Part animation, part film noir, part slapstick comedy, part mismatched buddy movie, part postmodern treatise, director Robert Zemeckis’ and executive producer Steven Spielberg’s valentine to the cartoon heroes of their youth is all astonishing technical know-how in the service of infectious exuberance and pure wonder.
Mixing the indelible characterisations of Chuck Jones, Disney’s beautiful animation and the screwball lunacy of Tex Avery, Roger Rabbit is a fitting tribute to the kind of fun you can only have with cinema.
Discovering the screenplay in the early ‘80s - the project was based on Gary K. Wolf’s dark novel Who Censored Roger Rabbit?, which told of gumshoe Eddie Valiant’s investigation of comic book character Roger Rabbit’s murder - Zemeckis was entranced by the opening scene, in which ‘toon characters walked off a cartoon set and into the real world.
Once Zemeckis was on board (Terry Gilliam had previously circled the project), he brightened the tone and transposed the action from the novel’s contemporary setting to 1947, the golden age of cartoon making.
Where Roger Rabbit still amazes today is in just how much the cartoons feel part of the real world, rather than being pasted into it. Nifty mechanical effects (robotic arms, intricate wirework, sets built six feet off the floor to accommodate puppeteers) enabled props to be moved by cartoon characters - who were added in later - giving the dailies the appearance of an Invisible Man movie.
The interaction was helped significantly by Bob Hoskins, who sells the relationship between Valiant and Roger beautifully (and with few of the ‘eyeline’ problems that mar modern CG flicks).
It is one of the movie’s greatest achievements that all the new ‘toon characters more than hold their own with their classic counterparts - wisecracking New York cab Benny; Baby Herman, cute toddler on screen, cigar-chomping womaniser off it (“The problem is I’ve got 50 year-old lust and a three year-old dinky”); and, of course, Jessica, Roger’s missus and femme fatale extraordinaire whose amazing anatomics describe parabolas that would induce cardiac arrest in a yak.
Spielberg personally negotiated with the myriad copyright holders to get animated stars from competing studios in the same picture. These ranged from big star turns - Daffy and Donald’s hilarious piano duel ("That’th the latht time I work with anyone with a thpeech impediment"), Bugs and Mickey playing a cruel parachute gag on Valiant - to the tiniest cameos (Michigan J. Frog from Chuck Jones’ 1955 short, One Froggy Evening).
When Eddie follows the mystery to the completely animated Toontown, the filmmaking process takes a 180-degree turn - here a real, live actor interacts with cartoon props and settings - and we are treated to a cavalcade of great cartoon characters, pratfalls and tropes, all flawlessly executed.
Yet the film has more to recommend it than techie jiggery-pokery and nostalgic pastiche. A sure-footed cinematic storyteller, Zemeckis marshals the narrative with tremendous discipline (the film noir plotline plays nice riffs on Chinatown as baddie Judge Doom - Christopher Lloyd - plans to demolish Toontown and build a freeway), never letting the stream of sight gags swamp the narrative.
Jeffrey Price and Peter S. Seaman’s screenplay also finds a sly wit within the madness (when quizzed about his knowledge of showbusiness, Eddie replies, “There’s no business like it. No business I know.”)
They also have the confidence to pause for the poignant: in the Ink And Paint Club, Valiant runs into a black-and-white Betty Boop who, working as a cigarette girl, laments, “Times are tough since cartoons went to colour.” As she is immediately upstaged by the brassy arrival of Jessica, the film adds touching and bittersweet to a perfect and purely cinematic experience.