Certain films from my childhood only hold up because of that thing we call “nostalgia”…and this is definitely not one of them. Such a pioneer in terms of animation and well, mostly animation. A wonderfully funny and well acted noir film, this really caters to all ages and is a joy to watch repeatedly. The thing I am curious about is why this method/style of storytelling never caught on or was widely repeated – probably just too expensive I’d bet. However that makes this all the more special as it has neither worthy (key word there) imitators or successors.
In what was coined “Toon Noir” for this movie, Roger Rabbit successfully blended the feel of Chinatown (very inspirational to this film’s scriptwriters) with the fun of an animated film. Aside from Roger’s antics and the appearance of famous cartoon characters (from Warner Brothers and Disney), this had a pretty adult story. Blackmail, murder, intrigue – it’s a detective story through and through. Even playing on some historical-based elements like eliminating efficient mass transit with the freeways (so to ultimately increase automobile and gasoline consumption) dealt with a plot larger than the characters involved…again, very Chinatown.
I’ve long believed the some of the best American actors aren’t even American. Case in point: Bob Hoskins. The burly Brit seen playing Detective Eddie Valiant had such a convincing accent that I didn’t know until later in my life that he’s really a cockney talking well-trained British actor. If Roger Rabbit was the “happy-go-lucky” end of the movie, Eddie Valiant was opposite end of that spectrum. The sophistication he brought here seemed as if he channeled Jack Nicholson for most of the shoot. He brought gravity to the film which is exactly what it needed to balance out the “toon” element. Other than Hoskins, everyone else just paled in comparison, even the titular Roger (who seems a tad annoying now that I’m older).
Everyone on this picture (specifically the art/production crew and the writers) really recreated a cohesive world of 30’s not just a shallow facade. For instance, in Eddie’s office (with a door seemingly taken straight from Sam Spade’s office) Eddie hangs his hat on the actual Maltese Falcon. Also, very often, lines of dialog were comprised from song lyrics or reworked phases that people of the time would have listened to or said. Everything in focus looked vintage and period specific which all aided in the illusion. Alan Silvestri, who scores all Robert Zemeckis films, gives every moment in his movies a larger than life feel (I guess that happens with a 110 piece orchestra). The score here ties everything together and his music gives a very nostalgic feel to the already spot-on recreations of the dress and vehicles of the 30’s.
While not the first of its kind (animated characters interacting with live actors has been done before) the level of detail herein was some of the finest ever created until then or since. Each “toon” received 5 layers of treatment which resulted in such a rich three-dimensional quality that helped sell the magic of the film. In the first three minutes of the movie (which really embodied the premise of the film), going from a cartoon to set where it was being shot effectively erased the line between the “toon” world and the real world. Combined with the props and effects (even Charles Fleischer showing up for shoots each day dressed as Roger), the “toons” were actively inserted in all portions of the film. Also the animation was done at 24 fps (that’s 24 cartoon sketches for ever 1 second of film). So tons, and I mean tons of ink, paint and paper were used to give the characters life and (very nearly) breath. It was crowd-pleasingly gorgeous!
Where as this could have been a kid friendly movie with singing and dancing to take the attention away from a simple plot, this is quite a complex piece of work. Without Roger Rabbit (and the cartoon elements), this could have been a compelling Chinatown-esqe film. However it probably would have been viewed as nothing more than a copycat. Including the “toon” plot device worked sensationally as it allowed the film to have lots of fun which ultimately made this a film for all ages.
As far as my tastes go, I like this better than Chinatown (please forward all hate mail to my place of business and not my personal residence, thanks) but for different reasons. Mainly, because I like happy endings and am a sucker for memorable cartoons. Excuse the pun, but Steven Speilberg “pulled a rabbit out of a hat” and this remains a both fascinatingly original and a classic because of its uniqueness. BTW, I am so not looking forward to this sequel that’s in development…just wanted to get that out in the open.