We’re coming up on the 30th anniversary of Robert Zemeckis’s cartoon crossover classic Who Framed Roger Rabbit. There’s a lot to say about that movie, but as we’re on the cusp of the next big transportation shift towards electric cars, it feels especially relevant how that movie that touched on the conspiracy surrounding the death of the American streetcar.
I mean, that’s one part of it. There’s also Roger Rabbit, Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny together for the first time, foul-mouthed babies AND foul-mouthed sentient taxi cabs, The Dip, Judge Doom, and Toontown.
Basically, this movie rules.
(Welcome back to Jalopnik Movie Club, where we take a look at cars in movies and movies about cars, and you write in with all of your hot takes. This week, we’re reviewing Who Framed Roger Rabbit, a movie about a murder mystery crosses the boundaries between cartoons and reality, with hilarious results!)
I have not thought about Looney Toons since maybe three or four years ago when I came breathlessly close to revisiting Space Jam. From what I hear from those around me, it’s good that I saved myself from ruining a fond childhood memory of the Toons and MJ defeating the space aliens as being a totally relatable and well put-together movie classic. That’s how I remember it, don’t take that from me.
But! What I should have done, apparently, was pop in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, which is in many ways the precursor to Space Jam in that a brevity of cartoon characters all of us grew up loving—Bugs Bunny, Daffy and Donald Duck, the cowboy responsible for teaching me how to properly pronounce Yosemite, Mickey Mouse and others—all inexplicably exist in a physical reality with humans.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit is a late-’80s Robert Zemeckis classic that concerns human private detective Eddie Valiant, who lives in late 1940s Los Angeles where, inexplicably, human beings exist alongside cartoon characters. The two cross into one another’s worlds often, and while the scientific, legal, moral, logistical and spiritual details of this are never broken down, it makes sense they’d all mix in LA because Toons work in the picture business.
But Eddie Valiant—played by Bob Hoskins—doesn’t like the Toons of the world. One of them killed his brother and never got caught. But he still gets wrapped up in a case involving Toon Roger Rabbit, a murdered studio exec, a forgotten will that concerns the Toons’ home of Toontown, and of course, Roger’s wife—the sultry Jessica Rabbit, one of the more intentionally inappropriate cartoon characters ever to grace a mainstream movie.
The case ultimately unravels into a full conspiracy to destroy Toontown to make way for a eight-lane freeway, complete with the “beauty” of gas stations and crappy restaurants and car dealerships. Basically, America as it is today.
As Jalopnik reader MkII Escort also points out in his comment below, the movie is thinly veiled as a sort of alternate reality for what became the traffic-infested hellscape of Los Angeles. Here’s the history of the conspiracy, which I only faintly remembered hearing about, from Escapist Magazine:
In the real world, Doom’s Cloverleaf Industries plan went through, the streetcar line was bought out and dismantled. Toontown wasn’t demolished, but houses along the 23 mile stretch of the Pasadena freeway sure were. That one freeway inspired the construction of a vast network of freeways in the Los Angeles area that broke ground in 1947, but as of 2004 was only 61% finished, filling the area with numerous roads to nowhere.
The audience was left to ponder that reality, which contrasts with the otherwise overwhelming joy and triumph of the story. I believe the filmmakers were going for a bittersweet effect on the audience. The ending was too neat, too tightly wrapped up, too “hey guys, lets all get a cameo in while we can”, too naive.
Los Angeles had changed drastically since the 1940s, and not for the better. The freeway network is notoriously awful, traffic is a total nightmare, and pollution is out of control.
Remember that around the same time General Motors was also blamed for setting up a front company to gut streetcar public transportation across the country, which developed into a full-blown conspiracy to get more cars on the road. Like Chinatown was a struggle about water, Who Killed Roger Rabbit is about the fight over how we get around, and who profits from that.
I mean, not really! It’s fun as hell and insane to watch!
As for the movie itself, the mindblowingly physical interactions between the animated toons and the physical humans is astonishing, and holds up incredibly well today save for a few awkward moments. From a technical standpoint, this was a groundbreaking movie for its time.
There’s a nice balance of the expected cartoon slapstick that still had me chuckling like a kid, which is countered with some, at-times, pretty raunchy mature humor, particularly concerning the deaths of characters and the disturbingly detailed femme-fatale Jessica Rabbit.
The noir-themed murder mystery plot is just strong enough to string the movie together and keep the story interesting, even if you didn’t the know the conspiracy backstory beforehand, and the movie strikes a rare near-perfect balance with characters who all can play it straight—but still land a joke.
As with all great cartoons, nearly everything is personified, even beyond the animated cartoons and physical humans, extending to the atmosphere of the set design perfectly fitting the noir vibe and the choice of 1930s Buicks, Dodges, Fords, Packards and Plymouths.
Ultimately is a stylishly beautiful movie with fun characters, an interesting backstory, gags that actually have you laughing and intention of entertainment that you don’t find from either today’s cartoons nor movies. It might even be better than Space Jam if I were ever to dare revisit that one.
