Year In Review ’88: The unexpected success of cartoon noir ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’

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Robert Zemeckis’s ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’ amalgamates arguably the two most incompatible genres one could imagine: hand-drawn cartoon slapstick and live-action neo-noir. The movie is set in a 1940s Hollywood where cartoons, including a number of famous ones like Mickey Mouse and Daffy Duck, live alongside humans. They reside in Toontown, a district of Los Angeles that is populated entirely by cartoons. Drawing inspiration from both Disney and Looney Tunes shorts, as well as the detective stories that were popular in the era, Zemeckis tells the tale of private eye Eddie Valiant, played by Bob Hoskins, who is tasked with solving the murder of the Acme Corporation’s boss, a crime pinned on one particular cartoon celebrity: Roger Rabbit. As Eddie delves into the mystery, he uncovers a political conspiracy that threatens to destroy Toontown.

There is almost nothing that should work about ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’. The concept of blending hand-drawn animation with live action was especially bold given that the movie was made in 1988. That combination may not be so unusual in contemporary cinema (computer animation was used to revive Peter Cushing for a role in ‘Rogue One’ last year) but that kind of special effects wizardry wasn’t nearly as accessible thirty years ago as it is today. Nevertheless, Zemeckis’s flare for visual innovation, which he would later apply to ‘Forrest Gump’ and ‘The Polar Express’, manages to pull off this remarkable feat. ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’ was a technical achievement way ahead of its time. Even today, it holds up very well.

However, the hybrid of cartoon and live action was not only a visual challenge for Robert Zemeckis; it was a tonal one too. It is, after all, imperative that the film strikes a delicate balance between the seemingly conflicting tropes of a hard-boiled neo-noir and a screwball cartoon comedy. If the movie had tipped too far in either direction, ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’ would have surely failed. It would have been too silly if it leaned excessively on the toon-based slapstick. However, if it leaned too heavily on the murder mystery, it would have been frighteningly dark for a movie starring the likes of Goofy and Bugs Bunny.

Again, ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’ succeeds in overcoming this difficult challenge. Much of the reason why the movie miraculously avoids tonal disaster is due to Bob Hoskins’s excellent performance in the lead role. By no means was Hoskins a household name at the time which makes his casting here very peculiar; given how risky this film was for the studio to begin with, it is surprising that a bigger star wasn’t attached. However, Hoskins’s natural gift for comedy, as well as his effortless ability to play a hardened detective, is one of the primary reasons why ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’ gets its quirky formula so right.

‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’ is 18th in our ranking of the best movies of 1988. You can find the full list in our 1988 Year In Review series.

 

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