Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)

Robert Zemeckis’s hit comedy Who Framed Roger Rabbit turns 30 this year. While it was a Disney production, this film was a hit in large part because it gave people the once-in-a-lifetime chance to see classic cartoon characters such as Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny share the screen. The title character (voiced by Charles Fleischer) would also become as beloved as Mickey and Bugs, reappearing in a few short animated films in the years since this film’s release. The added draw of having animated characters interact with humans was another plus to this movie.

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The year is 1947 and downtrodden private detective Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins) is summoned to Maroon Cartoon Studios by its head R.K. Maroon (Alan Tilvern). Eddie goes to Maroon’s office after being annoyed during the filming of “Somethin’s Cookin'”, in which Roger makes a mess of things while babysitting for Baby Herman. The director gets pissed with Roger after the latter takes a refrigerator to the head for the 23rd time and seeing birds rather than stars as scripted. This delay pisses off Baby Herman as well, causing him to use his normal chain-smoking voice to take a load off in his trailer while they reset.

In his office, Maroon tells Eddie that Roger’s wife Jessica is rumored to be involved with Marvin Acme, the owner of both the Acme Corporation (as Wile E. Coyote will tell you) and Toontown, where all the cartoon characters, or “Toons” as they are called, live. Eddie agrees to get some photographic evidence for the whopping fee of $100 as Maroon allows him to indulge in his love for the booze he has near his desk, while we see more classic characters such as Dumbo hanging out in Maroon’s back lot.

With Maroon’s $50 advance, Eddie heads to a nearby bar run by his girlfriend Dolores (Joanna Cassidy). He gives her the $50, which Dolores needs for business reasons, with the promise that the rest is coming and asks for her camera. She notes that the check is from Maroon, prompting the local bar rat Angelo to poke fun at the fact that Eddie is known for helping out toons. This pisses Eddie off enough to smack Angelo’s face into the bar before bolting. Dolores (who obviously hates Angelo too, as she doesn’t bother asking if he’s okay) explains that Eddie’s brother Teddy was killed by a toon.

That night, Eddie goes to the Ink and Paint Club, where Jessica sings. He gains entry after giving the password (“Walt sent me”) to the huge, humorless tuxedo-clad ape bouncer. On stage, we see Donald Duck and Daffy Duck pissing each other off while paying pianos. This leads to them trying to blow each other up to the applause of the audience. Making his way to one of the tables, Eddie gets scotch with rocks in his glass (as he had told a penguin waiter he wanted scotch on the rocks) and meets Acme (Stubby Kaye) when the latter tries out his new invisible ink pen by spraying some on Eddie’s suit.

After Eddie briefly catches up with Betty Boop, all the guys get excited as Jessica (Kathleen Turner) appears onstage for her number. Eddie’s eyes practically pop out when he sees she’s… well, doesn’t seem to be Roger’s type, as she gives Eddie, Acme, and the other guys in the audience a reason to love being alive.

Acme, followed by Eddie, goes to Jessica’s dressing room after her performance. When Eddie looks though the keyhole, the ape angrily tosses him out. So Eddie then makes his way to the window of Jessica’s room. He begins snapping away before becoming startled at what’s transpiring inside.

In Maroon’s office, both Roger and Maroon are equally taken aback, as it’s revealed that Eddie caught Jessica and Acme… playing patty-cake! Maroon offers Roger a drink, although it doesn’t help much as it briefly makes Roger crazy enough to smash up the office. Eddie and Maroon tell Roger that there are other fish in the sea, but Roger will have none of it and angrily breaks out of the office and into the night.

As Roger sits in an alley, wallowing in self-pity, Eddie returns to his office and smiles at the other pictures that were in the camera. These show him and Dolores enjoying themselves on a beach. But Eddie becomes sad when we see that his late brother was also on this trip. He glances over at his brother’s now-empty desk and drinks himself to sleep. He’s woken up the next day by an old acquaintance from the police force who informs him that Roger killed Acme during the night.

