When I was a much younger lad and saw Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) for the first time, I do not recall thinking much of it other than the giggles of an innocent child’s mind. I do remember it getting some attention for its use of animated characters alongside live actors, though in hindsight I do not understand why that would have been a big deal as Mary Poppins (1964) had done that nearly a quarter of a century previous. In color too. Was it the use of both Disney and Warner Brothers cartoons (and some others thrown in for good measure)? It does not really matter. All I know is I watched it again recently and wow is it a lot more dark than my memory told me.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit starts off with the kind of cartoon short you would expect if you went to the cinema in the 1940s, and indeed this is when the film is set. The bit is akin to any other Bugs Bunny or Mickey Mouse feature, with Roger Rabbit (voiced by Charles Fleischer) being tasked with watching Baby Herman (voiced by Lou Hirsch). The zany antics result from a lunatic rabbit providing childcare for a cookie hungry infant. When everything breaks down and the refrigerator lands on Roger’s head, producing chirping birds instead of stars, the director of the cartoon yells cut and we find out than in the world of this movie, humans and cartoon characters co-exist. Looking on is private detective Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins) who is at the studio of producer R. K. Maroon (Alan Tilvern). The cartoon man wants to hire Eddie to spy on Roger Rabbit’s wife, the cartoon Jessica Rabbit (voiced by Kathleen Turner), because Roger Rabbit and her are down in the dumps and it is affecting his performance (hence the birds instead of the stars). When Eddie tracks her down performing at the Ink and Paint Club (a night spot where cartoons perform live for humans), he also encounters Marvin Acme (Stubby Kaye), maker of joke toys and owner of the land on which Toon Town (the place where cartoons live) sits. After the show, Acme follows Jessica into her dressing room, and Eddie photographs them playing patty cake, which seems to basically mean sex to cartoons. When the pictures are shown to Roger he is distraught, and runs away after ranting about how him and Jessica are meant to be together. When Acme turns up dead the next morning in his own factory, having had a safe dropped on his head in classic cartoon fashion, everyone naturally assumes it was Roger (thus the title of the film). Here the villain shows up in the form of Judge Doom (Christopher Lloyd), and he vows to track down Roger and execute him in “the dip,” basically an acid that seems to be the only method of killing a cartoon (except when they laugh themselves to death, apparently). Eddie is dragged back into the case, despite not liking to work for “‘toons” owing to his brother being killed by one, when Roger shows up in his office and handcuffs himself to the detective. It is then revealed that Acme had a will that should anything happen to him ownership of Toon Town would revert to the cartoons. Initially, Eddie suspects Maroon, and confronts him in his office. But when the producer is murdered by an unseen gunman, who Eddie believes is Jessica, he chases her into Toon Town where it turns out to be Doom all along. In the process, Doom captures Jessica and Roger and takes them to the Acme factory where he plans to send a machine into Toon Town to destroy it and make way for Los Angeles’ famed expressways. Fortunately Eddie gets there in time, but in the showdown with Doom it is revealed that the judge is actually the cartoon who killed his brother. Yet the villain ends up a victim of his own terrible substance, and the will turns out to have been used by Roger to write a love letter to Jessica. And as Porky Pig (voiced by Mel Blanc) declares as humans and cartoons walk off together, “That’s all folks!”
Who Framed Roger Rabbit, perhaps owing to its historical setting, is shot very much in a film noir style. When I was a kid watching it for the first time, I had no clue what this meant. If you are unfamiliar with this genre, all you really need to know was that it was a technique used in the 1940s and into the 1950s to depict the violence and darkness of urban decay at that time. What makes Who Framed Roger Rabbit so? Eddie is depicted as basically being a drunkard (though clearly the protagonist). Women are tough, and, aside from Jessica, there is Eddie’s girlfriend, Dolores (Joanna Cassidy), a bar owner. And it is violent, with several cartoons being wantonly murdered, aside from Maroon and Acme’s untimely demises. So, tonally, the film is a throwback. It is atonal, though, in that it has all these features and yet is seemingly marketed towards younger audiences. Remember Baby Herman? Well, he is apparently a cigar smoking loud mouth who travels around with a woman who he slaps on the rear-end and refers to as, “a dumb broad.” And this for a movie on Disney +?
The character in Who Framed Roger Rabbit I find most perplexing is Jessica Rabbit. Simply put, I have no idea why she is drawn the way she is. If she were real, there would be no way her frame could support . . . all that, and she seems to have been made for one purpose only: sex appeal. She feigns innocence, though, telling Eddie that, “I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way.” She claims this while in the midst of basically seducing Eddie. To say the least, she is no Virgin Mary. Her words also speak to the notion of free will. In the film, this would be a gift granted not only to humans but cartoons as well. If there is some redeeming quality(?) to Jessica, I guess you could say that she uses her, um, assets to try to help her husband and all cartoons. That is what the movie wants you to believe, anyway. I hope that if they make a sequel (which I noticed recently on IMDb) they tone down that aspect of her character. That is not simply the square Catholic in me talking.
In thinking back, I do not remember what entertained me about Who Framed Roger Rabbit when I was a child. I am not sure I am entertained by it now as an adult. There are some moments in it that would be seen as racist today, such as the Native American bullet in Eddie’s cartoon gun. The weasels, Doom’s henchmen, would probably be seen as problematic too. As for the other elements, namely the stuff that are noir nods, perhaps this was an early attempt to give adults watching “kid’s” movies something by which to be entertained? It is rated PG, after all. At any rate, if you have never seen it before, it can be safely skipped. If you are familiar with it, then I have told you nothing new.