Director: Robert Zemeckis | 100 minutes | comedy, animation, fantasy, crime | Actors: Bob Hoskins, Christopher Lloyd, Charles Fleischer, Joanna Cassidy, Stubby Kaye, Alan Tilvern, Richard LeParmentier, Lou Hirsch, Joel Silver, Richard Ridings, Morgan Deare, April Winchell, Mae Questel, Mel Blanc, Tony Anselmo, Joe Alaskey, David L. Lander, Russi Taylor, Richard Williams, Wayne Allwine, Tony Pope, Peter Westy, Cherry Davis, Amy Irving, Kathleen Turner
Whoever thought that “The Lord of the Rings” was the first film in which real actors act convincingly with virtual actors is wrong. It was also not the first time that a real actor played the role of a virtual character on set. It all happened before in Robert Zemecki’s seminal movie Who Framed Roger Rabbit. The 1988 film inimitably integrates cartoon characters into a live-action film.
The film starts as a typical Warner Brothers cartoon, where Roger Rabbit has to look after a baby and everything goes wrong. Then he gets a refrigerator upside down and he sees birds. It is called out and cut and we see a film set with a director of flesh and blood who goes mad at Roger to tell him to see stars instead of birds. The baby suddenly appears to have an adult voice and to smoke cigars. He walks away angrily, stating that this was already the umpteenth take. Aside from the cartoon itself, which is already a small tour de force, the transition to the real world is wonderful and sets the tone for the rest of the movie.
The title character has become a mixture of famous cartoon characters: Roger has Bugs Bunny’s cheeks, Mickey Mouse’s yellow gloves, Goofy’s pants and Porky Pig’s bow tie. He also has a slight speech impediment, because according to Zemeckis the most memorable cartoon characters have a special voice. Roger’s voice (Charles Fleischer), jokes and mannerisms are unfortunately not always amusing or effective. He does not compare to the big cartoon stars in terms of personality. Fortunately, there aren’t many bad moments and Roger’s character generally works fine.
The interesting thing comes mainly from the sublime animation and the interaction with the real actors, in this case especially Bob Hoskins. Because of Hoskins’ inspired performance and the excellently choreographed and composed scenes, it often makes little difference what the scene is about: it is simply a pleasure to watch this spectacle. Zemeckis shot the film in a normal way, without making any concessions. Before that, there was a rule that you should never move the camera with animations, probably because this would make the work of the animators a lot more difficult. Zemeckis broke with this rule. He wanted to be able to turn everything in any direction, just like in a live-action movie. Other techniques, such as lighting, also have the same effect on the animations as on the actual objects and actors. This increases the realism of the movie. You have the feeling that you are watching a conventional movie that happens to contain animated characters.
The film is essentially a classic film noir, with appropriate lighting, music and of course substantive elements such as crime intrigues and the obligatory femme fatale. This role is played here by Roger’s wife Jessica Rabbit, who is suspected of being an accessory to a criminal plot. Jessica was meant to be a bridge between the real world and the animation world and therefore should not be too cartoony or too realistic, but something in between. She has become an (enlarged) combination of various Hollywood stars from the 1940s. Her first appearance in the film, in a nightclub, is impressive. She moves around the stage dancing and singing in a sultry way and has physical contact with some (real) gentlemen from the audience, with her body with an unbelievably thin waist and large bosom wrapped in a spectacular glittery dress. All this to the accompaniment of atmospheric jazz music, played by animated ravens. In terms of effects, she was the most complex character, with separate required elements for her shadow, hair, skin and dress. Her (speaking) voice, seductive and mysterious, is provided by actress Kathleen Turner and fits her femme fatale persona perfectly.
The real actors are just as important to the movie’s persuasiveness. Hoskins takes such a serious approach to his role that we believe the cartoon characters have been part of his world all his life. As a viewer, we are transported faster into his world and the film does not exist purely as a fun gimmick. We really want to know why Hoskins went to drink and what happened to his brother. The film’s villain is shaped by Christopher Lloyd, who is cut out for the role. The story itself is rather thin and little special, but we do care about the characters and it does the job as a backbone for the entertaining individual scenes.
Even now that we are so used to digital creation, the film is still an astonishing spectacle. Perhaps this is precisely due to the type of animation: the traditional cartoon figure. The literally and figuratively very colorful characters from the cartoon seem by definition to collide with a straightforward, reserved human world, where certain natural laws also apply that the cartoon figure does not care about. It is precisely because people have remained faithful to the traditional cartoon style and the animation is not too three-dimensional, the success of the combination of cartoon characters and real people is so admirable.