At the end of June, Who Framed Roger Rabbit celebrated 35 years since its original release, in June 1988. A Disney-via-Touchstone project, it took place in an alternate version of 1940s Hollywood where cartoons were not just alive, but active in the film industry–and practically indestructible, which is why they can get away with so many slapstick stunts. It followed Eddie Valiant, washed-up PI and classic noir antihero (complete with the late great Bob Hoskins’ very questionable attempt at an American accent), whose simple snoop job spirals into the framing of the titular Roger Rabbit (Charles Fleischer) for murder, all as part of a conspiracy of, in his own words, “greed, sex, and murder.”
Not your typical Disney flick, is it?
For better or worse, Who Framed Roger Rabbit is probably best remembered for its nightmare fuel–mostly owed to Christopher Lloyd’s iconic performance as the unhinged Toon in disguise, Judge Doom–and fanservice–mostly owed to Jessica Rabbit (Kathleen Turner), who, remember, is not bad–she’s just drawn that way.
But don’t be fooled: despite its age, there is no denying that this film stands out as not only a marvel of animation but visual and practical effects in general. It won no less than three Academy Awards–Best Film Editing, Best Sound Effects Editing, and Best Visual Effects–as well as a Special Achievement Award. As if that wasn’t enough, it was also, simultaneously, a legal achievement, bringing together a wide variety of iconic characters from multiple companies in a way not seen before or since–really, where else will you find Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse sharing a conversation?
(And no, I’m not counting crossovers from properties under the same giant media monopolies. If the paperwork wasn’t exhausting, I don’t count it.)
Roger Rabbit has definitely received spiritual successors–this decade alone, we’ve had a few different films take on the “cartoons in real life” concepts, such as Space Jam II, Tom and Jerry, and Chip n’ Dale: Rescue Rangers. Sure, Roger Rabbit didn’t invent this physical language, but it’s probably one of the more memorable cases–there’s a reason it’s called the “Roger Rabbit Effect” on TV Tropes–and arguably the most successful in terms of legacy and acclaim. Even 35 years later, Roger Rabbit remains unmatched at what it did.
There are a few reasons for this–one being that we’re in a wildly different world of art and animation technology. You know that kind of uncanny effect on the so-called “2D” characters in Chip n’ Dale and these other movies? They look like that because they aren’t actually 2D at all–they’re CGI! Roger Rabbit, meanwhile, was drawn on cells, by hand, the traditional way. What these new movies are emulating, Roger Rabbit actually pulled off. Of course, it just happened to take over 80 thousand illustrations and more than 700 people behind the scenes.
As easy as it would be to turn this into a bashing of CGI and all-new technology, though, the reason Roger Rabbit succeeded goes deeper than that. This movie was, if you may pardon the pun, utterly hare-brained in its execution. At its premiere, it was the most expensive movie produced. Watching Behind the Ears, the film’s own behind-the-scenes documentary gives you a pretty good idea as to why: beyond the painstaking task of hand-drawn animation, this movie was a visual effects spectacle. In the Toon-staffed Ink and Paint Club, for example, the effect of the Toon penguin waiters was achieved by sneaking puppeteers underneath the stage, who moved trays on poles that were animated over in post. The effects department was no slouch with animatronics, either, creating one specifically for Baby Herman to hold his cigar with, and another to spew out water for when Roger emerges from hiding in Eddie’s sink.
The wonder of Roger Rabbit is two-fold: stunning practical effects, and the magic of 2D animation on top. (Though really, who could expect anything less with the late great Richard Williams directing the animation department? To Williams, animation was both an art and a craft, in the best way possible)
In fact, this tendency for the fantastic actually resulted in a new creative industry term: “bumping the lamp.” “Bumping the lamp,” in essence, means going the extra mile in a creative endeavor, even when it makes your job harder. The term originates from a scene where Roger and Eddie are in an enclosed space–a Prohibition-era speakeasy, to be specific–with a single lamp above them–which Roger bumps into, causing the lamp to spin around wildly. This shifting lighting then required the animators to keep this in mind as they shaded Roger, giving him all kinds of complex shadows as the light source continued to move.
