It’s true, I’ve seen better movies, ones with more high-minded things to say, ones that more deeply stir my intellectual curiosity, even ones that are greater technical achievements, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie that elicits more goofy grins per minute than Robert Zemeckis’ Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), which is one of the all-time great pleasures in movie-going.
The movie doesn’t earn this because of its performances or writing, though they are universally excellent, but because of the fanatic attention to detail that permeates every frame and an intense commitment to doing something right or not doing it at all. Here is the rare family film that becomes richer and deeper when seen as an adult because you understand the difficult undertaking something like it must have been, yet the movie never waivers in its nonchalance at its audacity. As an adult, I understand that Warner Brothers and the Walt Disney Company are separate, rival and not altogether friendly entities, yet here in Who Framed Roger Rabbit are Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse, casually messing around together, just as they do in my childhood imagination.
It’s 1947 Hollywood and the great film stars were contract players like Humphrey Bogart at Fox, Joan Crawford at MGM and Maroon’s Roger Rabbit. In the universe of the movie, cartoons are real and our favorite characters from Goofy to Yosemite Sam wake up every morning and go to work on a sound stage like any other actor to shoot their movies. This is wonderfully introduced in a tremendous opening cartoon (which stands on its own against some of the great Looney Tunes) that is suddenly interrupted by the sounds of “CUT!” called out by the human director. This is the new Roger Rabbit picture and it isn’t going well. Roger has suspicions about his wife and it’s affecting his performance (he keeps blowing his lines, producing birds instead of stars when he’s hit over the head by a refrigerator) so R.K. Maroon (Alan Tilvern), the head of the studio hires washed-up bourbon-soaked private investigator Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins) to tail Roger’s wife, Jessica, and gather evidence of her infidelities so Roger can face the truth and move on.
“You’re not the first man who’s wife has played patty-cake on him,” Maroon tells Roger when confronted with the damning photos. Perhaps, but we realize that Roger may be the first husband to take it so badly when its revealed the photographs are simply of Jessica and toy magnate Marvin Acme (Stubby Kaye) clapping hands together in a literal game of patty-cake. “No! Not my Jessica!” Roger wails. The next morning when Acme turns up dead, Roger is the main suspect.
It’s not like a toon to kill a human; their natures are are bent toward manic entertainment, but it’s not unheard of either (a toon killed Valiant’s brother, dropped a piano on him, leading to Valiant’s drinking and aversion to Toon Town, the toon section of LA). The search for Roger is led by Judge Doom (Christopher Lloyd), a new authority who has come up with a means of killing the heretofore indestructible toons, a mixture of turpentine, acetone and benzene called The Dip. Valiant feels a tinge of guilt about being the one whose photos indirectly caused a man’s death, but he quickly drowns it until Roger appears in his apartment claiming that he’d been set-up. From there Valiant attempts to clear Roger’s name while uncovering the diabolical plot to tear down Toon Town and put up freeways.
Like any number of good noirs, the story is secondary to the storytelling (although usually, as with Chinatown  and The Big Sleep , noir plots suffer from overcomplication; Who Framed Roger Rabbit is the opposite) and the storytelling is top notch. Not only does Zemeckis make a movie for kids that pulls no punches for adults (it’s unrelenting in its reminders of both alcohol and sex), but he’s made one that is fun from beginning to end without sacrificing story, character or heart. This is a movie where the enjoyment of the people who made it can be palpably felt; it has the same feeling of another touchstone of animation, Pinocchio (1940), in which the breakthroughs and advancements in the field are the result of extreme hard work, and that pride permeates the screen.
I can’t think of a single time in Who Framed Roger Rabbit when the easy road was taken. Using the manic cartoon shorts where problems compound upon problems as their guide, Zemeckis and his team come as close to creating a live–action cartoon as possible. If there’s a scene lit by a single overhead light, they’ll make sure it’s swinging so the human actor and the Toon have to reflect the same change in shadow. If Valiant shoves Roger’s head through one drawer and out another, a trick that would be hard enough on its own, they’ll make sure that certain real items come out of the drawer as well. Many filmmakers would simply rewrite a scene in which Valiant hides Roger underwater in his sink because the idea of combining real water with a cartoon element would be too difficult to undertake, but Who Framed Roger Rabbit never takes those corners, and when they achieve something spectacular, as when Jessica performs a song for Valiant while slipping her hand underneath his coat or pulling him up by his tie, the effect is amazing.
The combination of animation and live-action was nothing new when Roger was released, but what separates it from its forerunners like Mary Poppins (1964) and Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971) is the commitment to presenting a world in which these two types of characters truly coexist. Those movies designate its animated element to certain, contained portions of the movie, this one pulses with them constantly. It’s shot as if Roger was truly there with Valiant; there’s no better special effect than one which the movie doesn’t treat as special. When cartoons show up in other live-action films, the direction tips us off, making the camera stationary or having the live-action actor move as little as possible. Here the camera moves endlessly; giving us every angle.
Beyond the audacity of what it takes to make the film, there’s the nerve the filmmakers had about who would appear in it. There’s a sly joke Maroon makes at the beginning about being able to borrow Dumbo from Disney for an appearance in one of his movies (“He works for peanuts!”) that is a wink to the audience about the plethora of animated stars that will turn up as cameos in the rest of the movie. The amount of coordination it must have taken to gain the rights to have Daffy and Donald Duck perform next to each other is staggering, to say nothing of Betty Boop, Goofy, Tweety Bird, Porky Pig and any number of other famous cartoons to make appearances. Even the dancing penguins from Mary Poppins show up working at a night club (when Valiant asks for a scotch on the rocks, they give it to him, literally). This adds to the spell of the movie because if you’re going to have us believe that the stars of the golden age of cartoons lived real lives, you need to have the real stars. It was ballsy as well to ask for all these heavy hitters to appear and then relegate them to supporting cameos; I’m sure there was pressure from many sides to make the movie about Bugs or Mickey, but it never does.
Still, all these things wouldn’t last if they weren’t at the service of a great script that is uproariously funny, smart and inventive. There’s a suggestion that the physical laws of the toons are dictated by their ability to be funny, which is why Roger is able to slip out of a pair of inconvenient handcuffs only at certain times, or why he can’t resist completing the call to “Shave and a Haircut” even if doing so would mean his capture. There’s also Roger’s foul-mouthed and gravel-voiced costar, Baby Herman, who loves stogies and dames (“The problem is I got a fifty-year-old lust and a three-year-old dinky.”) Balanced against the toons’ crazy antics is the deadpan of the humans who treat the ridiculousness around them with solemn earnest.
All the animation is hand-drawn at 24-frames a second, a luxury for cartoons (most are in 12-frames) but that’s what speed Bob Hoskins and the rest of the human cast are photographed at and Roger and his toon friends are supposed to be occupying the same space. The density of detail is incredible as there are any number of clever sight gags or hidden cameos that can go unnoticed even on repeat viewing (this latest time it was brought to my attention the appearance of an anthropomorphic cow pie on the road into Toon Town). There’s a saying that the last 10% takes 50% of the resources. Zemeckis and his team are simply unwilling to give us only 90% and because of that they’ve made a masterpiece.