Dancing to another toon

Animation's greatest stars celebrated

Published: May 14 2015, 01:01:am

Thursday, June 30, 1988
WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT. Written by Jeffrey Price and Peter S. Seaman; based on Gary K. Wolf's novel Who Censored Roger Rabbit? Music by Alan Silvestri. Animation direction by Richard Williams. Directed by Robert Zemeckis. Running time: 106 minutes. Mature entertainment with the B.C. Classifier's warning: occasional suggestive language.
TIME WAS, VALIANT & Valiant made news. Once the best private eyes in L.A., the brothers were famous for cracking the Duck Nephews kidnapping case and clearing Goofy's name of wartime spying charges.
    That time is past. A seedy has-been, Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins) has been partnered with a bottle since the night "a Toon killed his brother.''
     Since then, he's refused to take cases involving the animated inhabitants of the Hollywood ghetto known as Toontown.
    How ironic that the biggest case of Eddie's life should link his fate with that of an accused murderer who also happens to be a Toon. It's the summer of 1947, and the hardboiled dick needs to find out Who Framed Roger Rabbit.
    Who, indeed? The list of suspects includes some of the most innovative talents in movies today.
    Directing is Robert Zemeckis, the man who made both Back to the Future (1985) and Romancing the Stone (1984). Animation direction is by Richard Williams, the London-based Canadian cartoon genius.
    Producing are Walt Disney's Touchstone Pictures, currently the hottest studio in the business, and Steven Spielberg's own Amblin' Entertainment. George Lucas's Industrial Light and Magic provided the special effects.
    Together, they've come up with the motion picture event of 1988, a physical marriage of live action and animation that is technical perfection. You'll believe that Toons are real, and actually co-exist with humans in a live-action world.
    Less easy is the emotional marriage between the worlds of film noir and animation. Dangerous and formal, noir is visually dark and angular, while cartoons are amiably anarchic, brightly coloured and plastic in form.
    As a comedy, Zemeckis's feature gives off mixed signals. On one hand, its adventure plot recalls such Speilberg presentations as 1984's Gremlins, pictures full of pop culture references that build to big ILM-crafted finishes.
    On the other, it is the ultimate cartoon, a film containing cameo appearances by such Toon superstars as Bugs Bunny, Mickey Mouse, Porky Pig, Dumbo and half the cast of 1940's Fantasia. Can you resist a Donald Duck/Daffy Duck piano duet, or Tweety Bird playing schtick opposite actor Hoskins?
    Unforgettable is a poignant moment in which a black-and-white Betty Boop turns up as a nightclub hostess. "Work's been slow,'' she says. "ever since they started making cartoons in color.''
    Though kids will love Eddie's hyperactive client Roger (voiced by Charles Fleischer), the character is too far over the top to generate genuine dramatic sympathy. His human Toon wife Jessica, by contrast, is both a first-rate character and a stunningly effective presence, a combination of unerring animation and the voice talents of Kathleen Turner.
    Among the human performers, Hoskins couldn't be better. He gets terrific support from Christopher Lloyd, as the sinister Judge Doom, and Joanna Cassidy as Eddie's loyal girlfriend Dolores.
    A landmark movie if not a masterpiece, Who Framed Roger Rabbit celebrates animation with a star-studded gathering of an era's best and brightest.

The above is a restored version of a Province review by Michael Walsh originally published in 1988. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

Afterword: The ultimate anijam, Who Framed Roger Rabbit was a treasure chest of historical connections. For example, Charles Fleischer, the voice of Roger Rabbitt, shares a name (if not an actual family link) with pioneer animator Max Fleischer, inventor of the rotoscope. The New York-based Fleischer brothers were among the first to combine live action and cartoon performers in the movies. Their silent Out of the Inkwell cartoons (1918-1929) introduced audiences to Koko the Clown. The appearance of Betty Boop in Zemeckis's Toontown connected his world to the Flieschers' most famous creation. Then there was Walt Disney, who made his start in animation in Los Angeles with a series of short films collectively known as the Alice Comedies (1924-1927). Also called his Alice in Cartoonland pictures, they featured a little girl's adventures among Disney's first 'toon creations. In the sound era, animated-live interactions in big studio feature films began as early as 1930, when Walter Lantz's character Oswald the Rabbit made a brief appearance opposite bandleader Paul Whiteman in the muscial revue feature King of Jazz. Among the most famous live actor-cartoon pairings was Gene Kelly dancing with Jerry the Mouse (Anchors Aweigh; 1945). The cartoon mouse then went on to perform an underwater ballet with Esther Williams (Dangerous When Wet; 1953). Following the success of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, a semi-retired Ralph Bakshi returned to feature film production to direct his own cartoon/live-action feature, Cool World. Zemeckis, whose interest is more in the broader entertainment possibilities of technology, has distinguished himself as a producer-director of such special effects shows as 1997's Contact, The Polar Express (2004) and Beowulf (2007). Scheduled for an October 2015 release is his filmed-in-Montreal feature The Walk. The story of a French tightrope artist's 1974 walk on a wire strung between the World Trade Centre's Twin Towers, its most spectacular effect may just be the virtual rebuilding of the Towers themselves.