I watched Who Framed Roger Rabbit for the first time when the VHS was sent to me and my brother by our grandparents. We were five and three at the time, and in hindsight, we were probably too young for this movie. The scenes where Judge Doom dips that poor little show and when he reveals his real identity were possibly the most terrifying things I had ever seen (I still look away to this day). I also may have asked to be Jessica Rabbit for Halloween because she was so “pretty”, (Mom brilliantly talked me out of it by saying I’d be too cold to go trick or treating in a sleeveless dress). I imagine this film confused a lot of people, because it’s a very well told mature film noir with cartoon characters!
This film was so ahead of its time as far as effects go, that almost 25 years later, it could not be improved by modern technology. So much energy went into making sure that you believe this you are in a world where humans and toons can intermingle. Many techniques were used to allow the actors’ to feel like they were really interacting with something. One way was having motion control machines move real life items that, in the finished film, would be used by the toons. An example of this is the octopus bartender in the Ink & Paint Club scene. They also used life-sized foam models to make sure blocking and eye lines would be accurate, and so the actors would know what it would be like to actually physically touch these characters. They also had actors standing just off set, reading the toons’ lines to the actors playing human characters. The man who played Roger insisted on dressing up as his character, which confused crews on other films being shot in the same studio. They were all doubtful about the special effects on “that rabbit movie”.
While not the first film to mix live action and animation, the effects and animation teams made sure to break all the rules and didn’t make anything easy for themselves. They had the camera moved so the toons were fully dimensional figures and the characters were subjected to extreme lighting so animators had to pay special attention to the toons’ shadows. It’s the kind of detail that would be lost on most viewers, but I dare any animator to find fault in the work done in this film.
While the majority of the attention is paid to the toons, the live action stuff is done will just as much care. The story of what made Eddie Valiant such a toon hater (a toon killed his brother) is slowly revealed and despite the inherent silliness of the actual death (a piano was dropped on his head), it is never played for laughs. Early in the film, Eddie asks Delores if he can borrow her camera. She sadly says she hasn’t used it since their trip to Catalina. We later learn that was most likely the last trip they took with Eddie’s brother. The last time they both weren’t haunted by his death. Despite being surrounded by silly toons, there is a veil of sadness that hangs over their interactions. I heard the script was written with Harrison Ford in mind for Eddie, but this is one of the few situations where the movie would have suffered by the addition of Harrison Ford. Bob Hoskins is perfect as Eddie.
While this is a film that was a large part of my childhood, I’m on the fence about whether I would share it with my own kids. Well, maybe not when they are 5 and 3. And maybe I’ll fast forward past the really scary parts.