They head to the factory where the murder took place, and we see a chalk outline showing that Acme had a safe dropped on his head, along with paint supposedly from Roger’s gloves on the rope used for the killing. This factory has other toon-related packages, once of which breaks, causing animated shoes to briefly break out. In the confusion, Eddie spots something on the floor, but he’s stopped from collecting it by Judge Doom (Christopher Lloyd), the superior court judge of Toontown. Eddie briefly gets a chuckle when he demonstrates that the item was Acme’s hand buzzer, but Doom states that Maroon told him about how pissed off Roger was the previous night. He also assures Eddie and the police that he’ll find Roger with the help of the bumbling cartoon weasels in his employ. I guess Kirk blew up almost all the Klingons that worked for him, so Doom had to get help somewhere.

Doom further illustrates how he’ll get Roger when he introduces Eddie to his special concoction: Dip, a toxic combo of turpentine, acetone, and benzene which can do what safes, fridges and other dangerous objects cannot: kill toons. The judge gives a rather cruel demonstration by using it on one of the stray toon shoes from earlier.

Eddie heads back to his office, where he meets up with Baby Herman. The latter says that Roger wouldn’t kill anybody, and informs Eddie that Acme left a will, which has gone missing, that says that Toontown would go to the toons. After getting rid of Herman for saying that Eddie caused this mess with the pictures, Eddie gets a close-up of one of those pictures to reveal the will. Even scarier, he also finds Roger in his bed when he attempts to get some sleep. Roger tells him he needed a place to hide and assures him that nobody knows where he’s at—except the numerous people he asked for directions to Eddie’s office. He pisses off Eddie further with his goofing off by shackling them together in handcuffs that Eddie doesn’t have the keys for (of course). That’s when the weasels arrive, and Eddie hides Roger in some dishwater before they break in. After they leave, the duo heads for Dolores’s bar, where Roger temporarily hides after angering Eddie again when he easily slides out of the cuffs while Eddie tries to saw them off.

Jessica arrives at Eddie’s office as he finishes business in his bathroom (oh, boy). She tells him that Maroon blackmailed her into playing patty-cake with Acme by threatening Roger’s career. She departs as a pissed-off Dolores comes in and rips off the cartoon lip print Jessica planted on Eddie’s cheek. He finishes dressing, and with Jessica watching nearby, catches up with Dolores, who informs him that a company called Cloverleaf, which just bought L.A.’s Railway, is on the cusp of owning Toontown without Acme’s will saying otherwise.

But they realize that Roger has come out of hiding and is entertaining the bar’s patrons. This only draws the attention of Doom and his weasels. Eddie and Roger hide while Dolores covers for them, but Doom flushes Roger out by continuously tapping the “shave and a haircut” tune. Just as Roger is about to get dipped, Eddie convinces Doom to give him one last drink, which naturally makes Roger go bonkers, giving him and Eddie time to escape in a toon taxicab named Benny, who was arrested by the weasels for driving on a sidewalk.

After another brush with the weasels, Benny takes them to a movie theater. After Roger enjoys a short with Goofy, Eddie states that his downbeat mood was the result of his brother’s death. This makes Roger sad, saying he can see why Eddie hates him, but Eddie grudgingly assures him he doesn’t. Dolores meets up with them and they leave, but not before Eddie catches a newsreel saying that Maroon has made a deal with Cloverleaf.

This prompts him to return to Maroon’s office with a scared Roger in tow. Eddie tells him to keep an eye out and beep the horn if there’s trouble, but alas Roger is knocked out with a frying pan and dragged off just as Eddie goes inside. We see that Jessica is the one who KO’ed Roger (how romantic) and she tosses him into the trunk of her car. Eddie confronts an agitated Maroon, whom he manages to get the drop on. Maroon says that he wanted to blackmail Acme in order to secure the deal with Cloverleaf, but didn’t think murder would enter the equation. But he doesn’t say anything else as he’s shot to death by an unseen assailant holding a pistol through the office window. Eddie looks outside the window to see Jessica fleeing.

