After 25 years, "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" still remains one of the boldest and most exciting achievements in animation history. It paved the way for the second Disney renaissance, launched a year later with "The Little Mermaid, "proving that 'toons could be hip again theatrically, that they weren't just for kids,and that hand-drawn 2D could hold its own dramatically -- and culturally -- with live-action.
Indeed, the project was in development hell until the Michael Eisner/Jeffrey Katzenberg regime came to Disney to shake things up with the help of exec producer Steven Spielberg and director Bob Zemeckis, fresh from "Back to the Future."
And Thursday night's love fest at the Academy (featuring a dazzling digital presentation, which is also available on a new must-own Blu-ray/DVD combo set from Disney) merely reinforced a hunger for the return of 2D. "Plplplllease!"
It might've been exhausting for director Zemeckis to revisit "Roger Rabbit" on the big screen, but for the rest of us the wild ride through LA and Toon Town again circa 1947 was zany fun and pure joy. It was always "Chinatown" meets Tex Avery and the two biggest laughs are still Jessica Rabbit's zinger, "I'm not bad -- I'm just drawn that way," and Bob Hoskins' remark about not needing a car in LA when you've got public transportation.
But the informative Q&A afterward (hosted fittingly enough by "Wreck-It Ralph"director Rich Moore) reaffirmed what an amazing experiment "Roger Rabbit" was. Remember, this was pre-digital and before CG. They broke all the rules and got away with murder -- this was no "Mary Poppins" or "Pete's Dragon": it was a revolutionary hybrid in which they somehow forced the animation and effects from ILM to seamlessly co-exist with the live-action.The camera wasn't locked down and so they were forced to animated on 1s and it was a compositing nightmare. Fortunately, they had the first silent VistaVision cameras at their disposal (if belatedly) and they utilized every trick available, including puppetry as stand-ins.They even had mime consultants to enhance the believability of Hoskins grabbing Roger.
While the animation crew performed miracles in London, a mixture of animators from Richard Williams' studio and Disney, back in Burbank Disney crammed Toon Town with every iconic Disney and Warner Bros. character imaginable. And without Spielberg's mighty power of persuasion, they never would've wrangled all those animated staples outside of Disney so we could enjoy Betty Boop, the dueling ducks, Donald and Daffy, and Mickey and Bugs together for the first time, among other delights.
Yet listening to Zemeckis and members of the cast and crew (actress Joanna Cassidy, voice actor Charles Fleischer, supervising animator Andreas Deja, screenwriters Jeffrey Price, Peter S. Seaman, and associate producers Don Hahn and Steve Starkey), what made "Roger Rabbit" ultimately work was the charismatic presence of character actor Hoskins. He made you believe the 'toons were real in this alternate world filled with racism, segregation, and self-loathing. The closeted Judge Doom (Christopher Lloyd) is a brilliant conceit. But the 'toons' ability to make us laugh is "Roger Rabbit's" greatest gift.
Although Zemeckis wanted a star, Katzenberg insisted that the 'toons were the real stars and that it was better to have an unknown without any pre-associated baggage. As the director noted, Hopkins looked like he belonged in that era and in those gumshoe clothes. Meanwhile, Roger and Jessica hold their own (voiced by Fleischer and Kathleen Turner). However, Williams put off designing Roger for six months until he finally sprung full-blown onto a legal pad. But because Roger was an original, they needed to economically convey a personality and back story.That's where the opening cartoon-within-the-movie came in. According to Price & Seaman, it was always in the script, and the animators made it come to life as a prologue that stands alone for its wacky achievement.
"Who Framed Roger Rabbit" spawned a revival yet remains a glorious reminder of what is possible and necessary to keep animation exciting and adventurous.
Above, Last night at the Academy: (L to R) Leslie Harter Zemeckis and director Robert Zemeckis, actress Joanna Cassidy, voice actor Charles Fleischer and Amy Ambrose. Photos credit: Matt Petit / ©A.M.P.A.S.