In a world where humans and cartoon characters coexist, washed-out private detective Eddie Valiant is hired by the movie studio boss R.K. Maroon to shadow the wife of his biggest toon star, Roger Rabbit. Jessica is suspected of having an affair with someone and Maroon wants to present Roger with some facts to keep him from being constantly distracted. Valiant, whose brother had been killed by a toon, reluctantly agrees to do the job and begins to follow Jessica, who really seems to be carrying on an affair with Marvin Acme, the owner of Toontown. This finally drives Roger into complete desperation and when Acme is found dead, he is the only suspect...
There have been many attempts to mix animated characters with real-life footage - one of the earliest examples was Gene Kelly's joint dancing sequence with Jerry Mouse from the musical Anchors Aweigh and even Disney had made such experiments with Mary Poppins and Pete's Dragon. But there had never been more than one cartoon character in a few sequences - with one huge exception: at the end of the 1980s, a group of enthusiastic filmmakers came together to try the impossible: a full feature movie letting cartoon characters interact with real footage of human actors.
When Gary K. Wolf had published his novel Who Censored Roger Rabbit in 1981, Disney was quickly on the spot and bought the movie rights of his dark detective story parody at once. Ron W. Miller, the studio boss at the time, recognized the enormeous potential of the material, but was also wary that other studios might film the glomy and cynical story in a way which would not be favourable on their own productions. So it was decided very early that only the basic idea of a world with "toons" and humans co-existing would be used for a movie adaptation of Wolf's novel.
Robert Zemeckis, who until then only had made the two relatively unsuccessful movies I Wanna Hold Your Hand and Used Cars, was very much interested in the project, but Disney did not want to take a chance with the still unknown director. Terry Gilliam, who had just directed Time Bandits, an elaborate fantasy adventure, had been considered, but he declined because of the huge technical effort the movie would require. Meanwhile, the scriptwriting team of Jeffrey Price and Peter S. Seaman, who had already written the barely noticed detective satire Trenchcoat for Disney, had been commissioned to write a first script draft, but this was shelved indefinitely.
When in 1984, during a palace revolt at Disney, Ron W. Miller had been replaced by the former Paramount CEOs Michael Eisner and Frank Wells at the behest of major shareholders Roy E. Disney and Sid Bass, the tides turned in favour of the project. To shoulder the potentially enormeous size of the production, Eisner secured the cooperation of Amblin Entertainment, the company of Steven Spielberg, Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall. Jeffrey Katzenberg, who had been assigned by Eisner to run Disney's struggling animation department, saw the now re-titled Who Framed Roger Rabbit as a great chance to revitalize the animation genre.
The first thing Katzenberg did was to dust off the script written three years previously and put the two Authors Jeffrey Price and Peter S. Seaman back on the case. Meanwhile, Robert Zemeckis had directed two more movies, the very successfull Romancing the Stone and Back to the Future, so he was after all hired to work on Who Framed Roger Rabbit. But he was not the first choice - Steven Spielberg's initial candidate, Joe Dante, was too busy with Innerspace, another Amblin production, but he had also backed Zemeckis with his company for Back to the Future.
Because the studio bosses of Disney were still not fully convinced of the project, so the filmmakers had to produce an animation test to get their backing. In a short sequence an animated Roger Rabbit was shown next to an actor in a real scene with a moving camera and all the bells and whistles - it looked so good that some of the studio executives thought that an actor in a bunny costume had been filmed. The enthusiasm was huge, but Amblin had proposed a budget of 50 million dollars, which Disney did not want to come up with. After difficult negotiations, the cost was slashed to 30 million and a green light was given for Who Framed Roger Rabbit.
To keep the movie from becoming a meaningless special effects orgy, the script writers wrote a sturdy plot, but it did not use much of Gary K. Wolf's original ideas. The script was not as dark and pessimistic as its source, but it too made the most of the film noir genre. Jeffrey Price and Peter Seaman crafted a complex story with much dialogue and many surprising twists. To prepare for their task, the authors watched some of the classic detective movies and cartoons of the 1930 and 1940s, to get the right feeling for the story, which amongst other sources had Roman Polanski's Chinatown as a model. As a result the plot did not only become a simple murder mystery, but also a much bigger story about a conspiracy in the toon community of Hollywood.