Eddie races to his car, and not finding Roger, attempts to pursue. This leads to the tunnel that’s the entrance to Toontown. He pauses before going farther and pulls out a special pistol with toon bullets, one of which he uses to destroy his remaining booze. Sure enough, Eddie enters to see himself surrounded by a cartoon world, and then promptly crashes his car into a cartoon building.

He traces Jessica to one of the high floors of a building (with Droopy at the controls of the elevator that takes him there), only to see that it’s not Jessica, but a crazed man-hungry toon. Eddie escapes, only to fall out of the incredibly high skyscraper. He briefly holds onto an extending pole, only to lose his grip thanks to Tweety thinking his fingers are “piggies”, and where’s Sylvester when you need him? Falling farther, he sees Mickey and Bugs with parachutes. When Eddie asks if they have a spare, Bugs says he does but isn’t sure if Eddie wants it. Mickey tells Bugs to cut the guy a break and they parachute away just as Eddie realizes the spare is actually a spare tire.

Fortunately (or not), the crazed toon catches him, prompting him to run some more. Thankfully, Eddie gets rid of her after he tosses the divider of the road she’s running on into a nearby wall.

Eddie finds Jessica in an alley, pistol aimed in his direction. But her shot takes out the shadow of someone behind him, who turns out to be Doom, whom Jessica says is the one who killed Maroon. Eddie fires at Doom but the other toon bullets take off in the opposite direction, prompting Eddie to refer to them as dum-dums. They find that Roger has broken out of the trunk that his wife put him in and made off in Eddie’s car. But they’re able to get away from the approaching weasels thanks to Benny. As they make a break for it, Jessica says that Acme told her that Doom was obsessed with getting Toontown and gave her his will for safekeeping, but all she found was a blank piece of paper, which Roger later used to write her a love letter.

Benny’s exit from Toontown proves harsh as Doom spills some dip on the road, burning out his tires. The judge makes off with Eddie and Jessica. At his hideout, Doom reveals to them that he owns Cloverleaf and that he plans to destroy Toontown with a machine that sprays out dip in order to make way for a freeway, and that people won’t have the option of using the Railway because he plans to get rid of it. Roger finds Benny, who painfully takes him to their hideout before getting the cops. Roger attempts to save his pal and his love, but gets knocked out, giving him those stars that eluded him earlier. As the Rabbits are hung up and ready to be dipped, Doom slips, causing the weasels to laugh. His statement that their laughter will kill them prompts Eddie to try to make them laugh themselves to death. They do just that, but Doom stops him from freeing Roger and Jessica. Their fight ends with Doom getting smashed by a steamroller, but he survives because he himself is a toon, specifically the one that killed Eddie’s brother. They fight some more before Eddie manages to get Doom’s machine to spray him with dip. He frees Roger and Jessica just as Doom’s machine enters Toontown and is destroyed by a passing train.

After Dolores, Benny, other toons, and the cops arrive, Eddie reveals Doom’s culpability in the matter and realizes that Roger wrote his love letter on Acme’s will, which was written with his disappearing-reappearing ink. The film ends with the toons celebrating that they now own Toontown, with both Porky Pig and Tinkerbell saying goodbye in their famous ways.

The movie itself was adapted from the 1981 novel Who Censored Roger Rabbit? That book has some notable differences with the book. For instance, instead of Mickey and Bugs teaming up, we see comic strip characters like Beetle Bailey and Snoopy in the novel.

Obviously, the big draw for this film was seeing cartoon characters and people interact. The good news is that both Hoskins and Cassidy are fun and likable in their roles, and Lloyd is suitably scary. I also always got a kick out of the fact that Donald and Daffy hate each other’s guts, while Mickey and Bugs seem to get along fine. For a contrast, check out Cool World, which came out four years later. Both the animated and flesh and blood people in that film just give the viewer a headache from beginning to end.

Naturally, the success of this film brought about talk of a sequel. Alas, we have yet to actually see one, and while this film is beloved, I have doubts we will. For one thing, Hoskins died in 2014. But animation itself has make great strides in the years since this film. So much so that special effects in live-action films done in the manner here are basically the norm now. Hence, mixing live-action and animation in this manner is not quite viewed as the awesome feat it once was.

