By Scott Ross
With this single movie, the entire landscape of animation was altered, for a time. Now, of course, the only arena that still embraces hand-drawn animation is television, for a few series but mostly for commercial advertising. Even — nay, especially — there, Roger Rabbit had almost immediate influence: Within months of the movie’s release, one noticed that the familiar sugared cereal icons looked softer, less defined by strong, black outline, particularly in the admixture of live actors and cartooned spokes-creatures. That, as much as anything — sadly but predictably — is the film’s true legacy, not its many and manifold narrative delights. As Mel Brooks once observed, advertising is a lot stronger than life.
The movie was loosely based on — “suggested by” might be closer to the mark — Gary K. Wolf’s satirical mystery novel Who Censored Roger Rabbit?* in which the milieus were 1970s Los Angeles and the comic strip, not the animated cartoon industry of the late 1940s. Roger and his cohorts spoke in word balloons, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, it didn’t end at all well for the titular hare. From this ingenious premise, the screenwriters, Jeffrey Price & Peter S. Seaman, concocted an oxymoronic, Technicolor neo-noir set in the post-war era, adding the plangent, real-life demise of the once-beloved L.A. Red Car Line as a sort of Chinatown sub-plot.
Key animation was entrusted to Richard Williams, whose magnificently designed and animated 1970 Oscar® winner A Christmas Carol remains the single finest movie edition of that creaky perennial. Williams had hated the nailed-down-camera approach Disney traditionally took on its live action/cartoon olios like Mary Poppins and Bedknobs and Broomsticks, and saw Roger Rabbit as an opportunity to free the cel from stasis. As a result, the camerawork on the picture (it was lensed by Dean Cundey) is as free in live action as it would have been had the movie’s conceit — that cartoon figures work in real-time, on sets, not as the painstaking result of hard-working animators — been reality; Williams’ liberation of the camera gives the movie much of its inspired anarchy.
Setting the story in the ’40s also allowed the filmmakers to make use of the animated stars of the era, especially, although not exclusively, Disney’s. Thus, Mickey Mouse is cheek-by-jowl with his Termite Terrace rival Bugs Bunny (and rather suffers by comparison); MGM’s Droopy makes a somewhat sinister cameo appearance in an elevator; Betty Boop appears, in black and white, commenting on how the changes in movie fashion affect even those stars animated from without rather than within; Yosemite Sam shows up, pants aflame; and those two famously irascible ducks, Daffy and Donald, perform a murderous piano duet.
While Steven Spielberg set up the movie at Touchstone/Disney, the animated humor owes much more to the antic Warner Bros. style of the period, and to Tex Avery at MGM, than to Uncle Walt’s more placid period output. (Watch the opening cartoon-within-a-film with your pause button handy some time, to see just how brilliantly Williams aped Avery’s exaggerated takes.)
The movie’s director, Robert Zemeckis, checked his previous tendency to mean-spiritedness here, and he kept the humans — aside from the marvelous Christopher Lloyd, whose Elmira Gultch-like Judge Doom turns out (avert eyes here if you haven’t seen the movie) to be a cartoon anyway — fully grounded. Bob Hoskins’ stoical/belligerent presence holds all possible inclination to sentiment at bay, and the very real sadness this otherwise cheery film evokes comes from a keen sense of shared cultural loss.
Charles Fleischer, who bears a felicitous (if unrelated) last name for this project, provides the vocal characterization for Roger in a wholly original style. You may find him obnoxious, in the manner of Avery’s Screwy Squirrel, and Chuck Jones for one loathed Roger. But Jones et al had the advantage of refining their characters over time, in multiple shorts, a luxury no feature film can match. A perfect complement to Fleischer’s mania is Kathleen Turner’s languidly sensual Jessica Rabbit, Roger’s hilariously phlegmatic humanoid wife. (Her caressive singing, however, comes courtesy of the then-Mrs. Spielberg, Amy Irving.)
Some stellar voice-over talent is also on hand: Mae Questel, Mel Blanc, Tony Anselmo (as Donald Duck), June Foray, Russi Taylor, Pat Buttram, Nancy Cartwright, and, as Droopy, Richard Williams himself.
The richness of the animated characters’ look, enhanced via computer, recalled classic Disney techniques even as it went beyond them; their softness and lack of broad outline were revelatory, and it’s what those teevee ad firms picked up on so quickly. And everyone else, it seems, liked the sound of the nomenclature the filmmakers developed for the ghettoized animated characters, referred to as “Toons”; the slang has since become boringly ubiquitous.
Williams, who’d won his job on the basis of his work on a then-unfinished feature on which he’d been working for 20 years, hoped to pour the income from Roger into its completion. He later saw the same Disney executives who’d feted him for his miracle-work here essentially steal his idea, for their own Aladdin. By the time that one had become a box-office behemoth, what little interest there may have been in Williams’ The Thief and the Cobbler was summarily murdered. When it finally opened, as Arabian Knights, it didn’t make a ripple. And shortly thereafter, Williams himself died.
Such are your rewards for enriching The Mouse.
*Note the question mark, which the movie’s title eschews.
Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross