Throwback Zone: “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” (1988) Throwback Zone: “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” (1988)
"As fresh and inventive as it was when it first came out, "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" is a timeless example of immense artistry, good... Throwback Zone: “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” (1988)

Animation truly belongs to the 20th century. Pioneered by Walter Elias Disney with the release of “Steam Boat Willie” in 1928, the frame was set for a new kind of innovative filmmaking. Yet, as the years went by, quantity seemed to outgrow the quality. Today, cartoons are generally considered junk-food for kids. Something to keep them busy while mom and dad are working. A form of distraction, where a cereal bowl and a glowing TV screen can captivate the low-minded for hours. However, there are those who believe that the fine arts of hand-drawn magic is just as sophisticated and enlightening as any other form of cinema. Actually, there was a time when animation was dried up and doomed to die. Back in the mid-1980s, studios were failing to reach critical and commercial success with their properties. Even Disney was slowly fading away! But in 1988, something happened. A movie came out and did the unthinkable. It not only re-ignited the global interest in the medium of animation, it also re-enforced the idea that there was something more to life in technicolor. Something for kids and adults alike. That movie was “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”.

The year is 1947, and we find ourselves in a world where toons and humans live side by side in a close working relationship, making motion pictures. In fact, the drawings inhabit their own place known simply as Toon Town. Roger Rabbit is the star of it all, but when he is framed for the murder of a human executive, a private detective is brought in to investigate the case, and clear Roger from all charges. However, not everything is what it appears to be, and soon chaos ensues. Who is pulling the strings?

A lot of people seem to have forgotten just how crucial this film was at the time of its release. Animation as a serious art form was dead water, and had this crossover not been around to remind us of the significance of the animated world, we wouldn’t have gotten the following resurgence of the industry. Whether we’re talking about the Disney renaissance or the rise of Pixar and DreamWorks, they all owe their existence to Robert Zemeckis and his crew of revolutionary magicians. After all, there is a reason it reeled in an astounding 4 academy awards for its achievement in editing, sound, and quite obviously its visual effects.

Sure enough, the technical feat of combining live-action photography with cel animation had been done before with movies like “Marry Poppins” and “Song of the South”. However, these previous attempts at creating realistic overlay were nowhere near as accomplished as in ‘Roger Rabbit’. The characters were always clearly inserted into the frame, like a cutout plastered onto a canvas, and the flow between cartoons and real-life actors never felt fully convincing. What made this one so much more effective was a technique known optical compositing, which allowed animators to re-compose already shot footage. Since digital processing was still in its early infancy, everything had to be done by the traditional measures of cel manipulation. Lay-out artists would get black/white prints of scenes from the film, to then apply their celluloid paper on top, which made it possible for the animators to create the illusion of movement within the frame. Then, in order to make the animation as smooth and seamless as possible, all 24 frames of film would be 100 % animated. Traditionally, only every other frame was utilised, mainly because it was cheaper. But by doubling the amount, the toons would be able to go toe to toe with their real counterparts, thus creating a brighter and more realistic look. Even the opening sequence, which serves as a classic 2D short film in the veins of “Tom & Jerry”, is absolute eye-candy for the visual senses. Impressive, isn’t it?

My fascination with the enormous craftsmanship is hard to explain. There is something exquisite about the expressive colour palette, and the way it invigorates and empowers every moment that these loveable loonies are on screen. The joy of seeing all your favorite childhood heroes united in one motion picture, and in such pristine condition, is an experience unlike any other. The best part about it, though, is that this movie is just as much – if not more – for adults. I mean, the screenplay is basically a neo-noir crime thriller. I think writers Jeffrey Price and Peter S. Seaman really understood that this project was too big and important to let it go to waste on fart jokes. Now, that doesn’t mean it’s devoid of fun, trust me. There are plenty of silly gags and hilarious slapstick humor to keep the younger audience satisfied. But for the first time in history, adults can also walk into an animated picture and be immersed, excited and invested in what’s going on. It makes for a more universal piece of cinema, and I believe that is the true triumph of “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”. It’s one of those films that never seem to age, no matter how much time tries to wear it out. It still stands as strong as it did back then, and to me, that is the defining trait of a timeless, classic cinema masterpiece.

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Mathias Folsted Film/Music/TV critic, columnist, and news-writer

An aspiring filmmaker, film critic and YouTuber. Previous experience include extensive work for the largest danish film site, www.filmz.dk, where I served as junior editor, film critic, columnist, and news writer. Also a graduate from the European Film College, I've been a lover of motion pictures for as long as I can remember. My criticism is always honest, but above all emotional.

  • RJD

    the great dae strikes again. i love this film and i love bob. i miss ya !

  • ErnestRister

    “for the first time in history, adults can also walk into an animated picture and be immersed, excited and invested in what’s going on.”

