Why do people automatically think “kids’ movie” if cartoons are involved? Who Framed Roger Rabbit has way more appeal for grownups than it does for tykes, and I’m not entirely sure this hard-boiled tale of sex, murder, and — ahem — graphic animation is suitable for young eyes. Though those qualities are exactly what has made it a cult classic among movie fans.
Private dick Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins: Don Quixote, Michael) is your standard-issue film-noir tough guy. Grief over the death of his partner and brother, Teddy, has driven him to drink, and his girlfriend, Dolores (Joanna Cassidy: Dangerous Beauty), is getting a little tired of waiting around for him to shape up. Valiant’s business is going down the tubes, too, propped up by loans Dolores finances from the till at the bar where she works. But along comes a plum assignment from movie studio mogul R.K. Maroon (Alan Tilvern) — seems one of Maroon’s stars is distracted in his work by the thought of his wife messing around with Hollywood bigshot Marvin Acme (Stubby Kaye). So Maroon hires Valiant to take incriminating photos of the dame, with an aim toward disillusioning the star and getting him to focus on his work.
But in this fantasy postwar Hollywood, toons are people too. Bugs Bunny, Dumbo the Elephant, and their ilk are real: They shoot movies on sets, have sordid affairs, and generally live the high life, just like human movie stars. Maroon’s star is the stuttering, disaster-prone Roger Rabbit (the voice of Charles Fleischer); Roger’s wife is the physically impossible bombshell Jessica (the voice of Kathleen Turner: The Virgin Suicides). Acme is human enough, but he’s “the guy who owns Toontown,” the gadget and gizmo king who supplies all the props to toon productions (Wily E. Coyote favors Acme’s products, you may have noticed).
The thing is, Eddie Valiant hates toons. But when Roger is set up for a murder in Toontown, Valiant and Roger team up — reluctantly, natch — to discover the real killer, and end up uncovering a nefarious plot that involves a missing will that could be vital to the well-being of all toons, a scheme to subvert Los Angeles’ public transportation system (“the best in the world,” hee hee), and a way to bring down the evil human Judge Doom (Christopher Lloyd: My Favorite Martian, Anastasia), who has ensured that no toon can get justice in Toontown.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit gets some thematic weight from obvious but well-handled parallels with racism in the way that toons are treated by humans, Judge Doom’s contempt for them (however ironic in retrospect) and the fact that toons are segregated into the ghetto of Toontown being the greatest examples. The “toon revue” at the Ink & Paint Club, which serves a strictly human clientele, has the same disturbing overtone that all-white clubs featuring black performers, prevalent not too long ago, had: These second-class citizens are good enough to entertain their “superiors” but not good enough to be treated as equals. To its credit, the movie doesn’t try to resolve this impossibly large issue, but just deals with it as part of the realistically complicated world it creates.
Director Robert Zemeckis, who went on to do spectacular things with special effects in Contact and Forrest Gump, combined live action and animation in Roger Rabbit in a way that had never been done before and still hasn’t been equaled (The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle is nowhere near as innovative). Endless inventive, this wonderfully clever film offers a brilliant pastiche of Looney Toons in “Somethin’s Cookin’,” the Maroon Cartoons short Roger and his costar Baby Herman (the voice of Lou Hirsch) are shooting as the movie opens; cameos by famous toons, like the piano duel between Donald Duck and Daffy Duck, which allowed toons from two studios who’d never meet in the “real” screen history we know to butt heads; and an incredible attention to detail, both visual and in dialogue, that makes this alternate Hollywood utterly believable. When Eddie orders a drink at the Ink & Paint Club “on the rocks,” he has to remind the toon penguin waiter that he means “ice.” But my favorite example — which, mentioned briefly only twice in the film, is easy to miss — is that the currency of Toontown is the “simoleon.” (He’s not a toon, but he plays one in Hollywood: Watch for schlock producer Joel Silver in a bit part as toon director Raoul J. Raoul.)
Who Framed Roger Rabbit is one of my favorite films. I’m reminded of it all the time, whenever I see one of those new Volkswagen Beetles — I can’t help but wonder if they were inspired by Benny the Cab, the toon car that gets Eddie and Roger out of more than one jam. That’d be a pretty cool legacy for a movie that features a game of pattycake as an essential plot point.