The creative team didn’t have to do that, but they did. They made something way more complicated, to make it more alive. To elevate it as art.
In short, Roger Rabbit was extra–extra in a way that was risky, and expensive, and exciting, in a way that has yet to be replicated by any of its spiritual successors. If I absolutely had to give this film a contemporary comparison, honestly, it’d be Across The Spider-Verse. Spider-Punk requiring multiple years to animate? That’s modern lamp-bumping if I’ve ever seen it. That’s a bunch of artists taking a craft they’re passionate about in thrilling new directions. That’s beautiful.
And much like Spider-Verse’s nods to counterculture, antifascism, and equality, Roger Rabbit has its own revolutionary whispers–the kind you’d probably never expect from a Disney production.
If you’ve seen Who Framed Roger Rabbit, you’ll remember the looming presence of Judge Doom (Christopher Lloyd), or the iconic twist of his true, terrifying Toon form, a literal living weapon that glares literal daggers. You probably remember him killing Marvin Acme and framing Roger for it, and you definitely remember him killing that innocent Toon shoe. And underneath all that, you might remember that he was plotting to destroy Toontown by dousing it with Dip.
But do you remember why? And how?
Early on in the movie, Eddie Valiant discovers that The Red Car–the city’s reliable and accessible public transportation, one Eddie regularly (if illegally) uses–has been purchased by the mysterious Cloverleaf Industries, which proceeded to lay off several Red Car drivers. Eddie actually learns this when he finds one of them drowning in his sorrows, presumably left with no prospects or stability.
“Here’s to the pencil pushers,” Eddie mutters before taking a shot of his own. “May they all get lead poisoning, huh?”
Shortly after this, we’re introduced to Toontown, which alongside being a kooky marvel of visual effects–seriously, some of those greenscreen backgrounds are gorgeous–is more or less where Toons live segregated from humans.
The oppression of Toons in Who Framed Roger Rabbit doesn’t even stop there, and is far from subtle: they’re very explicitly discriminated against. For example, in the Ink and Paint Club, where Eddie did his snoop job? Very explicitly “humans only,” with Toons only allowed in if they’re servers or entertainers. Toons are also mistreated in their prime workplace, the film industry, which sees Roger verbally berated by his director, Raoul, for being unable to produce “stars” when struck with a refrigerator–something probably akin to crying on command. Even the word Toon itself is sometimes said in a charged, pejorative air.
When Roger Rabbit tells Eddie, “There’s no justice for Toons anymore,” you absolutely believe him.
So, Toontown is the home to this obviously marginalized population–perhaps through intentional ghettoization, for all we know. Whatever the case, the space apparently belongs to Marvin Acme, who allegedly promised to leave Toontown to the Toons themselves upon his passing, claiming he would make such a statement in his will.
Of course, then he’s murdered. The titular framing ensues: Roger Rabbit is the prime suspect after Eddie captures intimate photos of his wife and Marvin Acme (that is, intimate by Toon standards. It’s actually a game of Patty-Cake), with the assumption being that Roger killed Acme in a fit of jealousy and rage. Roger and Eddie are forced to work together, hijinks ensue–they get handcuffed together and everything–in hopes of clearing Roger’s name and solving the mystery. The whole shebang.
But beyond this unsolved murder, there’s another problem: Acme’s will–the one that would protect Toontown and its marginalized inhabitants – is nowhere to be found. This is exactly what Judge Doom–Acme’s killer and the sole stockholder of Cloverleaf–had hoped for. Without Acme, he can safely destroy Toontown.
Judge Doom’s goal is horrifyingly simple: he wants to build a freeway. To do this, he aims to dissolve The Red Car (so everybody has to buy cars) and destroy Toontown (where the freeway would go).
