By: Alex Masse, Peak Associate
I don’t think it’s controversial these days to say that many people dislike CGI live-action adaptations of existing materials. People mocked The Lion King for being boring, Sonic the Hedgehog for being ugly, and Cats for being Cats. Detective Pikachu had a warmer reception, but it still took a while for fans to grow fond of their fantastical friends reimagined in live-action.
What if I told you that, 32 years ago, there was a movie that blended live-action and animation effortlessly in a spectacle of visual and practical effects? What if I told you this film also came out during Disney’s “Dark Age,” and alongside The Little Mermaid, may have saved the company? What if I told you it also slipped in an anti-gentrification message?
It’s called Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and you could say I’m a fan.
For starters, Who Framed Roger Rabbit is a visual marvel. It uses a mix of classic animation, puppetry, animatronics, and more to create a world where cartoons interact with live action effortlessly. While cartoon and live action had been integrated before, Who Framed Roger Rabbit did it on unheard of levels of intricacy, setting a golden standard. In fact, the creators often challenged themselves, such as in one scene where they animated Roger under a swinging light source, which led to more work on shadows and lighting angles. Even today, “bumping the lamp” is a common term for when a creator goes above and beyond for the sake of their art. It’s no wonder that this film was the second highest grossing of 1988.
This movie also came at a very important time. The 1970s and 1980s were Disney’s “Dark Age,” following the death of Walt Disney himself. While many credit The Little Mermaid with bringing Disney back, Who Framed Roger Rabbit more or less kickstarted the phenomenon, with some help from Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment.
The Roger Rabbit franchise as a whole is pretty underrated. It’s often pushed aside for its more mature themes and was even released under Touchstone Pictures, a label owned by Disney for their more adult media, instead of Disney itself. The titular cartoon bunny persists in theme parks only in Mickey’s Toontown in Anaheim, namely as a dark ride, Roger Rabbit’s Car Toon Spin. There’s no merchandise, and the walkaround character doesn’t appear often. This may be in part due to Roger Rabbit’s unique legal status — as the film was a collaboration with Spielberg’s film company, every character is owned by both groups, and using Roger in merchandise is a legal headache.
But one of the aspects of those mature themes is the film’s anti-gentrification stance. Without spoiling too much, much of the conflict comes from the legal limbo of “Toontown,” a space where Toons — as in cartoon characters, who are minorities in this universe — live. When Toontown’s previous owner dies, it’s a question of who will inherit it. Cloverleaf Industries, a mysterious company that bought out LA’s public transit, shows interest in also buying out Toontown, so it can be razed and more or less gentrified, and takes advantage of Toons’ reputation as second-class citizens to try getting away with this. It’s a phenomenon still seen plenty today, especially here in Vancouver.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit isn’t perfect (I still cringe at the weirdly racist cartoon bullet scene, and some of the lines of womanizer Toon Baby Herman haven’t aged well) but it’s a must for anyone even vaguely interested in animation or visual effects. There’s a whole documentary about the lengths taken to make it look as realistic as possible. If none of that interests you, then you should still watch it — because where else in canon media are you going to see Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse have a conversation?