At the same time the movie was also conceived as a great homage to the long gone golden age of animation, but to get other animated characters from outside of the Walt Disney empire to appear in the movie, the filmmakers had to make long negotiations with the other studios. But Steven Spielberg was able to convince Warner Bros, Paramount, Universal and MGM to loan a whole range of their animated stars for Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Many of them were only used as background characters, but some of them were chosen for longer scenes and at the end of the movie everyone appeared in a bombastic grand finale.
While the movie was mainly inhabited by cartoon characters, the casting of the human roles was equally important to provide a counterbalance to the artificial protagonists. For the role of detective Eddie Valiant at first stars like Robert Redford and even Jack Nicholson had been considered, but in the end it was the british actor Bob Hoskins, who was willing to act alongside invisible cartoon characters in front of countless bluescreens. Hoskins, who had started his career in british television with many small roles before graduating to successful lead parts like in Dennis Potter's mini-series Pennies from Heaven later found acclaim playing tough guys in movies like The Long Good Friday and Mona Lisa. He proved to be ideal for the character of the hardy, but tired private detective, who is of course an affectionate homage to Dashiell Hammets Sam Spade or the cartoon figure Dick Tracy.
One of the few other leading parts went to Christopher Lloyd, who played Judge Doom, the superb villain of the story. With magnificent facial expressions, little makeup and deliberate zesty overacting he made his character, which was newly created for the movie, something very special. Robert Zemeckis had already worked with Lloyd on Back to the Future and exactly knew what the actor was caplable of - strange oddball characters were always one of his specialities, which he was able to utilize brilliantly in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. In other small, but still remarkable secondary roles, comic veteran Stubby Kaye played Marvin Acme, Alan Tilvern portrayed studio boss R.K. Maroon and Joanna Cassidy appears as the worn-out waitress Dolores.
The actual main character of the movie was, of course, the toon star Roger Rabbit, who looks like he was based on Bugs Bunny, but was actually a completely new creation. As with every animated character, Rogers performance was not only in the hands of the animators, but also a very special actor: Charles Fleischer - who is, in spite of many rumours, not related to animation legend Max Fleischer - not only recorded Roger's voice in the sound studio, but was also present on the set to voice his character during the filming. He often wore a bunny costume standing next to the camera, practicing his very own kind of method acting - his co-stars were either delighted of his efforts or believed him to be mad. But Fleischer's unconventional approach really help his fellow actors to concentrate on their still invisible co-star, who was only added much later in post-production.
Roger Rabbit's significant other was voiced by Kathleen Turner and sung by Amy Irving - both provided a magnificent performance, but for some reason they were not named in the credits at all. Jessica Rabbit had been criticised as a typical female stereotype, but this was exactly the intention of the character: a satirical parody of the exagerrated sex bombs in many animated movies - one of her role models is of course Betty Boop, who actually has a short guest appearance. Who Framed Roger Rabbit carries this kind of character to the extreme, but with a distinct tongue-in-cheek-approach. Even Jessica herself apologises about her apperance: "I'm not bad, I'm just drawn this way".
Among the many other cartoon characters were not only guests from the classic animated movies, but also some which were newly created for Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Benny the taxi was also voiced by Charles Fleischer and has a short, but remarkable appearance in an elaborate car chase. Roger's co-star Baby Herman is apart from Jessica the naughtiest character of the movie, because the sweet toddler from the cartoon introduction turns out to be a cigar-smoking, middle aged toon with the sandpaper voice of Lou Hirsch. The Toon Patrol, Judge Dooms henchmen, appear as five weasels, who are a very cynical parody on the seven dwarves from Snow White and deftly parody the violence of many Disney cartoons.
