Just in time for Easter, we’re taking a trip back to visit every kid’s second (or third, or fourth…) favorite bunny!
Robert Zemeckis’ Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) effortlessly blended live action and animation in a cinematic experience never seen before (and rarely since). It was also a colossal hit for Touchstone Pictures (AKA Disney) and managed to delight children, adults, classic cartoon fans and noir thriller aficionados — no small feat!
The When We Were Young hosts originally saw this comedy-mystery hybrid blockbuster as little kids; now that we’re old enough to have a complicated appreciation of Jessica Rabbit’s heaving bosom, we decided to head back into Toontown to see if the groundbreaking flick still holds up today.
My memories of Who Framed Roger Rabbit are rather vague. Unlike other major family-friendly blockbusters, in many ways it feels like this film has been erased from pop culture, at least to me. It’s rarely discussed. It’s barely quoted. I never saw it again. When compared to other blockbusters released around this time — Home Alone, Indiana Jones, E.T., and Zemeckis’ own Back To The Future franchise — it doesn’t feel like Roger Rabbit exists quite in the same space. Even Toon Town at Disneyland seems more preoccupied with Mickey and friends than the movie that provided its namesake.
That could be my own bias, though. I remember very little about the film from my early childhood viewing, which was probably in 1989 or 1990, except that I was mildly disturbed by the insertion of real actors into cartoon violence. (That steamroller scene tripped me out.) My overall memory of Who Framed Roger Rabbit was one of mild displeasure, but then I mostly forgot about the film until it came time to do the podcast.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit was well-reviewed by critics, beloved by audiences, and earned a killing at the box office, in addition to six Oscar nominations and three wins. I turned it on expecting to find a lot to like, figuring the humor had gone over my head during my original viewing.
As it turns out, even at age 6, my sense of humor was too sophisticated for Roger Rabbit.
Beyond some impressive special effects (for that era), I have a hard time grasping the appeal of this film. Roger Rabbit is an obnoxious character who is neither endearing nor particularly funny. He lacks the dry wit of Bugs Bunny or the likability of Mickey Mouse. Sometimes, rude and crude cartoon characters can be funny — The Simpsons, to provide the most obvious example. But The Simpsons is a clever, often biting take on current pop culture and societal norms. Even its most outrageous characters have moments of relatable humanity. I never once connected to Roger Rabbit, or any other character in this movie.The animation-laden spin on old film noir feels super stale, even in 1988, given that Looney Tunes had done this endlessly for decade up until this point. Who Framed Roger Rabbit doesn’t put a new spin on that oft-parodied genre. I enjoy the idea of Jessica Rabbit as the cartoon twist on a typical femme fatale, but I wish the film had been more subversive in how it utilized her. She ends up being a pretty typical damsel in distress. Both the major female characters exist solely to moon over the men in their life. Maybe that’s inevitable from a family film from 1988, but it definitely puts the special effects far ahead of the screenwriting in terms of being ahead of their time.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Probably the ominous-looking guy dressed all in black we meet a few minutes into the movie.
When I have a particular grudge against a movie, it’s usually because I can imagine a version that is much better (for me, at least). I love the idea of cartoon characters interacting with a gritty film noir world, but it doesn’t work for me when the world the humans inhabit is as flat and cartoonish as the animation. I find the cartoon cameos totally pointless, on the whole, as they are in many bad comedies that try and substitute recognizable faces for actual jokes. Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse cameo together in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, which is wonderful in theory, except that they serve literally no function. They could be replaced with any other cartoon characters and the scene would play out exactly the same way. So what’s the point?
Wouldn’t it be funny if Bugs Bunny was a rival of Roger Rabbit’s? Maybe Roger is always aspiring to be like Bugs, but he can’t because he’s so doofy and off-putting? Is there any hierarchy in Toon Town? It’d be amusing if the Disney characters were all treated like royalty, and the other toons all envied them. As it is, there’s no differentiation between the Looney Tunes and the Mouse House and all the rest. These are properties that have decades of familiarity, and they bring none of that baggage. The personalities we’ve grown to know and love over the years are barely present. And in my estimation, Roger Rabbit is no substitute.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit is clearly not my cup of carrot juice. I don’t particularly judge anyone who finds the movie whimsical or delightful — I just experience none of that while watching it. To me, the film’s major flaw is in its uninspired screenplay (written by the duo that brought us such other gems as the misbegotten and forgotten Will Smith vehicle Wild Wild West and How The Grinch Stole Christmas with Jim Carrey. I find the writing in Who Framed Roger Rabbit exactly on par with those titles. I also don’t see much to set it apart from other live-action meets animation titles like Cool World and Space Jam, although the special effects are probably better. (I haven’t revisited those, either.)
So far on the podcast, I’ve found value in everything we’ve revisited. Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill isn’t really my jam, but I appreciated its originality and the craft that went into it. In a way, it was refreshing to find something that I just didn’t like at all. But since picking on a beloved family film from the 80s just makes one sound like a grump, I suppose I’ll leave it at that.