By Oliver Lyttelton | www.oliverlyttelton.com March 14, 2013 at 1:05PM
Late last year, Disney released CGI animation "Wreck-It Ralph," and thanks to its wide selection of cameos from videogame legends, barely a review passed without comparison to another Disney film from the past -- 1988's "Who Framed Roger Rabbit," which included dozens of brief appearances from classic cartoon characters. Sadly, for all of the charms of "Wreck-It Ralph," the comparison didn't do it many favors. On Blu-Ray this week, ahead of its 25th anniversary later in the year, Robert Zemeckis' 'Roger Rabbit' is a loving, beautifully crafted and inventive picture that's barely aged a day since its release.
Long in development, and featuring the might of Disney, producer Steven Spielberg and director Zemeckis (at that time white-hot off the success of "Back To The Future") the family-friendly film noir is set in a 1940s L.A. where cartoons are real and have their own Hollywood suburb called Toontown. Roger Rabbit (Charles Fleischer) is a big studio star, but is troubled by rumors that his wife Jessica (Kathleen Turner) is having an affair. Studio boss R.K. Maroon (Alan Tilvern) hires toon-hating P.I. Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins) to keep an eye on Mrs. Rabbit, but it all ends with murder, and Valiant and Roger are reluctantly forced to team up to take on a conspiracy that threatens the very existence of Toontown.
Mixing traditional animation with some state-of-the-art (at that time) techniques, the film is still a visual marvel, but also has a sterling, smart script, as much for noir fans as animation buffs. So to help celebrate the film's high-def release, the 80th birthday of animation director Richard Williams next week, and the 25th anniversary of the film's release on June 22nd, we've rounded up a few things you might not be aware of about Zemeckis' classic. Read on below.
25 years on, it's widely forgotten that "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" (and it should be noted that the film doesn't have a question mark in the title: Hollywood lore is that it's the kiss of death for a movie to have one) wasn't an original screenplay, but was actually based on literary subject matter. Gary K. Wolf's "Who Censored Roger Rabbit?" was published in 1981, was swiftly optioned by Disney, and while it shares a lot of DNA with the eventual film, including most of the key characters, there are a number of crucial differences. For one, the toons aren't stars of animated films, but of comic strips (the novel includes cameos from the likes of Dick Tracy, Hagar The Horrible, Snoopy and Beetle Bailey), with strips produced by taking photos of the toons, who can mostly communicate only through speech bubbles (though some have learned to speak normally). For another, there's no period setting, with the novel taking place in the present day. And, while there's a murder mystery at the story's heart, it's a very different one; Eddie Valiant sets out to solve the killing of Roger himself, who's been "censored" after being told by his masters, the DeGreasy Brothers, that he's not getting his own strip. He still figures into the plot, though; Roger created his own doppleganger to run an errand just before he was killed, who wants the murder solved before he crumbles to dust. Overall, It's a much chillier, darker piece of work than the film. Jessica is a former porn star and unrepentant gold-digger with no real affection for her husband, while Roger turns out to have killed one of the DeGreasys. (His killer? A magical genie, in one of the more disappointing parts of the story). Wolf (who's been embroiled in a lawsuit with Disney over royalties more recently) also wrote a follow-up novel, 1991's "Who P-P-P-Plugged Roger Rabbit?" but confusingly, it's more of a sequel to the film than a novel, ret-conning the events of 'Who Censored' as a dream. Revolving around a toon adaptation of "Gone With The Wind," it's decidedly a case of diminishing returns. A third book, "Who Wacked Roger Rabbit," is due this fall.
Even before publication, Wolf's novel was optioned by Ron Miller, then President of Walt Disney Productions (and who would set up the Touchstone label for the company's more adult fare), against the objections of the company's CEO Card Walker. The film began development with producer Mark Sturdivant and animation director Darrell Van Citers, with Jeffrey Price and Peter S. Seaman hired to write the screenplay. Seemingly before they were even on board, though, a director was approached, in the shape of Monty Python member Terry Gilliam. As an animator-turned-director, who'd just had some success with the film "Time Bandits," Gilliam was a good choice, but didn't want the project, telling Empire in 1996: "I passed on that one, but that didn't matter because it was just at a stage when it was still just the book and I didn't want to get into animation. I just read the book and said, 'This is too much work.' Pure laziness on my part." Instead, after a few years in development hell, the addition of Steven Spielberg as producer saw his protege Robert Zemeckis, hot off the success of "Back To The Future," hired for the gig. Even then, the pieces didn't quite come together right away. After some alleged idle talk of Harrison Ford starring in the film, Spielberg and Zemeckis decided to approach Bill Murray to play Eddie Valiant, according to James B. Stewart's book "DisneyWar." But the notoriously difficult-to-contact Murray proved unreachable, even for the two titans, and they were forced to look elsewhere, eventually deciding on British actor Bob Hoskins (who proved to be excellent in the role). Apparently, years later, Murray was devastated to hear that he was in the running, saying that he would have taken the part in a heartbeat.