One of my Favourites… Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
There is often a difference between a film you recognise as a genuine masterpiece and a film you consider as one of your favourites. Yes, both come down to taste, but when talking about a great film it all comes down to the film itself. When talking about one of your favourites time and place become factors. A great film pulls you into itself, whereas a favourite film takes you back into yourself. To the you that found that film all those years ago.
When the word nostalgia is used in a conversation about a film, it usually has negative connotations. Nostalgia is, by and large, mentioned when a film you once loved, or at least had a soft spot for, fails to stand up to your current standards. Some favourite films are watched from behind rose tinted glasses. We forgive their flaws because of how vividly we remember their strengths. This type of favourite film can be an indulgence, an attempt to recapture the feeling we had the first time, but without engaging with it in any meaningful way.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit? is my oldest favourite film. Before I found Die Hard and The Big Lebowski, before I got into Westerns and Art House films, and before I even knew Kubrick’s name, I loved Who Framed Roger Rabbit? WFRR? was not the first film I’d ever seen, but it was the first film to have a colossal impact on me, to connect with me in the way only truly great films can. I became obsessed with it. I genuinely believed that Toon Town existed. That one day I would go grab a carrot with Bugs, or share an elevator with Droopy. Who Framed Roger Rabbit? was the proof. Eddie Valiant was a flesh and blood human, just like me, and there he was, handcuffed to a ‘toon. So until I was old enough to actually go there myself, I would just watch the film (almost every single day) and visit. I indulged in my fantasy. Which was fine, as I was three years old.
I got older and watched it less and less, growing out of my belief in Toon Town, until years had passed since I’d last seen it. Then it came out on DVD. I was a little down for whatever reason, and decided to throw it on. To not just revisit the film, but to return to my old self and the joyous feeling it used to give me. I was looking to indulge. This is always an exercise in futility. I wasn’t a three year old anymore and no longer harbored the hope of one day outsmarting Elmer Fudd with Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny. No matter how thick the rose tinted glasses were, I wouldn’t be able to watch the film on the same level as I did back then. But it didn’t matter. After a few minutes I took the rose tinted glasses off. I didn’t need them. Who Framed Roger Rabbit? couldn’t take me back to being that care free child with the wild imagination. It did something much more unexpected. It illuminated everything I am now. My taste in fiction, everything I look for in film, television, and stories in general, can be traced back to this one movie.
I love film noir, especially those following hard drinking, world weary private investigators going up against a corrupt system, from Phillip Marlowe to Mike Hammer. For me that started with Eddie Valiant. I love femme fatales. A female character that commands the attention of any room she’s in. A character that radiates confidence, oozes sex appeal, and has a dangerous look in her eyes. She’s trouble on two legs. From Lauren Bacall in The Big Sleep, to Cora Smith in The Postman Always Rings Twice. For me that started with Jessica Rabbit. I love henchmen in suits as sharp as their knives, from Mr Joshua in Lethal Weapon, to Frank Nitti in The Untouchables. Started with the Weasels. I love writing that takes genre tropes and subverts them, playing them in fresh circumstances, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Johnny Guitar. I love high concept ideas that manage to balance the tone between silly and serious, from Orphan Black to Firefly. For me it all started with Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
It planted the seeds, way back then, that have grown into my very specific tastes. In terms of a single piece of work’s impact on me as a cineaste (which is a large part of my whole identity), nothing even comes close to its significance. That may sound ridiculously over the top, but everyone has it. That one piece of work that sets them off on their obsession. This is mine.
So yes, it is very clearly the type of “favourite film” I mentioned in the opening paragraph. My appreciation for it is tied up in personal reasons. It is a film that pulls me into myself. But, it is also an excellent film in its own right. Take away the impact the film had on me personally, view it objectively, and it is still a fantastical, wonderfully realised piece of work. No rose tinted glasses required.
The film starts with an animated short. Roger, a well meaning but goofy anthropomorphic rabbit in dungarees, has to babysit an irrepressible little brat that really wants a cookie. Roger, trying his damnedest to keep the baby safe from harm, takes one hell of a beating and narrowly misses death (about two hundred times), before he flubs a line and the director yells cut. The baby, suddenly sounding like he’s been drinking whiskey and swallowing glass his voice is so coarse, lights a cigar and storms out of the cartoon and into our very real world. It’s a bravura sequence that is both gut bustingly funny and an astonishing technical achievement. 2d cartoon characters walk and talk with living actors, inhabiting the same space, interacting with props, and casting shadows. The fact I believed this was real as a child is testament to how wonderfully director Robert Zemmicks pulls the whole thing off.
From there the plot crashes straight into typical 1940’s Film Noir territory (and it is shot as such, full of heightened angles and venetian blinds casting shadows), involving murder, frame ups, conspiracy, a cynical private eye, and it’s very own femme fatale: Jessica Rabbit. Jessica, voiced to sultry perfection by Kathleen Turner, is the film’s most iconic original creation. She is the genre staple turned up to a hundred, all ridiculous curves and double entendres. But she’s not just a parody of the femme fatale, she’s also the greatest of all time. They take the archetype and humanise her, making her not only central to the plot, but a fully developed character in her own right. Which is all the more impressive when you remember she’s married to a talking rabbit.
The plot and the world in which it takes place is just the right side of insane, so it takes a very special actor to ground the whole thing and make it real. That actor is Bob Hoskins, who completely sells every single interaction he has with each of the cartoon characters. He doesn’t over act in an attempt to reach the same level as the Toons, instead he plays everything down, like he’s seen it all before and is tired of it. There’s Dumbo! Yeah, so what? To Eddie Valiant these characters are loud, obnoxious annoyances, and it’s that choice in his performance, that lack of awe, that makes this world so believable.
Even now, over twenty five years after its release, the film is still a marvel. A heady mix of larger than life characters, great gags, knowingly playful genre work, and an absolute commitment to its premise make Who Framed Roger Rabbit? as exhilarating now as it was back then. Show this to any kid today, and they’ll have the same reaction I had back then: Awe.
And not that you asked, but my favourite scene?