Some movies should absolutely not work and Robert Zemeckis’ Who Framed Roger Rabbit is one of them. Imagine the pitch meeting for this movie: “It’ll cost around $40 million, making it the most expensive production of the day, and it may take two years to complete. The special effects will be groundbreaking…that is, if we get it finished on time. Oh, and, instead of hiring Dan Aykroyd to star, as you suggested, we chose Bob Hoskins for the lead. Never heard of him? He was in Mona Lisa…no, I don’t think he’s ever done a ‘children’s film’ before, but this isn’t really a kid’s movie anyway. This will have sex, a complicated plot, lots of in-jokes for the adults, and it’s a throwback to Raymond Chandler! Sounds like a hit, right? Right?”
Only a filmmaker with the clout of Steven Spielberg could’ve got a project as iffy as Roger Rabbit green lit and, as producer, he not only got the production moving, he got Disney to cooperate with his Amblin Entertainment company and get varying companies to allow their legendary cartoon characters to share screen time. Where else can you see Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse share a scene? When have you ever seen Donald Duck and Daffy Duck compete in a bout of “Dueling Pianos”? The answer is you haven’t, which applies to every other facet of this movie. There has never been a film like this one.
The plot is, indeed, very complex, dark and sinister. Yet, the tone is as loony as the still-stunningly life-like “Toons” that share screen time with the human actors. Mary Poppins was the strongest example of the potential of a live action/animated film and Space Jam provided a computer enhanced take on the process, but the combination of animated characters existing alongside humans has never been as seamless, cleverly rendered and utterly believable before or since. The key is not simply the Oscar winning work of the animation and visual effects artists, but, more importantly, the actors. Hoskins not only embodies everything you’d want from a low-rent private eye (complete with a spot-on Yankee accent), but he really seems to sharing the same space and genuinely communicating with the living cartoons that co-exist in the movie’s uniquely noir world. Everyone else, including Christopher Lloyd, Joanna Cassidy and Stubby Kaye, are also excellent at convincing you that those penguin waiters, weasel gangsters and water color bombshells are all REAL.
With a career that, to name a few, includes Forrest Gump, Romancing the Stone, Cast Away, Death Becomes Her, Contact and all three Back to the Future films, Zemeckis has nothing more to prove but continues to create wildly audacious, ambitious and unique films (love it or hate it, last year’s Beowulf was a bold effort). I don’t believe he will ever top Roger Rabbit. Scene-for-scene, the movie creates a tone and a hypnotic pull on the audience that exists in a class by itself. The movie is hilarious, thrilling, strangely touching, self-mocking, creepy, stunningly imaginative and truly magnificent. It was the top grossing film of 1988 and won a number of Oscars celebrating the film’s countless technical breakthroughs. Thankfully, no one ever attempted a sequel, as the film doesn’t need one. If you remember it as a corny kid’s movie, you need to see it again- underneath the mirth is a truly twisted story. If you’ve never seen it or don’t remember it, you’re in for a wild ride. Twenty years ago, this movie rocked audiences and, amazingly enough, it still has the power to astonish and delight.