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.