Friday, April 20, 2012

Who Framed Roger Rabbit

All the elements for a gritty crime story are there: the boozing detective, the dumb sap taking the rap for a murder he didn't commit, the alluring femme fatale, the corrupt authority figure, the ineffectual law enforcement, the greedy real estate developers, the blackmail scheme, the fedoras, the cigarettes, the adultery, and the seedy backstage dealings of Hollywood. Make the central character a cartoon bunny rabbit, and you get Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), a hilarious take on all those hard-boiled detective movies from the 1940s that also works as an engaging comic mystery in its own right.

P.I. Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins) is hired by studio executive R.K. Maroon (Alan Tivern) to do a little snooping because his biggest star Roger Rabbit (voice of Charles Fleischer) is distracted by the tabloid coverage of his buxom wife Jessica (voice of Kathleen Turner). Valiant finds Jessica engaged in a little "patty-cake" with Marvin Acme (Stubby Kaye), the owner of Toontown and the Acme Corporation. Before long, Acme is dead from a safe being dropped on his head, and the rabbit is the prime suspect. Roger Rabbit turns to Valiant to help clear his name because he got him in this mess and because Valiant has famously helped other toons in the past. Valiant insists he doesn't work for toons anymore, not since one killed his brother Teddy, but he gets dragged along on the case before he knows it. Acme's death also leaves the ownership of Toontown in question because his will can't be found, and all the while, Judge Doom (Christopher Lloyd) vows to bring to Roger Rabbit to justice by putting him in "Dip," the only thing that can kill a toon.

I guess you could say this Chinatown meets Looney Tunes (and Disney). You have the deadly seriousness and cynicism of film noir crossed with the zany anarchy of cartoons, and somehow that dichotomy of bleakness and corruption against cartoon slapstick and wit works. How the blackmail plot and framing of Roger Rabbit ties together is compelling in its own right, and the antics of Toons are funny.

The technical credits are impressive, both in the recreation of 1940s Hollywood and the mixing of live-action sets and actions with animation (and vice versa). In a world in which the existence of living cartoons is just a fact of life and never questioned, it never feels like a gimmick; it comes off as genuine so even the adult audience members can accept it.

Hoskins is great, essentially playing the straight man to all the chaos around him. It's even more praiseworthy when you consider there were many scenes in which he had to act off of cartoon characters that were drawn in later. Lloyd is a memorable villain, providing a suitable comic menace. Of course, the most important character is Roger Rabbit; it's easy to see how he could have gone too far and become obnoxious. Yes, he's annoying, but he's supposed to be, and pairing him with a tight wad like Valiant was comic gold.

I've seen Who Framed Roger Rabbit many times since I was kid, and with this most recent viewing, I picked up a lot more on the more subtle jokes, double entendres, and hidden gags that I've never noticed before. It's just one of those movies you can watch again and again at different ages and enjoy.

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