession with cleavage); and a Nazi-inspired villain, Judge Doom (an unsettling Christopher Lloyd), bent on the subversion of justice. (Doom's secret Toon identity gets into areas of self-loathing it's safe to say are kind of too big for this movie). In one scene that verifies the film's integrity to adult viewers, Doom demonstrates The Dip on a cute "squeaking shoe," melting it slowly to savour its tortured shrieking. It's hilarious in the awful way killing Eddie's brother with a piano is. What I love is the anarchy adorable Roger brings to the proceedings; it keeps the filmmakers humble. There's another scene worth mentioning because it's the apotheosis of the movie's ability to be at once riveting and irreverent while demonstrating a deep knowledge of the genres at play: Doom lures Roger out of hiding by tapping the walls in menacing rhythm to the tune of "Shave and a Haircut"--the song no Toon can resist. Who Framed Roger Rabbit is the film no serious movie lover can resist.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit receives the long-awaited deluxe treatment on Touchstone's THX-certified VISTA Series 2-disc DVD release. Fans shouldn't bother with the first, "family-friendly" platter save for the Roger Rabbit shorts (see sidebar), as it contains a version of the film cropped to fullscreen*, a kid-pitched game ("Trouble in Toontown"), trailers for "Schoolhouse Rock" and Ultimate X, and a juvenile making-of ("Who Made Roger Rabbit" (11 mins.)) hosted by Fleischer that doesn't hold a candle to the in-depth coverage on Disc Two. The second platter's breathtaking 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer of the film gets off to a rocky start, with grain bordering on intense; from thereon in, this is Who Framed Roger Rabbit clearer, cleaner, and more minutely detailed than you've ever seen it before, and the DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks aren't too shabby, either. (Originally mixed in six-track, the film won the Oscar for Best Sound Effects Editing.) I'd give the slight edge to DTS (not a listening option with the full-frame presentation) but must admit that either option sounds somewhat dated, with discrete effects downplayed and the subwoofer left wanting for the lowest frequencies.
Zemeckis, producer Frank Marshall, the screenwriters, producer Steve Starkey, and visual effects supervisor Ken Ralston band together for a feature-length yakker that is thankfully not another of Zemeckis's makeshift commentaries cobbled from college Q&As. Almost every question I had about the film was answered between this and the "Toontown Confidential" pop-up trivia, first and foremost why there's no question mark at the end of the picture's title, though the fact-track fails to point out in explaining the genesis of Doom's front company "Cloverleaf," a screenwriter's invention, that Cloverleaf is a Canadian distributor of tuna--with a logo identical to the one on display in Who Framed Roger Rabbit!
Zemeckis and co. introduce a finished rendition of the deleted Pig Head Sequence, an unpleasant and ultimately meaningless bit of business that would have sent Valiant into Toontown so early in the action as to trivialize the climax. Valiant Files, complete with a handy cheat-sheet, leads us to gallery layouts for Character Development, Production Art (check out the rare sketches of Donald Duck by none other than Chuck Jones, a non-Disney artist), The Art of Roger Rabbit, promotional material (the decided-upon poster was awfully bland in relation to the one-sheet prototypes revealed here), and theme park designs (the Roger Rabbit attractions at Disney World and Disneyland). Before & After (3 mins.) compares dailies of Valiant's ride into Toontown to the finished product, while Toon Stand-Ins (3 mins.) offers a glimpse of the rehearsals where rubber figures filled in for Roger and company.
Behind the Ears (37 mins.) is a great, uncredited documentary recounting the nuts and bolts of production, interspersing behind-the-scenes footage from 1987 with new interviews. Everyone remembers and applauds Zemeckis's decision to film Who Framed Roger Rabbit without being too conscientious of the animation-to-be, as it avoided the stiff, static quality of such similar efforts as Pete's Dragon. Supervising animator Richard Williams remembers with a chuckle yelling "Draw faster!" down the hallway to his team, while Zemeckis equates the whole experience to "watching grass grow." There's even a section covering, albeit cursorily, Alan Silvestri's complex score. A 5-minute montage of outtakes of Benny the Cab tearing up the highway (On Set) rounds out Disc Two and this magnificent set, packaged with "autographed" photos of Mr. and Mrs. Rabbit plus an insert booklet and a rebate coupon for owners of the previous movie-only Who Framed Roger Rabbit DVD.
*Much of Who Framed Roger Rabbit was shot in 65mm VistaVision to reduce the amount of image degradation that would occur during the opticals-heavy post-production process.
104 minutes; PG; 1.85:1 (16x9-enhanced), 1.33:1; English DD 5.1, English DTS 5.1 (Disc Two only), French DD 2.0 (Mono), Spanish DD 2.0 (Mono); CC; English subtitles; 2 DVD-9s; Region One; Touchstone