    Them’s fightin’ words.

  • Slothiplicity

    Easily my favorite Disney film.

  • Mathias

    Let’s face it. Up until that point, adults liked watching those types of movies with their kids. This is a film they can re-watch AND cherish all by themselves. It also made the older Disney films much more appealing to grown-ups. Something about it just changed something in people. At least all the people I’ve been talking to.

  • I_am_better

    I love this movie

  • binky tyreminkee

    This film fits the definition of a ‘timeless classic’ because it really hasn’t lost a thing since the first time I saw it, all those years ago. It’s a ‘once a year’ for me.

  • ErnestRister

    Mathias, when George Duning’s Yellow Submarine was named Best Picture by the NY Circle of Film Critics, it wasn’t because adults liked watching it with their children. Walt Disney didn’t pioneer animation with Steamboat Willie, he had produced and directed over 100 animated films before that, and animation had thrilled adult audiences going all the way back to the vaudeville screenings of Gertie the Dinosaur in 1914. Walt was in competition with other animation pioneers, chiefly the Fleischer Bros., and Universal. There were a whole lot of people in the animation game, it was the competition that drove Walt to innovate (“We’re going to kill them with quality.” Walt said, during the scoring sessions for “Steamboat Willie”)

    When 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs became the highest grossing film of all time, Walt Disney was attacked in press editorials for frightening children, and he had to respond that he didn’t make the film for children, and that he didn’t make any of his films for children. In fact, if you go and read the original notices for the film written by film critics (not the social critics, who attacked it because the witch made their little angels cry), the film critics hardly mentioned children at all, remarking instead that the film caused ADULTS to weep and cheer.

    The success of Snow White allowed Walt to make animated features that were (to this day, I’d argue) too intense and frightening for young children — notably Pinocchio and Bambi — or too sophisticated for children, such as Fantasia, Victory Through Air Power, and The Three Caballeros. The gang at Warners and Universal sure didn’t dumb their stuff down for kids — they were trying to make themselves laugh first and foremost. I could go on and on.

    Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemekis knew all this, and they approached Roger Rabbit as a love letter to the days in the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s when adults had just as much fun with animated films — or more — than children. It was that spunk and attitude that appealed to teenage males, who had become the largest demographic in American cinema, reminding them of the films they had grown up with, from the decades when animation had balls, verve, and terrific artwork and production values. It was not the first time in history that adults liked to watch an animated film without their kids. Far, far, far from it. It may have been the first time a 1988 teenager went to see an animated feature without his parents and had a blast (Spielberg’s involvement was a big draw), but not the first time in history adults had enjoyed an animated film without their children.

  • ErnestRister

    Funny story…when Walt was looking for a distribution agreement to produce the Mickey Mouse series, Walt screened a Mickey short for Louis B. Mayer, who stood up after the screening saying they couldn’t release a film with a mouse as a leading character, because the appearance of a mouse on screen would cause pregnant women to spontaneously miscarry.

  • Mathias

    See, I’d still argue that animation was meant for children at its core. I’m not saying that cartoons weren’t taken seriously in the beginning, because they were. But the more we got, the more the medium also seemed to lose its meaning to those who initially saw it as art like any other form of cinema. “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” changed that. Without it, the animation landscape would not have been the same today. At least, I don’t think so.

  • ErnestRister

    About ten years ago, I’d have to be sedated if someone told me animation was meant for children at its core, and that the more animation that was produced over the decades, the more the medium seemed to lose its meaning to those who saw it as an form like any other.

    I’m more zen these days.

    Just going to say the medium is much bigger than Walt Disney, and when Walt died and the studio seemed to lose its mojo and even came close to shutting down the animation division, the medium grew different roots and went in new areas. If Roger Rabbit had never been released, guess what was in production at the time? The Little Mermaid. Meanwhile, Studio Ghibli released both Grave of the Fireflies and My Neighbor Totoro, Akira came out the same year as Roger Rabbit, there had been some interesting films from British animators, the CAPS system was in development, a little studio called Pixar hired a young man named John Lasseter, The Simpsons appeared as shorts on the Tracy Ulmman show…

    Jeffrey Katzenberg needed to bring teenagers to animation, and with Spielberg and Zemeckis on board, he produced a breakout hit that yes, gave young people new interest in animation. But the medium would have survived without it, and was already moving towards a second Golden Age. Roger Rabbit was like an annoucnement that it had arrived.

  • Dee

    Okay, I ask… who is dae?

  • ErnestRister

    I think he means “The Great Dane”. 🙂

  • Dee

    Lol, yeah that makes sense.

  • RJD

    Dane. Typeo

    The great dane

  • Dee

    Ok, cool. I thought there is a Korean version of me around.

  • RJD

    I got that one

  • S_D_M_F

    Even better than if Frankie Smales had written it himself! Seriously, though; great article.