Last week I talked about how Robert Zemeckis has changed to all digital films like Mars Needs Moms since Who Framed Roger Rabbit? I thought it would be appropriate to discuss the greatness of that film, to show how much things have changed.
If you are not familiar with Roger Rabbit, you should stop reading this now and go watch it. The film, released in 1988, was a revolutionary piece of work. The story tracks Eddie Valiant, a private detective in Los Angeles during the 1940s, who is hired to find out whether a famous cartoon character’s wife is cheating on him. As per most detective stories, Valiant ends up in a far different case with murder, treachery and politics involved. The twist is that the whole story deals with the world of animated characters and how they interact with humans as normal parts of the real world, including the title character, Roger Rabbit.
There had been films that combined live action and animation before, but not like this. Mary Poppins, for example, featured humans on a green screen in an animated world for approximately 15-20 minutes of a 150 minute film. Roger Rabbit, by comparison, featured over 65 minutes of animation set in the real world, almost a full length animated film by itself.
Zemeckis has commented that this film was really three films in one – a full length live action detective movie, a full length animated film, and a green screen/special effects movie. He broke all the rules in making this film. In animation of the time, it was an unwritten rule that you did not move the camera. Characters move around in the frame, but camera moves like pans or tilts or focus pulls were not something animation directors did. As a live action director, Zemeckis insisted on it.
The result is a depth of field and realism for the animated characters that is unmatched. Each of the characters are rounded and three dimensional in their look, which is not normally the case for animated characters. Making these characters look and feel realistic was the key to the film, and Zemeckis pulled it off fabulously.
After that, however, there had to be a compelling story. That is taken care of in spades. Eddie Valiant is a film noir hero, meaning that he’s very flawed, but he works through the film to overcome his flaws and do the right thing. The performance by Bob Hoskins is amazing, as he manages to interact with characters that aren’t really there seamlessly, and still deliver a performance for the ages.
Most people focus on the live action and animation combination as the reason why this film stands out, but it’s the story, the heart, and the acting that make it so timeless. Hoskins as Eddie Valiant, Christopher Lloyd as the Judge and Charles Fleischer voicing Roger Rabbit make their characters real for the viewer. They are the heart and soul of the film and infuse it with realism while never losing sight of the warm, wacky heart of cartoons. It’s all this unusual and unprecedented combination that makes Who Framed Roger Rabbit? so compelling, a film that so many people still cherish.