Building Entertainment: The Animated Films of the Walt Disney Studio. Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

Welcome to my weekly discussion of the animated films of the Walt Disney Studio. I’m proceeding mostly chronologically. The title comes from a quote from Walt, “I never called my work an ‘art’ It’s part of show business, the business of building entertainment.”

So… technically, this isn’t from the Walt Disney Studio, it’s from Touchstone, which is a division of Disney… anyways…

Title: Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

Year: 1988 1

Source materials : Gary K. Wolf’s 1981 novel Who Censored Roger Rabbit? 2

Budget: $50.6 million

Box office: $329.8 million

Plot: In 1947 Los Angeles, “toons” act in films and regularly interact with real people. They reside in Toontown, a separate community. Private detective Eddie Valiant and his brother, Teddy, once worked closely with the toons, but after Teddy was killed by a toon, Eddie lapsed into alcoholism and vowed never to work for toons again.

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R.K. Maroon, head of Maroon Cartoon Studios, hires Valiant to investigate Roger Rabbit’s voluptuous toon wife Jessica being romantically involved with businessman and gadget inventor, Marvin Acme, owner of both Acme Corporation and Toontown.

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After watching Jessica perform at the Ink and Paint Club, Valiant photographs her and Acme playing patty-cake in her dressing room, which he shows to Roger.

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Maroon suggests to Roger that he should leave Jessica, but a drunken Roger refuses and flees.

The next morning, Acme is discovered dead at his factory with a safe dropped on his head, and evidence points to Roger being responsible. While investigating, Valiant meets Judge Doom who has created a substance capable of killing a toon: a toxic “dip.”

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Valiant runs into Roger’s co-star, Baby Herman, who believes Roger is innocent and that Acme’s missing will, which will give the toons ownership of Toontown, may be the key to his murder.

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Valiant finds Roger, who begs him to help clear his name, hiding in his office. Valiant reluctantly hides Roger in a local bar, where his ex-girlfriend, Dolores, works. Jessica approaches Valiant and says that Maroon forced her to pose for the photographs so he could blackmail Acme.

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Doom and his henchmen discover Roger, but he and Valiant escape with Benny, a taxicab. They flee to a theater, where Valiant sees a newsreel detailing the sale of Maroon Cartoons to Cloverleaf, a corporation that bought the city’s trolley network shortly before Acme’s murder.

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Valiant goes to the studio to confront Maroon, leaving Roger to guard outside, but Jessica knocks Roger out and puts him in the trunk. Maroon tells Valiant that he blackmailed Acme into selling his company so he could sell the studio, but is shot before he can explain the consequences of the missing will. Valiant spots Jessica fleeing the scene and follows her into Toontown.

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Jessica reveals that Doom killed Acme and Maroon and gave her his will for safekeeping, but she discovered that the will was blank. She and Valiant are captured by Doom and the weasels.

At the Acme factory, Doom reveals his plot to destroy Toontown with a machine loaded with dip to build a freeway, the only way past Toontown since Cloverleaf (which Doom owns) has bought out the Railway. Roger unsuccessfully attempts to save Jessica, and the couple is tied onto a hook in front of the machine’s hose.

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Valiant performs a song and dance number, causing the weasels to die of laughter. Valiant fights Doom, who is flattened by a steamroller, revealing him as a toon. Doom reveals that he killed Teddy. Valiant uses a toon mallet with a spring-loaded boxing glove and fires it at a switch that causes the machine to empty its dip onto Doom, killing him.

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The machine crashes through the wall into Toontown, where it is destroyed by a train. Toons run in to regard Doom’s remains, and Roger discovers that he inadvertently wrote his love letter for Jessica on Acme’s will, which was written in invisible ink. Valiant happily enters Toontown with Dolores, and Roger with Jessica, followed by the other toons.

Background: Walt Disney Productions purchased the film rights to the novel Who Censored Roger Rabbit? in 1981. The project was revamped in 1985 by Michael Eisner. Amblin Entertainment, which at that time consisted of Steven Spielberg, Frank Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy, were approached to produce the film alongside Disney. The original budget was projected at $50 million.

Spielberg’s contract included an extensive amount of creative control and a large percentage of the box-office profits, but Disney kept all merchandising rights. Spielberg convinced Warner Bros., Fleischer Studios, King Features Syndicate, Felix the Cat Productions, Turner Entertainment, and Universal Pictures/Walter Lantz Productions to “lend” their characters to appear in the film with (in some cases) stipulations on how those characters were portrayed. 3 The producers were unable to acquire the rights to use Popeye, Tom and Jerry, Little Lulu, Casper the Friendly Ghost, or the Terrytoons for appearances from their respective owners. 4

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Robert Zemeckis was hired to direct based on the success of Romancing the Stone and Back to the Future. 5

Richard Williams was hired as animation director. He animated the title sequences to What’s New, Pussycat? and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. He also animated the opening for two of the Pink Panther films. He is the author of “The Animator’s Survival Kit.” He is best known for his unfinished feature film The Thief and the Cobbler. 6The Cloverleaf streetcar subplot was inspired by Chinatown. Price and Seaman were unsure of whom to include as the villain in the plot. They wrote scripts that had either Jessica Rabbit or Baby Herman as the villain, but they made their final decision with newly created character Judge Doom. 7

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Changes from the Source Material: In Wolf’s novel Who Censored Roger Rabbit?, the toons were comic-strip characters rather than movie stars. Roger and Jessica aren’t nearly as likeable, and Roger is the one that is killed.

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Animation: Williams admitted he was “openly disdainful of the Disney bureaucracy” and refused to work in Los Angeles. Production was moved to Elstree Studios in Hertfordshire, England. Supervising animators included Dale Baer, James Baxter, David Bowers, Andreas Deja, Chris Jenkins, Phil Nibbelink, Nik Ranieri, and Simon Wells. The animation production, headed by associate producer Don Hahn, was split between the London studio and a unit in Los Angeles.

VistaVision cameras installed with motion-control technology were used for the live-action scenes. Rubber mannequins of Roger Rabbit, Baby Herman, and the weasels were used during rehearsals so the actors knew where to look. Many of the live-action props held by cartoon characters were shot on set with either robotic arms holding the props or the props were manipulated by strings.

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Because the film was made before computer animation, all the animation was done using cels and optical compositing. First, the animators were given black-and-white printouts of the live-action scenes (known as “photo stats”), and they placed their animation paper on top of them. They drew the animated characters in relationship to the live-action footage.

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Due to Zemeckis’ camera moves, the animators had to make sure the characters were not “slipping and slipping all over the place.”

After the rough animation was complete, the cels were completed as usual, and then were shot on camera without any background. The animation was then sent to ILM for compositing.

One of the most difficult effects in the film was Jessica’s dress in the nightclub scene, because it had flashing sequins, an effect accomplished by filtering light through a plastic bag scratched with steel wool.

Music: Alan Silvestri composed the film score, performed by the London Symphony Orchestra . The song Why Don’t You Do Right?” was written by Joseph “Kansas Joe” McCoy and sung by Amy Irving.

Live Action Cast:

Bob Hoskins, as Eddie Valiant. He appeared in Pennies from Heaven, The Long Good Friday, Mona Lisa, 8 Mermaids, Brazil, Hook, Nixon, Enemy at the Gates, Mrs. Henderson Presents, A Christmas Carol, Made in Dagenham, and Snow White and the Huntsman. 9Christopher Lloyd, as Judge Doom. He’s best known for his roles as Emmett “Doc” Brown in the Back to the Future trilogy, Merlock the Magician in DuckTales the Movie: Treasure of the Lost Lamp, Uncle Fester in The Addams Family films and Grigori Rasputin in Anastasia. He won two Primetime Emmy Awards for playing Jim on Taxi. He earned a third Emmy for his 1992 guest appearance on Road to Avonlea.

Stubby Kaye, as Marvin Acme. He’s best known for playing Marryin’ Sam in Li’l Abner and Nicely-Nicely Johnson in Guys and Dolls. Joanna Cassidy, as Dolores. She played Zhora in Blade Runner.

Alan Tilvern, as RK Maroon. It was his final film before retiring from an over forty-year acting career. Richard LeParmentier has a minor role as Lt. Santino. He’s best known for a small role in Star Wars. 10

Voice Cast:

Charles Fleischer as the voice of Roger Rabbit. He is best known for appearing in films such as A Nightmare on Elm Street, Back to the Future Part II, The Polar Express, Rango, and We’re Back! A Dinosaur’s Story. He had recurring roles on the series Welcome Back, Kotter as Carvelli and as Chuck on the series Laverne & Shirley. Fleischer also voices Benny the Cab and two members of Doom’s weasel gang, Psycho and Greasy. Kathleen Turner provides the uncredited voice of Jessica Rabbit. She appeared in Body Heat, The Man With Two Brains, Crimes of Passion, Romancing the Stone, Prizzi’s Honor, The Accidental Tourist, The War of the Roses, Serial Mom, and Peggy Sue Got Married, for which she was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress.

Amy Irving 11 supplied the singing voice for Jessica. She is best known for the film Carrie. Betsy Brantley served as the stand-in.

Lou Hirsch provides the voice of Baby Herman. He appeared in Thunderbirds and Superman III. April Winchell provides the voice of Mrs. Herman and the “baby noises.” She is known for her voice work in Wander Over Yonder, Phineas and Ferb and Kim Possible.

Legendary voice actor Mel Blanc reprised his Looney Tunes characters Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Tweety, and Sylvester. 12 Mae Questel reprised her role of Betty Boop. She was also the voice of Olive Oyl, and she is probably best known as Aunt Bethany in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.

In addition, a lot of legendary voice actors reprised their famous characters. Wayne Allwine voiced Mickey Mouse, Tony Anselmo voiced Donald Duck, Tony Pope voiced Goofy and The Big Bad Wolf, and June Foray voices Wheezy and Lena Hyena. 13 Russi Taylor voiced Minnie Mouse, Pat Buttram, Jim Cummings, and Jim Gallant voiced Valiant’s animated bullets, Les Perkins voiced Mr. Toad, Mary Radford voiced Hyacinth Hippo, Nancy Cartwright 14 voiced the dipped shoe, Cherry Davis voiced Woody Woodpecker, Peter Westy voiced Pinocchio, and Frank Welker voiced Dumbo. Animation director Richard Williams voiced Droopy.

Critical Reception: Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave the film four stars out of four, predicting it would carry “the type of word of mouth that money can’t buy. This movie is not only great entertainment, but [also] a breakthrough in craftsmanship.” Gene Siskel also praised the film, and ranked it number two on his top-ten films list for 1988, while Ebert ranked it as number eight on a similar list.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit? became the first live-action/animation hybrid film to win multiple Academy Awards since Mary Poppins in 1964. 15

At the time of release, Roger Rabbit was the 20th-highest grossing film of all time.

Legacy: There is a section of Disneyland called Toon Town, which has a ride called Roger Rabbit’s Car Toon Spin. As many of my readers pointed out a few weeks ago, Roger used to have a much bigger presence in the park, but that seems to have almost disappeared.  Three theatrical animated shorts were also produced; “Tummy Trouble,” “Roller Coaster Rabbit,” and “Trail Mix-Up.”

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My take:  As I have been doing these write ups, I have wondered what it would have been like to have seen some of these films as they premiered. What was it like to see Snow White in 1937 or Fantasia 1940? Well I don’t have to wonder what it was like seeing Who Framed Roger Rabbit in 1988. I saw it and was blown away at age fifteen. At that time it was less about the animation but more about the novelty of seeing Disney characters side-by-side with Warner Brothers characters. It was a thrill.

I can’t stress enough that all animation was hand drawn. At this time, computer animation is in infancy and none of it was used.

Playwright Anton Chekhov said that if you introduce a gun in the first act of a play it had better go off in the third. Like all good detective stories, everything that is hinted at: Eddie’s clown history, all the gadgets in Acme’s Warehouse, the love letter, Roger’s reaction to alcohol, etc. comes into play later. Also, once you know that Doom is a ‘toon, when you rewatch the movie, you realize it’s really heavily foreshadowed.

I also like that it obeys a certain cartoon law. Roger can do just about anything as long as it’s funny. The whole movie is a love letter to the golden age of animation.

One of the things that I like about the relationship between Jessica and Roger is that every character sees her as a sex object, except for him. He makes her laugh. He makes her happy.

Next Week: The Disney Renaissance begins with The Little Mermaid