“Soon, where Toontown once stood will be a string of gas stations, inexpensive motels, and restaurants that serve rapidly prepared food,” he declares. “Tire salons, automobile dealerships, and wonderful, wonderful billboards reaching as far as the eye can see. My God, it’ll be beautiful.”
It’s all about that bottom line, baby.
And this is where, 35 years later, Who Framed Roger Rabbit remains eerily resonant. I’m watching parallels to this play out in real time.
I live a few cities away from a region deep into its third straight month of a transit strike–an area where the transit isn’t even owned by anyone here in Canada, but by a foreign company that’s putting profit first. The drivers are simply requesting a living salary–they currently make a third of what those in my home city make–and some other reasonable benefits, but even over three months of no transit for thousands of people haven’t gotten the company to budge.
And you know where else we’re seeing these kinds of struggles? Hollywood and the entertainment industry at large. Look at the Writers Guild of America strike, still ongoing as I type up this article. Look at writers and animators alike expressing concerns about the future of their jobs as execs try to cut corners using A.I. There are industry-wide fears for the future of art and creativity in entertainment, and that’s worrisome. We need to keep making movies that inspire and amaze, not movies that line big studio pockets.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit ends with the violent death of Judge Doom, melted in the very Dip he used to plot his clearing of Toontown, for he himself was a Toon in disguise. Another scene that probably gave kids nightmares, but one that ends in triumph–with Doom went the threat to Toontown and, hopefully, if it can be saved, to The Red Car. (There’s probably a whole other thinkpiece’s worth of interpretations to the revelation of Judge Doom’s true identity, the concept of a marginalized individual taking on the appearance of his oppressors to push forth a regime of harm, putting his own profit and success before the safety of his own community… could you consider Doom a traitor to his fellow Toons? I digress.)
Following the death of Doom is a joyous, whimsical musical number, featuring a colorful cast built up of characters from the collective childhood of thousands. Why? Because they’re celebrating the world Roger Rabbit portrays, both onscreen and beyond it–one where marginalized spaces are protected, one where working-class public servants aren’t wrongfully laid off, and one where making people laugh and bumping the lamp are incredible, powerful things. One where people matter more than profit.
Today, Who Framed Roger Rabbit is treated as little more than a footnote by its parent company. Our titular funny bunny had some stints in the parks and even featured in a TV special celebrating 60 years since the creation of Mickey Mouse, but multiple attempts at a Roger Rabbit sequel fell through. There’s one where Roger is drafted into the Second World War–no, I am not making this up–and another that would’ve followed Roger’s journey to stardom, featuring songs written by none other than Alan Menken. (Tragically, all of Menken’s Roger Rabbit tunes are probably sealed away in the vault–except for this one!) Roger’s gotten some cameos, sure: he showed up in the Chip n’ Dale movie, and inexplicably made a cameo in the Pinocchio remake nobody asked for. But at the same time, it seems he’s being eased out of the parks, and it’s unlikely he’ll be getting anything major anytime soon. Honestly, I’m amazed he still has his own ride.
This could be because the movie’s got all the makings of some iconic leftist propaganda, but that’s… probably not the case. Besides the fact the main character’s literally a cop, I’m pretty sure it flunks the Bechdel test, and Eddie’s Toon bullets are literal racial stereotypes. If anything, Disney neglects Roger Rabbit because it’s an older property, and doesn’t exactly represent the values they’re going for in their animated canon today: many of its features–Eddie’s alcoholism, the various innuendos and general violence, and Jessica’s, ah, features–don’t exactly mesh with the Disney of 2020s. Heck, the only notable update to Roger’s Car Toon Spin was giving Jessica Rabbit a modesty boost.
Of course, all of this aside, the fact remains: Who Framed Roger Rabbit is a major creative, artistic, and legal achievement, and one with some surprisingly powerful themes. Themes that, unfortunately, are still incredibly relevant today. Give it a watch if you’re looking for incredible visuals, classic cartoons in exciting new contexts, and a rich guy getting melted alive–what else can you ask for right now?