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  Who Framed Roger Rabbit Toon Time
Year: 1988
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Stars: Bob Hoskins, Christopher Lloyd, Joanna Cassidy, Charles Fleischer, Stubby Kaye, Alan Tilvern, Lou Hirsch, Mel Blanc, Kathleen Turner, June Foray, Mae Questel, Amy Irving, Joel Silver
Genre: Comedy, Action, Thriller, AnimatedBuy from Amazon
Rating:  8 (from 4 votes)
Review: In 1940s Hollywood, cartoon superstar Roger Rabbit (voiced by Charles Fleischer) keeps blowing his lines because he’s fretful about his philandering spouse. Studio head R.K. Maroon (Alan Tilvern) hires down-on-his-luck gumshoe, Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins) to trail sexy, femme fatale Jessica Rabbit (voiced by Kathleen Turner) to the star-laden Ink and Paint Club, and snap some racy, compromising photos of her with millionaire sugar-daddy, Marvin Acme (Stubby Kaye). Once known as “the friend to all toons”, the guy who rescued Donald Duck’s kidnapped nephews and proved Goofy was not a communist (!), Eddie now harbours a deep hatred of cartoon characters, ever since a mystery toon dropped a piano on his brother’s head. But when, as a result of his photos, Acme turns up dead and Roger seems the prime suspect, Eddie reluctantly teams up with the wacky rabbit to solve a wide-reaching mystery that involves Maroon Pictures, sinister law enforcer Judge Doom (Christopher Lloyd), a team of gun-toting psychotic weasels, and practically every cartoon star in Hollywood.

American animation was in its mid-eighties doldrums, little more than glorified toy adverts offset by occasional noble failures, until producer Steven Spielberg and Walt Disney Studios gambled on this once in a lifetime venture. Just as Star Wars (1977) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) revitalized space operas and action-adventure serials, so too did this revisit the golden age of animation. If you were a cartoon-crazy child at the time, watching Bob Hoskins (delivering an energetic and often undervalued performance in a role first offered to Eddie Murphy) interact with Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse, the insane piano duel between Donald and Daffy Duck (together at last!), or the climactic cameo-laden free for all, must have resembled your wildest dreams come true. Spielberg convinced several studios, including Warner Bros. and Paramount, to lend their cartoon stars for an appearance but was sadly unable to get Popeye, Felix the Cat, Tom and Jerry or the Terrytoons.

While cartoon buffs will relish the chance to hear Mel Blanc (in sadly his last major voiceover work) and June Foray reprise some of their most beloved vocal characterisations, or the split-second sight gags familiar from Tex Avery or Chuck Jones cartoons, the real ace in the hole is the script. It’s a surprisingly witty pastiche of Chinatown (1974) and several other film noir classics, with an ingenious central concept that plays upon race relations in 1940s Hollywood. Here, the toons are akin to African-American entertainers, exploited or abused by authority figures happy to watch them perform in Cotton Club-type surroundings, but who still view them with suspicion. There are duplicitous toons and kindly humans, but the story concludes with the cartoon heroes taking charge of their own destiny. Even that little cameo from Betty Boop (voiced once more by Mae Questel) hits a surprisingly poignant note (“I’ve still got it, Eddie! Boop-oop-ee-doo!”).

If there’s a downside to seeing your favourite toons back on the big screen, it’s that they show up Roger Rabbit and his cronies as the shrill, obnoxious, faux superstars they really are. Had this been Who Framed Bugs Bunny or Donald Duck it would be a masterpiece. As voiced by Charles Fleischer (who also performs Benny the Cab and two of the weasels), Roger’s wacky antics scream mid-eighties “in your face” brashness rather than snappy 1940s wit. Benny (who at least provides the film’s dazzling car chase) and the raucous Baby Herman are similarly one-note, but sultry Jessica Rabbit understandably became a fan-favourite. Caught midway between Lauren Bacall/Veronica Lake pastiche femme fatale and those va-va-voom redheads Tex Avery used to draw, her jaw-dropping nightclub intro (singing voice brilliantly provided by Amy Irving, who was Mrs. Spielberg at the time) proved a potent erotic fantasy. In fact the sexy elements proved rather controversial, as freeze-frame DVD viewers discovered blink and you’ll miss it moments of nudity included by the animators, plus the dodgy climax to Baby Herman sticking his hand up a lady’s skirt.

Robert Zemeckis directs at the height of his ability to fuse technical virtuosity with solid storytelling (the aforementioned car chase and mind-blowing entry into Toontown reach the heights of sublime), although some credit should go to animator Richard Williams. Director of the underrated Raggedy Ann and Andy (1977), Williams was not a Disney affiliate and suspicious of their corporate mentality as a whole. He only signed on because Spielberg offered to distribute his long-gestating pet project, The Thief and the Cobbler (1993) - although this never actually happened. Williams and his animation team’s hand-drawn visuals attain a depth and artistry unlikely to resurface in the computer age.

Various ideas were bandied about for a Spielberg-directed prequel, including Roger Rabbit Two: The Toon Platoon, a World War Two comedy wherein Jessica is brainwashed by Nazis, Roger joins the army and later discovers his long-lost father is none other than Bugs Bunny. Coming fresh off Schindler’s List (1993), Spielberg wasn’t too keen on comedy Nazis and, perhaps wisely, let the project fade away. The original is also worth watching for a rare acting stint from Joel Silver, who displays a hitherto unknown knack for comedy.

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Reviewer: Andrew Pragasam

 

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Robert Zemeckis  (1952 - )

American writer, director and producer of crowd pleasing movies. The first half of his career is highlighted by hits that combine broad humour with a cheerful subversion: I Wanna Hold Your Hand, Used Cars, Romancing the Stone, Back to the Future and its sequels, Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Death Becomes Her.

But come the Oscar-winning Forrest Gump, he grew more earnest and consequently less entertaining, although just as successful: Contact, What Lies Beneath, Cast Away and the motion capture animated efforts The Polar Express, Beowulf and A Christmas Carol. Flight, The Walk and Allied were also big productions, but failed to have the same cultural impact, while true life fantasy tale Welcome to Marwen was a flop.

With frequent writing collaborator Bob Gale, Zemeckis also scripted 1941 and Trespass. Horror TV series Tales from the Crypt was produced by him, too.

 
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