That’s all from me, now let’s hear from those of you that emailed with your thoughts, opinions and hot takes about Roger Rabbit:
Jalopnik EIC Patrick George:
Oh man, I loved this movie so much as a kid. You know that age when children just seem to perpetually have movies playing in the background for whatever reason? A very well worn, and possibly taped off the Disney Channel, Who Framed Roger Rabbit VHS was that at our house.
It’s very pre-Pixar in how it mixes stuff for kids and for adults, but the latter is some pretty mature and dark shit, when you watch it today. Eddie Valiant is a badass detective, but he’s also a brazen and admitted alcoholic who can’t deal with how violently his brother died. People AND cartoons get killed a lot in this movie, and they always die badly. Judge Doom is terrifying as shit when you’re five years old, thanks to the ever brilliant Christopher Lloyd. And then there’s Jessica Rabbit, and I’m not even gonna go into that one.
Also, how do you watch this and not want to ride around in Benny the Cab?
I’m probably viewing it with rose-tinted glasses today, but considering its high concept, I think it’s a nearly perfectly executed movie. It’s funny, it’s got a solidly intriguing mystery, the way it was shot was truly groundbreaking, the cast was excellent, and as JW points here, there’s some depth to its social commentary too. Who Framed Roger Rabbit tries to do a lot, and it pretty much nails it in every category.
Also I just want to add that a trip to Toontown sounds fucking exhausting. It’s wall-to-wall mayhem, all of the time. That’d be fun for a couple hours on a bender, like once, and then you’d never want to go back. Ever.
In this movie we see the following: A man fare evades, a voluptuous rabbit plays patty cake, and a taxi drives a car.
I distinctly remember not liking this movie towards the end of my childhood. I had this feeling of confusion as to the mixing of drawn and real settings mingling with one another. I’ll chalk it up to naivety. Watching Who Framed Roger Rabbit this go made me appreciate the enormous amount work that was put into intertwining the two realities into one. Given the age of the film and the resultant quality it’s a serious achievement.
It’s been some time since I watched Looney Tunes, but the opening sequence brought back some fond memories of the absurd slapstick comedy that projected from my parents TV. I never lost that guilty pleasure of schadenfreude either. Previously, I lamented Speed Racer for the lack of entertaining features for adults; this film is a great example of how to include them properly. They are disguised enough that children won’t pick up on them but are easily identifiable.
I particularly enjoyed the final battle that Detective Valiant faces. The circumstances that allow the humour to be injected are top notch. I didn’t really care that I knew what was about to happen; I simply enjoyed what was happening. It’s something that’s missing from a great deal of modern films in that their ‘Boss Battles’ rely heavily on the CGI wow factor. As a result it’s a chromed up tin man: very flashy with no heart. Without a doubt it’s this heart that is extended throughout the film, it’s lively.
Of interest is Judge Dooms plan to build a freeway by eliminating a town and dismantling the red car trolley company. This of course is a lead into the conspiracy theories of the quelling of public transportation in order to benefit auto manufactures, oil companies and companies/towns/cities that would benefit by increased personal automobiles. It’s a rather interesting plot point for the movie basis but it doesn’t feel completely central or detailed. It’s rather nice to view just for the pre-war cars and streetcars that pop-up at various times.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit is a unique cartoon infused movie that ultimately has stood up to the test of time rather well.
Movie: I was chuckling through most of the film. I have a much greater appreciation of the work that was put in to make it a ‘reality’. B it is.
Car Movie: As stated it features mostly pre-war transportation which is awesome to see on screen. Realistically though the movies focus is not particularly on vehicles. For that it gets a C+.
A masterpiece of animation with a touch of anti-urbanization
“Who Framed Roger Rabbit” will be remembered for its innovative execution of animation, but underneath, it is a cautionary tale of careful planning when it comes to approving major construction projects in the name of future profits.
Googling around a bit, although there is a bit of truth behind the streetcar vs. urbanization story, in reality, it looks like streetcars were doomed towards the end of its service thanks to cheaper gas-powered buses, the rise of the middle class being able to afford cars, and the availability of cheap oil.
If for a moment, WFRR makes me imagine a Los Angeles where public transportation, at the very least, meshed with the “Big Freeway.” I can only assume that car culture would’ve advanced at a slightly slower pace, traffic would be less of a “thing” for Southern Californians, and air quality would be presumably better for everyone.
Of course, I was shocked to learn from a friend that sales tax in Long Beach is 10.25 percent. Half a percent of that sales tax comes from Measure M passed two years ago where voters decided to fund public transportation to the tune of $120 Billion. According to Curbed, 70 percent said “Yes.” Ironic how the city where cars are revered is now investing partly in a car-less infrastructure.
And that wraps it up for this week’s Jalopnik Movie Club review! Thank you to everyone who wrote in with their takes, which I encourage you all to do for next week!
Speaking of next week, we’ll be reviewing 2014's Need For Speed movie, so be sure to get it watched and collect your thoughts, and write in with your opinions and hot takes to justin at jalopnik dot com.
In the meantime, sound off below about the good and bad of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and all of its wacky wonder, and see you all next week!