The movie was mainly shot in England, because animator Richard Williams refused to work in America. The Elstree studios were chosen to build the elaborate sets designed by Elliot Scott and Roger Cain, portraying Hollywood at the end of the 1940s as authentic as possible. Even a fully fuctional streetcar was built and only a few scenes were shot on location in Hollywood. The production was finally be able to start in December 1986, but because of the never before tried combination of real footage and animation, were not without problems and lasted for more than six months.
Director Robert Zemeckis had originally intended to shoot the real-life footage of Who Framed Roger Rabbit as a completely normal movie, but because of the later integration of the animation elements this was only possible with a few scenes. The animated characters not only had to interact with their fellow actors, but also with the props and the scenery, making an enormeous effort necessary. The problem of having humans and toons not only stand next to each other in the same scene but also touch each other was a huge challenge and also taxed the imagination of the actors, who had to react to thin air. Those who did really well in these special cirumstances were lucily Bob Hoskins and Christopher Lloyd, who also had the most scenes together with their animated co-stars.
The huge technical effort lead to delays in the production schedule and a balooning budget. When already 40 instead of 30 million dollars were spent, Disney boss Michael Eisner wanted to hit the emergency brake and cancel the who production, but Jeffrey Katzenberg was able to convince him, to give the almost-finished movie another chance. This proved to be exactly the right decision, because Robert Zemeckis and his crew were aware of the large risks of the project, but after a few initial problems were completely convinced that their groundbreaking method of combining real and animated footage would perfectly work.
The animation was not produced by Disney itself, but my a specially selected team lead by canadian Richard Williams, a freelance animator, who had learned his trade in the 1940s and 1950 from legends like Chuck Jones and Ken Harris. With his Oscar-winning animated shorts and his wonderfully animated credit sequences for Casino Royale, What's New, Pussycat and two of Blake Edwards' Pink Panther movies he had built up a formidable reputation and was the only one the filmmakers trusted to shoulder the enormeous responsibility of overseeing the animation. This project was not a standard animated movie by a long shot and the requirements were so complicated that many procedures had to be invented again.
In 1986, real computer support in traditional animation was still unheard of, so that everything had to be literally drawn by hand. To integrate the cartoon characters as seamless as possible, a copy of every filmed frame was made, which the animators used as a basis to draw. When the animation was finished, it was optically combined with the real footage, which in some scenes meant more than hundred different layers. To maximize the quality, the Vista Vision process was used, running the film horizontally instead of vertically through the animation cameras - only in the last steps the sequences were copied back to the traditional format. Altogether over 80000 single frames were drawn for Who Framed Roger Rabbit.
Although the animation was produced under enormeous time pressure and was only finished in the very last minute, the interaction of both elements was so excellent, that the actually two-dimensional characters looked so lifelike in the three-dimensional scenery that they did not stand out as foreign bodies at all. This was also possible due to the work of Industrial Light and Magic, who were responsible for all other special effects on the movie. Very labour-intensive, but technically not as complicated as the rest of the movie was the opening cartoon, which became a small masterpiece of animation art. It was not a parody, but a real homage to the classic animated short films the movie is all about.
Also belonging to the nostalgic Hollywood atmosphere of the story was an appropriate soundtrack, for which the filmmakers turned to Alan Silvestri, who had already written a wonderful Score for Robert Zemeckis' Back to the Future. His challenge was to find an appropriate style for the musical accompaniment of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, for which only one genre was possible: the jazzy, mysterious and melancholy sounds of the detective thrillers from the 1940s. Alan Silvestri recorded his compositions with the London Symphony Orchestra and a hand-picked group of jazz musicians like bass player Chick Domaninco, trumpeteer Jerry Hey, drummer Harvey Mason, saxophonist Tom Scott and Pianist Randy Waldman.
