Friday, June 22, 2018

The 30th Anniversary of Who Framed Roger Rabbit

It was thirty years ago today, on June 22 1988, that Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) was released. The film would turned out to be the blockbuster that summer and ultimately became the second highest grossing film for 1988 (after Rain Man). It would also revive interest in the American Golden Age of Animation and help revive the American animation industry. To this day it is still highly regarded, and maintains a 97% approval rating on the review aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit was based on Gary K. Wolf's 1981 novel Who Censored Roger Rabbit?. The novel centred on comic strip character Roger Rabbit, who hires detective Eddie Valiant to find out why the comic strip syndicate who employs him went back on their promise to give him his own comic strip and sell him to a mysterious buyer. The novel differed from the motion picture in many ways, not the least of which was the fact that it was set in present day (Who Framed Roger Rabbit is set in the Forties) and most of its characters are comic strip characters rather than animated cartoon characters. Ultimately the movie would centre on animated cartoon character Roger Rabbit, who is framed for the murder of powerful businessman Marvin Acme (yes, he owns Acme Corporation). It is detective Eddie Valiant who must prove Roger's innocence.

It was not long after the publication of Who Censored Roger Rabbit? that Walt Disney Productions bought the movie rights to the novel. Jeffrey Price and Peter S. Seaman, who would write the screenplay for the movie Trenchcoat (1983), were hired to write the script. Roger Zemeckis, who had at that time directed I Wanna Hold Your Hand (1978), 1941 (1979), and Used Cars (1980), offered to direct the movie for Walt Disney, but they declined as both I Wanna Hold Your Hand and Used Cars had flopped at the box office(the latter would later become a popular cult film). Unfortunately, progress on the project was slow, with test footage being made between 1981 and 1983 with Darrell Van Citters as animation director and Paul Reubens as Roger Rabbit, Peter Renaday as Eddie Valiant, and Russi Taylor as Jessica Rabbit.

It was Michael Eisner, then the newly appointed CEO of Disney, who revived the project in 1985. He asked Amblin Entertainment (the production company of Steven Spielberg)  to co-produce the film with Disney. The original budget was estimated at $50 million. Disney thought this was too high and ultimately the budget was set at $30 million. Not only were Jerry Price and Peter S. Seaman brought back onto the project to write the script, but Roger Zemeckis (who had since directed the hits Romancing the Stone and Back to the Future) was hired as the film's director. Canadian animator Richard Williams was hired as the director of animation on the film. At the time Mr. Williams may have been best known for his Academy Award winning adaptation of A Christmas Carol. Mr. Williams did not particularly trust Disney and refused to work in Los Angeles, so much of the production of the animation was done at the legendary Elstree Studios in England, as well as a unit in Los Angeles headed by Dale Baer (a long time Disney animator).

The casting of Who Framed Roger Rabbit would prove to be no simple matter. Even though he was best known for action movies at the time, Harrison Ford was initially who Steven Spielberg wanted to play Eddie Valiant. As it turned out, Mr. Ford's price was too high for the production. Among the actors also considered for the role were Bill Murray (whom they couldn't get in contact with), Eddie Murphy (who turned the role down), Chevy Chase, Robert Redford, Jack Nicholson, Sylvester Stallone, Charles Grodin, and a few others. Ultimately, Bob Hoskins, who had appeared in such movies as The Cotton Club (1984) and Brazil (1985) was cast as Eddie Valiant. Christopher Lloyd, who had worked with Roger Zemeckis on Back to the Future, was hired to play the film's antagonist. The voice of Roger Rabbit was provided by comedian Charles Fleischer (apparently no relation to the Flesichers of animation fame) and the voice of Jessica Rabbit was provided by an uncredited Kathleen Turner.

Of course, Who Framed Roger Rabbit is well known for the many cameos of classic animated characters. Indeed, it would be the first time ever that characters from Disney and Warner Bros. appeared together. Among the famous cartoon characters with cameos were Betty Boop (Fleischer Studios), Bugs Bunny (Warner Bros.), Daffy Duck (Warner Bros.), Donald Duck (Disney), Droopy (MGM), Goofy (Disney), Mickey Mouse (Disney), Sylvester (Warner Bros.), and Porky Pig (Warner Bros.). In some cases the classic animated characters were voiced by the people most famous for voicing them. Mel Blanc voiced Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Sylvester, Porky Pig, and Tweety Bird. Mae Questel voiced Betty Boop. The legendary June Foray voiced two characters original to the film, Wheezy and Lena Hyaena. As amazing as it sounds, there could have been even more cameos by legendary animated characters in the film, but Disney and Ambin were unable to get permission to use them. They were denied the use of Casper the Friendly Ghost (created at Paramount, but then owned by Harvey Comics), Heckle and Jeckle (Terrytoons, owned by CBS), Little Lulu (created by Marjorie Henderson Buell, animated by Paramount, and then owned by Western Publishing), Mighty Mouse (Terrytoons, owned by CBS),  Popeye (King Features Syndicate, although the classic cartoons had been animated by Fleischer Studios and then Paramount), and Tom & Jerry (MGM).

Because it combined live action and animation (something previously done in Anchors Aweigh, Mary Poppins, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, and a few other films), Who Framed Roger Rabbit would have a long time in post production. In fact, post production ultimately lasted 14 months. Because digital compositing did not yet exist and computer animation was in its infancy, the animation in Who Framed Roger Rabbit had to be done through old fashioned cel animation and optical compositing. This was a painstaking process that took a good deal of time.

The finished film would run into some trouble with both Michael Eisner and Roy E. Disney, then Vice Chairman at Disney, who felt the film was too risqué for a Disney film. Ultimately, Robert Zemeckis had final cut and refused to make any changes to the film. It was finally decided that Who Framed Roger Rabbit? would be released through Touchstone Pictures, Disney's division for films that appeal primarily to adults and often feature more mature themes than those found in most Disney films of the time.

While Messrs. Eisner and Disney worried about the film being risqué,  history shows that they shouldn't have been. Who Framed Roger Rabbit proved to be a smash hit at the box office. It made $329.8 million at the box office, making it the second highest grossing film of the year. It also  received overwhelmingly positive reviews.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit would also prove to be influential. It revived interest in the characters from the American Golden Age of Animation. It has also been credited with revitalising the American animation industry. Arguably it also revived the American animation industry. While Warner Bros. had been producing new shorts since shortly before Who Framed Roger Rabbit, they continued to do so well after the release of the film. Walt Disney itself would produce three Roger Rabbit shorts. There are those who believe it helped spark the Disney Renaissance of the late Eighties and Nineties that produced such films as Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1994), and Mulan (1998). In the Nineties other studios would also release cel animated features, including 20th Century Fox's Anastasia (1997) and Warner Bros. Animation's The Iron Giant (1999).

Today Who Framed Roger Rabbit remains a remarkable achievement in animation and live action, particularly given it was made in an era before CGI was common place. It would help revitalise animation in the United States and revive interest in the Golden Age of Animation. It also remains a remarkably good movie, one that can be watched and enjoyed over and over again. While it might have been too soon to have called Who Framed Roger Rabbit a classic earlier, it now clearly is one.

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