Thursday, 13 September 2012

Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)


Let me begin today’s review by noting that rumors of my demise have been greatly exaggerated. I’m not dead, I’ve just spent the last ten days involved in not one but two Atlantic Fringe Festival productions and reviewing a bunch of the other ones. It’s been busy. But we can put all that behind us now and get to what really matters: watching fucktons of movies and judging their worth. (This qualifies as a hobby, right?)

Logically speaking, no movie's perfect – this being a flawed universe and so on – but Who Framed Roger Rabbit (Robert Zemeckis, 1988) comes damn close. I think it's one of the best movies of all time, and bonus, it’s a lot more watchable than some of the pretentious twaddle saddled with that accolade (I’m looking at you, Citizen Kane). Roger Rabbit succeeds brilliantly on two levels: as a technical achievement, and as a comedy with an unbeatable schtick (cartoon characters as living, feeling beings).

You'll be glad you "saw" this movie. Get it?
Private investigator Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins) hasn't worked for 'toons since he lost his brother and partner in the line of duty ("'toons killed his brother... dropped a piano on his head," recounts Eddie's girlfriend Dolores [Joanna Cassidy], with an impossibly straight face). But times are tough, and Eddie takes on a bit of dirty business: photographic proof that 'toon star Roger Rabbit's wife, Jessica (the troubled couple are voiced by Charles Fleischer and Kathleen Turner), is "playing patty-cake" with movie mogul Marvin Acme (Stubby Kaye). Of course, Acme turns up dead, and Roger is the prime suspect. The unlucky rabbit pleads his innocence to Eddie, and the pair set off to figure out who framed Roger Rabbit (it turns out, of course, to be the only guy without a sense of humor: Christopher Lloyd's Judge Doom).

Thank god this movie was made before CGI went mainstream. Computer graphics would have gotten the charm of pen-and-ink cartoons all wrong: cleaned it up, slicked it down, rendered it in (heaven forbid) 3D. But Roger, Jessica and their ilk could have wandered out of some forgotten Tex Avery short. They look like the old cartoons, and better yet, they move that way. I've heard an urban legend that Jessica's breasts were animated to bounce up when a normal woman's would drop downwards; I don't know how true that is, but whatever they did, it worked. Also impressive is the amount of interaction the cartoon characters have with their live environment. This is necessary in the case of main characters, of course -- anything else would look cheap and lazy. But why make one of your extras a 'toon octopus bartender who serves drinks to real humans? What's that? Just because you can? Zemeckis, I like your style.

There's an (admittedly featherweight) political subtext to Who Framed Roger Rabbit. The treatment of 'toons as second-class citizens is reminiscent of American racial segregation, and the Ink and Paint Club (a humans-only 'toon revue where Jessica performs) calls the Cotton Club to mind. I do wish that this movie had depicted the social standing of 'toons a little more clearly: 'toons can be employed and legally married, yet murdered without ramification? It's not really consistent, and it just gets more confusing when you try to figure out whether toons age, reproduce, die. 

That's my only nitpick, though, and it's more of a headache than a dealbreaker. Who Framed Roger Rabbit is a truly great cinematic experience: one which is timeless, and yet could only have been a product of its time. If anyone ever tries to re-release this movie in 3D, I'll drop a piano on their head.

Someone at Disney designed that dress. Believe it.
SCENE STEALER: Jessica Rabbit, goddess that she is, is the obvious choice here... too obvious, in fact. But there's someone else in this movie who deserves some love, too.

Always a class act.
The one and only Betty Boop!

Betty's only in the movie for a few seconds -- an old friend of Eddie's, she's been reduced to the Ink and Paint Club's cigarette girl because things have been "a little slow since cartoons went to color." Her defiantly cheerful hip bevel and "boop-boop-de-doop" are the most bittersweet moment in the film, wacky fun that it is -- doubly so when you learn that Betty's original actress, Mae Questel, voiced the cameo (she was 79). Ah, it's a cruel world that can't protect Betty Boop from the ravages of time.

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