For the typical noisy cartoon melodies a completely different kind of music was needed, for which Alan Silvestri took Looney Tunes composer Carl Stalling as a model, whose jaunty, circus-like melodies became the funny part of the score for Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Also a real jazz song is heard in Jessica Rabbits stage performance, which was not a new composition, but an old standard - Joe McCoy's Why Don't You Do Right had been a huge hit in the 1930s and 1940s and was a perfect fit for the movie. Another completely different song is used during Eddie Valiants first visit to Toontown and in the final sequence: Smile, Darn Ya, Smile could not haven been a better choice, because the piece originated in Warner's Merry Melodies cartoon short of the same name from 1931 and so became a successfull meta reference to the very roots of animatied movies.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit had begun as an experiment and ended as a surprise success. Nevertheless the production had been hanging on a thread more than one time, when deadlines could only be met with great difficulty and Disney threatened to cut of the money supply. When the studio bosses had noticed that the movie was not as harmless as it was thought, they feared for the reputation of the studio, because Who Framed Roger Rabbit was originally to be marketed under the Disney banner. Shortly before the premiere it was decided to release the movie under the alias of Disney's subsidiary Touchstone Pictures.
Despite its animation elements Who Framed Roger Rabbit is not primarily a children's movie, but was made mainly for adults, who remembered the old cartoons from their own childhood. Without recognising the countless references and homages to the long gone golden era of animated cartoons, the movie is only half as fun and does not even make sense most of the time. But with some moderate background knowledge Who Framed Roger Rabbit is much more than just a technical excercise and a very successful homage to classic cartoons and the film noir genre, besides being a first-class animated effects movie with very enthusiastic and funny actors.
After its summer premiere in 1988 Who Framed Roger Rabbit was able to recoup more than double its production costs and also became an international success very quickly. At the 1989 Academy Awards the movie won three of its six nominations for sound effects editing, visual effects and film edition - and animator Richard Williams received a Special Achievements Award for his work. Over the years, Who Framed Roger Rabbit has become a very special classic of the animation genre not only because of the brilliant technical execution, but also because of the successful story and the wonderful actors.
While the popularity of Who Framed Roger Rabbit did not really last and a possible sequel never came about, three Roger Rabbit animated shorts were made by Disney and Amblin between 1989 and 1993 and the movie soon became a classic. Also, inspired by Who Framed Roger Rabbit, in 1996 an ambitious computer adventure game with many animation elements called Toonstruck was released by Virgin Interactive, starring Christopher Lloyd as an animator who is transported into a cartoon world. Even after a quarter of a century, Who Framed Roger Rabbit still remains one of the most unique movies of its kind and is widelyrecognized as an amazing and fascinating oddity in the history of traditional animation.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit had already been released on DVD in 1999, but only in region 1 as a disc without any extras and a horrible non-anamorphic transfer, which probably came from the 1998 laserdisc. It took Disney four years to produce a completely new special edition of the movie, which finally did justice to one of their greatest animation classics.
The special edition of Who Framed Roger Rabbit was released under the short-lived banner Vista Series in March 2003 and did not disappoint in any way. The new transfer, while still having some limitations stemming from the source materials, was amazing under the circumstances and the new Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1 mixes sounded wonderful. The bonus material was also magnificent, documenting the making of the movie in great detail and including a lot of previously unseen archive material. Maybe the only fault of the lavish 2-disc-set was the split between an "enthusiast" disc with the widescreen transfer and the "serious" extras and a "family friendly" disc with all the other bonus materials and a completely unnecessary fullscreen transfer - especially because the movie is not actually very suitable for very young viewers.
The DVD is also remarkable because of its wonderful packaging - a digipack in the style of a detective's notebook, which is a real jewel inside and out, making it a must-buy for every DVD collection. Unfortunately this can only be said about the region 1 release, because Disney had decided to release only the "family friendly" extras, even excluding the audio commentary, together with the widescreen version in other countries including Germany. On DVD, the 2003 US special edition is still the best release of Who Framed Roger Rabbit worldwide, but ten years later the movie has also been released as a 25th Anniversary Blu-Ray, which seems to contain all the extras from the US disc and is going to be released all over the world in spring 2013.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit comes as a 2-disc-set in the USA, but instead of putting the movie on one disc and the extras on a second one, the bonus material has been spread over two discs around the widescreen- and fullscreen-versions of the movie. This might be annoying, but has not harmed the quality of the DVD and the great presentation really compensates for this. The menu design is excellent and uses a mix of 3D animation and film sequences, in which the viewer is driven around by Benny, the taxi through Toontown.
