Long-time coming for the ever-hungry child-in-a-toy-store director that is Robert Zemeckis, Who Framed Roger Rabbit was his repayment for bringing the monstrous box office success of Back to the Future to the screen with pop and pizzaz aplenty. If Back to the Future was a delicious cotton-candy confection with a hidden rambunctiousness filtered into deconstructing space and time, Who Framed Roger Rabbit was Zemeckis’ ultimate tribute to cinema as a visual art form. It’s also the film he’d been building toward, Back to the Future having couched his clear dreamer’s eye technicality in a more subdued package. For, nowadays, when one thinks of Robert Zemeckis, one thinks of technology and advancement, in that order. He’s always been more interested in cinema as a plaything than anything else. It was a means to an end for him. If in recent years this has seen his reach exceed his grasp as he pursued avenues less filmically formed, he never achieved an “end” more loving and lovely than Who Framed Roger Rabbit, his 1988 dissection of genre and reality all curled up in just about the snuggest, most effervescent package you can find.
Everyone knows the story. A hard-boiled detective gets involved in a case-for-hire when a man is wrongly accused of murder. The detective gets in just a tad over his head when he finds his heart more involved in the case than his head. Two sentences, and the backbone of too many detective noirs to count. What does Zemeckis add to this frame? Nothing much, except of course everyone but the main gumshoe (Eddie Valiant, by the way, played commandingly by Bob Hoskins) is animated. Yes, animated, with Valiant out to save Roger Rabbit (voice of Charles Fleishcer) from charges of murdering Marvin Acme (one of the few live-action humans in the film, the other being Christopher’s Lloyd’s volcanic, villainous Judge Doom). Acme had been messing around with Jessica Rabbit (voice of Kathleen Turner), Roger’s wife, and his mysterious murder naturally makes Roger the prime suspect. It doesn’t help that Valiant holds a grudge against toons because one murdered his brother long ago. But he doesn’t have much of a choice. Sooner or later, all roads lead back to Toontown.
It’s almost impossible not to center the visuals in a review of Who Framed Roger Rabbit – one could say they are the film’s raison d’ etre. The look of Who Framed Roger Rabbit isn’t quite as revelatory as it was in 1988 (when it played a huge part in renewing interest in animation for the 1990s). But its insistence on crossing the paths of noir and cartoon form pays dividends in the end, giving us a whip-lash, spit-fire take on the limits of physics and movie logic, animated or otherwise. Of course, the “big” takeaway from the film, the big secret it has knowledge of and wants to share with us, is that noirs were really cartoons to begin with. Like animation, they specialized in creating a fantastical world that favored human emotion (or a lack thereof) over logical realism, and both understood visual storytelling to be the highest art form they could achieve. With Roger Rabbit, Zemeckis does the two genres proud, wholly subscribing to the madcap, improvisational logic of Warner Bros cartoons (Disney characters appear too, but there’s no argument to be made for the film as a commentary on Disney in any significant way, for its loose canon spirit is wholly in the Warner Bros mold). Zemeckis does a little too much in the directorial whirlwind department to honestly say he’s “recreating” Warner Bros. cartoons in the most direct way (they never really had the budget for this kind of spastic showmanship). But if he doesn’t re-create them exactingly, he captures their spirit, which is an altogether more satisfying line anyway.
At the same time, Zemeckis does an awfully sterling job finding his way around the notoriously tricky cinematic language of noir. It’s ever so easy to under-cook, and even easier to over-do, but he nails the sweet spot, realizing the innate absurdity of the genre by presenting his visuals in a self-consciously exaggerated, fake way and still taking it 100% seriously anyway. Which is ultimately, to be honest, the great key to all film noirs; even despite the rubbery dialogue and alien characters, they found an utmost sincerity in their narrative and never batted an eye at good taste. Zemeckis doesn’t so much use the infusion of cartoons to screw around with noir. Instead, he pays his respects, saying “yes noir is a cartoon world, but it’s a great cartoon world all the same”. If this is largely a sweet, syrupy cocktail in the final analysis, that doesn’t mean it lacks kick.
Of course, so much focusing on technology fails to explore the film’s greatest success: using technology to define character. For both noir and cartoon history are replete not only with world-building but with connecting their less-than-real physical environments with the psyches of those that inhabited these worlds. Both noir and animation thrive off of a distinct lack of realism, the sort of atmosphere which can quickly keel over and become obvious and indulgent. The thing that always sold both genres at a core level was their reliance on characters who never questioned anything going on around them. By having their characters accept the limits of their worlds, we could too. Take animation for instance. Warner Brothers cartoons were undeniably a collective playground for testing physical reality and character logic. But if they created characters like Bugs and Daffy who were defined by how they were emotionally distilled reflections of the human id separate from reality, these characters worked because they were still fully realized, intricately defined characters who never broke from what their world dictated for them. What Daffy does may seem illogical, but his actions always made sense for him, and literate, giddy screenwriters Jerry Price and Peter Seaman never let their energy get ahead of their characters. Eddie, Roger, Jessica, and the many other inhabitants of Toontown are cohesive characters bound by rules and distinct personalities, and the film never forces them to act out of character.
All of this doesn’t even discuss the more simple fact that the film is really just a damn good story done up with tech that was not only extremely convincing, but revolutionary. Setting up animated and live-action characters/ environments together had been done before 1988, but never with the commitment to detail and sense of heft and weight they achieved here. It is wholly possible to believe the world Zemeckis conjures not simply because of the technology but because the film takes this technology seriously, uses it in the context of character and narrative, and sticks 100% of the landing. It’s easy to call it all a glorified gimmick, and I would simply relent and call it a hell of a gimmick. But the whole thing is so fundamentally woven into the narrative and emotional logic of the film at a base level it’s hard to see it as anything but a particularly pure form of something we essentially never see in the cinematic world today: technology specific to film used in film-specific ways firing in tandem with everything else that makes up a movie to create something wholly inventive and unique as it fills and populates a world all its own. A special film about the history of cinema that, all these years later, also feels like the future of the medium.