In honour of Bob Hoskins who sadly died last week, I thought it would be appropriate to pay respect to a film of his I loved; and to be honest the only film of his I’m particulalry familiar with. It is, I suspect, the film of his that most people in my age group are most familiar with. And what a film – it is of course 1988’s animation-meets-live-action masterwork Who Framed Roger Rabbit.
A proper gem from most of our childhoods, it still looks great even today in the context of 2014 animation technology. A perfect mixture of classic-style cartoonery harkening back to the golden age of Warner Bros and Disney shorts and a more grown-up style, film-noire-ish detective story, Who Framed Roger Rabbit extaordinarily is even better watching as an adult than when I was a kid. The gags are still funny, but the cleverer jokes and references make more sense and the sheer style of the thing is easier to appreciate when you’re watching from Grown-Up Land.
For anyone who has an eternal soft-spot for the Golden Age of animation and the old Warner Bros and Disney (and Tex Avery, for that matter) shorts in particular, most of which were produced long before I was born, this film really did get its tone spot-on and felt more like a celebration of and homage to the style and institution of that bygone era in both cinema and animation more than anything else.
Based on Gary K. Wolf’s 1981 novel Who Censored Roger Rabbit?, the uneasy coalition of creative filmmaking forces that came together to produce the film created one of the best movies of the eighties (and, less relevant, one of my all-time favorite films).
From the deliberately misleading opening sequence of the Roger Rabbit short, the entire movie moves effortlessly from one classic, nostalgia-dripping moment to the next, with one great cartoon-legend cameo after another (the ‘cameos’ are admittedly more exciting when you’re a kid and you love all these characters in your kiddish way), great gags and classic one-liners.
The cameos are interesting in themselves, numerous prospective appearances vetoed over rights issues; even so, the film is notable for featuring Disney and Warner Brothers’ characters appearing in the same scenes, such as Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse, for example, or Daffy and Donald Duck.
Roger Rabbit himself, who could so easily have been an irritant, somehow doesn’t become annoying, but remains an enjoyable character even at his loudest, though the cigar-smoking, wise-cracking Baby Herman is funnier.
And the show-stealer of course is the unforgettable Rita Hayworth/Gilda-inspired Jessica Rabbit, the sexiest character in film history with one one of the all-time great entrance-scenes too. The Kathleen Turner voiced femme fatale was probably the first ever crush for scores of young boys, and you never forget your first crush.
And Bob Hoskins had pulled off the role of Eddie Valiant admirably. Knowing his role in the film was secondary to that of the cartoons, he played it plain straight, which is probably the only way a role like that could be played when you’re reacting to characters and situations that haven’t been animated in yet.
The idea of a fictional world in which famous cartoon characters live in the real world side-by-side with normal people and are just ‘actors’ is brilliant in itself, ‘Toon Town’ being one of the cleverest premises my then-young mind had ever had to grapple with. The further conceit of having the famous ‘Acme’ brand personified by a real character – “Marvin Acme” – and having his murder be the central plot-point of the movie is also genius. And setting the film in the forties really helped to give it its timleless quality, meaning, among other things, that it doesn’t get aged the way most eighties films do; you almost feel like Humphrey Bogart could’ve been playing the lead role.
There are numerous great moments in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, but my personal favorite, aside from the spellbinding Jessica Rabbit entrance, is Donald Duck and Daffy Duck’s adversarial showdown as dueling pianists. Priceless.
The fact the three theatrical shorts also produced in conjunction with the film’s release – Tummy Trouble, Roller Coaster Rabbit and Trail Mix-Up (all of which are great, by the way) – were screened with other major film releases at the time (and were in fact Disney’s first cinema shorts since 1965) added to the nostalgia-value of the whole enterprise and harkened back to an era in which the cinema experience itself was something much more special, more magical, than the comparitively dull, corporate-toned experience we have today.
It would be so much better an experience (and value for money) to have classic cartoons or even just live-action short-films preceding the main pictures in modern cinemas, instead of the lame adverts and endless trailers. At home I can mute the TV or do something else while adverts are playing, but in the cinema – where you’ve paid to be – there’s no escape from the nightmarish tedium.
Meanwhile, rumours and tidbits about a possible sequel to Who Framed Roger Rabbit have been going on for longer than the worldwide-web and continue to this day, with all manner of details, contentions and spurious claims, though treatments and (possibly) drafts are known to have been produced at one time or another. In 2010, Bob Hoskins in fact expressed his interest in reprising his role as Eddie Valiant for a possible sequel. That sadly is now an impossibility, but I personally don’t think a Who Framed Roget Rabbit sequel is a necessary or even advisable idea.
To capture the same magic a second time – especially this much time after the original – will be close to impossible. Besides that, the children of today are spoilt silly for choice when it comes to animated films and don’t have the attention-span of eighties children, nor will they be as impressed as eighties children; to do Roger Rabbit in modern CGI style animation will gut it of the retro-charm that made the original so special, while to do it in the same style as the original would leave today’s audience utterly unmoved.
No, like a lot of things, Roger Rabbit was something that worked brilliantly at that moment in time and is probably better kept that way – a one-off moment of perfection never to be replicated.