'80s Movie Month: "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" Review

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A toon hating detective is a cartoon rabbit's only hope to prove his innocence when he is accused of murder.
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'80s Movie Month: "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" Review

Rating: PG (language, cartoon violence, sexual content)
Length: 104 minutes
Release Date: June 22, 1988
Directed by: Robert Zemeckis
Genre: Animation/Comedy/Crime

Investors had high hopes for 1988's "Who Framed Roger Rabbit," which had a budget of $70 million. The film exceeded expectations, grossing nearly $330 million. Considered a risky venture, the film combines elements from multiple genres and feature an ambitious visual style. More than twenty-five years after its release, the movie stands as a high point for combining live-action film and animated elements, and most expect it to stand alone as a top example of bringing animated characters into the real world and vice versa.

At its core, "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" is a neo-noir film. While it takes some playful pokes at the film noir movement, it is generally considered to be a successful pastiche. After an opening scene showing the typical working day of a cartoon character, the crime elements enter quickly. With working titles that included "Murder in Toontown" and "Dead Toons Don't Pay Bills," the film was conceptualized as being rather dark from the start, and adultery and murder quickly enter the picture. Toon-hating detective Eddie Valiant is reluctant pulled into the action and finds himself having to work with a well-known, and thoroughly grating, animated character named Roger Rabbit.

As the story moves into Toon Town, the zaniness of the opening segment returns. Toon Town, a fully fleshed-out town in which cartoon characters live, play, and work, serves to delight children, who love its exciting action and colorful characters, as well as adults, who appreciate the attention to detail. Set in the 1940s, the film stay true to its time, and Toon Town reflects what a city might look like during that period.

As the plot continues, Judge Doom, portrayed by Christopher Lloyd, plays a growing role in the plot. Even more anti-toon than Eddie Valiant, he unveils a method of killing the otherwise immortal inhabitants of Toon Town. As a result of his political power, his threat to Toon Town looms large over the film. The death of Marvin Acme also creates one of the film's primary conflicts. Acme's will states that Toon Town's residents will own the land when he dies, but the document goes missing. Should it not be recovered by midnight, Cloverleaf Industries will take over.

Judge Doom, who owns Cloverleaf Industries, plans to destroy the town when he takes over. After capturing Eddie, Roger, and Jessica Rabbit, Doom reveals his plan, setting the stage for the film's showdown. After being run over as a steamroller, Doom reveals that he is a toon himself, making him a virtually immortal and thoroughly frightening enemy.

One of the strengths of "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" is its novelty. In multiple scenes, characters from both Disney and Warner Brothers are seen in the same frame. Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny meet for the first and only time, and Daffy Duck and Donald Duck share a memorable exchange. The mingling of the giants of animation helps the film appeal to fans of both franchises, and the seamless animation remains strong today.

The film also features top-notch original characters. Bob Hoskins' portrayal of Valiant is widely considered to be one of his best roles, and he serves as a high point for film noir pastiche. Perhaps most memorable of all is Judge Doom. While Lloyd is typically known for playing protagonists, his portrayal of Doom, combined with some truly frightening animation, makes his character scary for both kids and adults. His descent into toon form serves as one of the most memorable elements of the film.

Upon release, "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" was hailed as a landmark in animation. While cartoon and live-action meshes weren't new, they had not been attempted on the scale of a $70 million film before. The combination is seamless; the film stands as the best example of mixing the two media, and other attempts to imitate its style, such as "Space Jam," fail to capture its magic. With 3-D animated films now dominating the family-friendly market, few believe that another attempt will be made to duplicate its style unless a sequel is attempted in the future.

While the visual elements and the novelty of its characters are undoubtedly part of why the film remains popular, "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" is a solid film with a memorable plot, strong dialogue, and a dark mood that contrasts well with the bright and upbeat animation. While some of its elements might be a bit frightening for children, it remains a great option for families looking for a break from CGI family films and adults who are fans of traditional animation. The film also rewards repeat viewers with its subtle details and top-notch classic animation.

Rating: 3 out of 5