80s Movie Challenge Week 16: Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)

Welcome back 80s Loving Chums! This week Chris Lupton looks back at what was, at the time (and to some extent, still is), a marvel of technical achievement – it’s 1988’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit!

“Pfft. Toons,” and with one line of dialogue, we’re setting up one of the key themes for this fantastic 1984 classic, Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Starring the late and great Bob Hoskins, Christopher Lloyd, Kathleen Turner the vocal delights of Charles Fleischer, Who Framed Roger Rabbit transports us to Los Angeles, 1947 – the great age of Tinseltown; however, things are quite different here.

In a pastiche of the golden age of cinema, Tinseltown is now Toontown, and rather than the familiar acting chops of Cary Grant or Katherine Hepburn gracing the billboards; Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Bugs Bunny and friends are front and centre stage. Entertaining with the rules of toons (coined, 2020) in a world of humans, this twist on history paves the scene for a fantastic opportunity in both storytelling and film-making.

I’ll not be focusing too much on the plot in this review, but to bring you up to speed (and without spoiling it just in case you’re one of the few that’s never seen this classic); Toonphobic Eddy Valiant, PI (Hoskins), is drawn into a case of framed murder after Roger Rabbit, star of the painted screen, is framed for the murder of the human proprietor of the ACME company (yes, A Company That Makes Everything – one to remember pub quiz fans).

Conceptually taking on the mantle of a 1940s thriller, this clever fusion of cartoon and human worlds allows the film to start treading parody waters – with exceptionally hilarious results.

A huge part of the film is that it captures the essence and culture of 1940’s Tinseltown in its oft hilarious and parodying format. Innuendos are chockful, and not even remotely on the nose here, satirising all the misogyny and corruption of 40’s LA, whilst varnishing it with a family-friendly veneer in a clever twist that dances the line between ‘Quickly, cover the kids’ ears’, and ‘Our kids aren’t sharp enough to pick up on that, so we’ll let it slide’.

Whilst we’re covering the topic of suitability for family viewing, it’s harmless enough. For as long as it dances the lines between cautious and clever, it does keep the pace moving remarkably well enough to not let viewers linger long enough on the connotations. I’m potentially comparing it against less innocent times here (today’s pampered day and age for example), where children aren’t exposed as much to such levels of innuendo on the big screen, but from a perspective of reflecting on it against modern society, it doesn’t age well.

The gem of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? though lies with a deeper look into the technical wizardry behind the scenes. The magic of the movie itself, the fact it was produced in 1988 is a marvel as to the seamless integrations of practical and traditional cartoon animation practises.

Countless times throughout viewing, I caught myself trying to figure out the mastery of this black magic; Where are the fish wires? Was that moved around on a gurney? Slapstick comedy at breakneck speed, fusing together hand-drawn animation and live acting in a seamless blur.

Personally speaking, the true magic clicked for myself around the halfway mark when I realised it wasn’t just the practical effects that made a difference but was, in fact, the dynamic range of its live-action cast members.

The way Hoskins, Lloyd and the rest of the cast interact with nothing but thin air in a time when this type of cinematography was incredibly rare and definitely not mainstream is fantastically portrayed. We’re not talking glances to invisible characters here either, we’re talking full-on, physical acting. There are moments (for example, Eddy Valiant riding through the streets of LA in Benny the cartoon cab whilst simultaneously dealing with ever effervescent Roger Rabbit in the passenger seat) that just feels natural and completely immersive.

Its legacy is one often remembered fondly by people from a certain generation who grew up in the golden age of Disney. Not only was it a huge commercial success ($329.8m), but Who Framed Roger Rabbit? paved the way for many other films of this hybrid cinema format. (Space Jam (1996), Looney Toons: Back in Action (2003) to name but a few).

If you’ve never seen this film, I’d sincerely suggest you get yourself a copy immediately and crack it on to quash the lockdown blues. Even then, if it’s something you’ve seen but not in a long time, stick it on. You’ll be amazed as to how different your memory’s painted picture stands in comparison to the actual experience.

As for Who Framed Roger Rabbit? That’d be telling.

We’ll be back next Friday as Jane Roberts looks back at another classic teen drama, so don’t you forget about us! That’s right, it’s 1985’s The Breakfast Club!

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