Rob Kirchgassner

Rob is a blogger, critic, and author of suspense novels, including the new thriller Past the Breaking Point, available now from Amazon.

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  • maarvarq

    Jessica arrives at Eddie’s office as he finishes business in his bathroom (oh, boy)
    I presume that you have seen the deleted scene which reveals that Eddie was in the bathroom to wash off the (sapient) cartoon pig head that the baddies had stuck on him, so I don’t know what your “oh, boy” was about.

  • Deneb T. Hall

    One of the things I really appreciate about Who Framed Roger Rabbit is how it can be enjoyed on two different levels, with neither one interfering with the other. There’s so many ‘technical triumph’ movies out there, ones where film buffs will gush endlessly about how such-and-such technique was used for the first time and opened the doors for some other thing, and how influential and important it all is, and how you’ve GOT to see it – and then you watch it, and it’s just another movie. Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s bad, but except for the one groundbreaking aspect to it, there’s nothing special about it.

    Roger Rabbit breaks that mold. It is undoubtedly a masterpiece of animation, and a jaw-dropping achievement in the field of special effects. The more you hear about it, the more impressive it becomes – and yet, you don’t have to know ANY of that in order to appreciate the film. It’s fun, it’s engaging, it’s exciting, it’s got a script that’s twisty enough to suit its murder mystery plot, yet simple enough to make sense; the basic premise is ingenious, the original characters are timeless, the licensed ones are cool to see, the visuals are unique and interesting, and the villain is one of the best in cinema.

    All that is there right up front. The special effects could have been absolute crap, and it STILL would have been a great movie worth seeing. The fact that they were phenomenal just makes it better.

  • jbwarner86

    Seeing this movie for the first time when I was four probably put me down the route to becoming the passionate animation geek I am today. As a kid, I didn’t even follow the plot, all I thought was “Oh my god, cartoons and people in the same room! That’s the best thing ever!” Watching it again as an adult, I appreciate all the levels this movie works on. No joke, this is my favorite movie of all time.

  • rpdavies

    This was made at just the right time, especially as many golden age cartoon staffers were brought out of retirement to work on it, & wouldn’t have available a few years later.

    They could have been lazy & used they best CGI that was around at the time for all the animation, but in the end it was only used where it was needed to blend the animated & live action parts together.

    I can’t remember how many times I’ve watched it but almost every time I’ve spotted something new I didn’t see of get the gist of before. Supposedly Warner Bros & Disney would allow characters to be used if they had equal screen time, hence the pairings mentioned above. Sadly MGM wouldn’t allow Tom & Jerry to appear, & I guess Popeye was too complicated rights wise to make a cameo.

    I doubt the 1990s animation boom would have been as big had this film not done so well.

    • jbwarner86

      It’s uncanny how perfect the timing was for this movie to exist. A few years later, and it would’ve been swimming in CGI, Steven Spielberg might not have been on board (he took Jeffrey Katzenberg’s side when he and Michael Eisner had their falling out), and they would’ve lost the contributions of classic voice actors Mae Questel and Mel Blanc. It’s like the planets aligned to give us the most perfect version of this movie.

  • Jose Gregorio Bencomo Gomez

    Sadly, we won’t see a sequel as long as Disney and Warner are at each other’s throats.

    • Chefe O’Hara

      I don’t know… They joined efforts just recently in order to make the sensational (and sadly cancelled) “Right Now, Kapow”. And there’s always space for crossovers between the Marvel/DC super-heroes they respectively own, when intercompany crossovers get fashionable again.

  • rpdavies

    I rewatched this last night & it still stands up well.

    There are many hidden gems scattered around for the animation buffs to spot.

    Bob Hoskins did very well with his accent, apart from the odd moment where it slips.

    There’s only the odd bit where the live action & cartoon elements don’t mesh, but if you’re concentrating on the story it won’t be obvious.

    While the chance of a sequel seems to have passed, Robert Zemeckis has occasionally talked about a 3D reissue, & might be tempted to smooth out the above with CGI George Lucas style.