Disc 1 contains, apart from the forgettable fullscreen version, the "family friendly" extras, which are also interesting for adults.
Acme Warehouse – here almost all the extras of the first disc are located.
The Roger Rabbit Cartoons had been produced in the years after the great success of the movie and on this disc are available the first time together. The quality of the 16:9 encoded transfers in the original aspect ratio is excellent and even 5.1 soundtracks are provided.
• Tummy Trouble (7:45, from 1989)
• Rollercoaster Rabbit (7:50, from 1990)
• Trail Mix-Up (8:51, from 1993)
Who Made Roger Rabbit (10:57) is a short commercial featurette which was produced in 1988 for television and does not have much content, but a great real-life appearance by Roger's voice actor Charles Fleischer, which is actually very worth watching.
The Trouble in Toontown Game is nicely done, but the menu-based game is only really interesting for very young children. The Ink & Paint Club contains preview trailers of Schoolhouse Rock and Ultimate X, while the Maroon Cartoon Studio justs sports a note about the extras on the second discs. Hidden in Valiant's Office are the soundtrack and subtitle options for the main movie and there's also a THX optimizer in there.
As an easy to find easter egg the Trailer (3:06) of Who Framed Roger Rabbit can also be found on the first disc, but unfortunately only in very bad vhs-like quality.
Disc 2 contains the widescreen version of the movie and all other extras, which are especially interesting for movie enthusiasts, but are also suitable for the casual viewer.
The Audio Commentary by director Robert Zemeckis, Producer Frank Marshall, the authors Jeffrey Price and Peter Seaman and Steve Starkey and Ken Ralston from ILM is surprisingly entertaining, because the filmmakers remember the making of the movie with much humour in spite of the many problems they encountered. Of course the technical aspect of the production is the main theme of the commentary, but everybody makes a great effort to keep everything easily understandable. But the hard work of the actors and the many people behind the production is also recognized - the filmmakers are actually rather humble and see the movie as a collaborative project and not as their work alone. The atmosphere of the commentary track is very friendly, but it is rather distracting that everybody insists of identifying himself each time he starts to speak.
Toontown Confidential comes up as a newspaper in the menu, but is actually a subtitle trivia track displaying additional comments, annecdotes and other information during the movie. There are a lot of interesting things in this track - some is exclusive to this feature, but other facts are also talked about in the documentary and in the commentary.
The Deleted Scene has an introduction by Robert Zemeckis, Ken Ralston and Simon Wells and first a rough version is shown, before the Pig Head Sequence (3:53) is presented in its completed form - unfortunately only in fullframe, but the quality is so good that it could have been reintegrated into the main movie.
The Valiant Files are a clever combination of a dvd game and an image gallery. Walking around in Valiant's Office, many photos, concept drawings and other material can be discovered, but there is also a "cheat sheet" available with direct access to the categories Character Development, The Art of Roger Rabbit, Production, Promotional and Theme Parks.
Before & After (3:08) contains a small selection of short scenes, which are presented in a split-screen format with and without animation and effects. In Toon Stand-Ins (3:15) the work of the actors with dummy figures representing the cartoon characters is seen - this second compilation also has a commentary by Ken Ralston, Steve Starky, Robert Zemeckis and Richard Williams.
On Set - Benny the Cab (4:51) is a little collection of b-roll footage from the set of the car chase and shows, how Bob Hoskins was actually driven around in this scene.
Behind the Ears (36:36) is a very detailed new documentary about the production of Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Interviewed are Robert Zemeckis, Don Hahn, Richard Williams, Arthur Schmidt, Steve Starkey and Charles Fleischer. This documentary is a great addition to the commentary track, both together provide everything interesting about the movie in a very entertaining way. While Robert Zemeckis is a bit quiet and reserved, the other filmmakers are much more lively and talkative - and refreshingly honest about their work.