Time is relative right now. The jury’s still out on any semblance of a summer movie season. Thus, the Midwest Film Journal is celebrating — at least in the astronomical sense — Endless Summer. In this intermittent series, which will run through the autumnal equinox on Sept. 22, we’ll look back at summer films from seasons past. Big, small, light, heavy, wild successes and weird misfires. Our multiplex is full and open for Endless Summer.
I don’t remember when I first watched Who Framed Roger Rabbit? It wasn’t 1988, when the film was released. I wasn’t even a year old yet let alone smoking cigars in my crib. I do remember we didn’t own the movie outright. Tons of the films I grew up with were bootlegged VHS tapes that sat underneath our television nested in black clamshells that never closed right and only had the title scribbled on a sticker. I thought one movie was Whatever Happened to Baby Jane & King Ralph, and didn’t realize they were two movies until my 20s. (I still haven’t watched either one.)
Whenever it was, I was pretty young and pretty dumb. I certainly didn’t know what the word “framed” meant, and if a movie didn’t have a bunch of art on its case, I had a hard time getting interested. But one day I must have popped it in or someone popped it in for me. The nuances of the plot were lost on me, but I did know I liked cartoons and Christopher Lloyd was intoxicating.
Animation has come a long way since then, and I’m a bit sad about that in the longing, nostalgic sort of way that makes us all sad when thinking of simpler times. Don’t get me wrong. I absolutely love what animation has become. It’s no longer relegated to children or the oddball Stanley Ipkiss types. Animation can make for some wonderful drama and deep cuts into humanity. Still, there’s a certain whimsy to the Golden Age that Who Framed Roger Rabbit? was able to tap into directly, and it always will be a landmark for embracing the very essence of imagination.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit? wasn’t the first instance of animation and live-action sequences sharing the same film reel. That concept is as old as movies itself, first occurring with The Enchanted Drawing in 1900. Perhaps we could have an interesting discussion of exactly where juxtaposition ends and special effects begin, but there’s no doubt that attempts at more equal footing popped up in beloved films like Mary Poppins and Bedknobs and Broomsticks.
Roger just took it a step further.
In other movies, actors seem to act alongside animations. They’re moving collages with the pieces snipped out and moving at the same time but never really in the same space. In Roger, however, it’s hard to discern that border. Both animated characters and live actors interact with each other. When Siskel and Ebert reviewed Roger, Ebert seemed so blown away by Jessica Rabbit’s entry — both by the practical effects used to make it seem like she was physically touching a live handkerchief to flirt and by the interaction that actor Bob Hoskins has with her as detective Eddie Valiant. We know Hoskins wasn’t actually looking at Jessica, but something or someone who wasn’t a voluptuous, red-headed animated singer grabbed hold of Hoskins’ tie and Hoskins needed to show he was flustered. And he did.
That acting is extremely challenging. Ian McKellan famously admitted to breaking down on the set of The Hobbit films:
“In order to shoot the dwarves and a large Gandalf, we couldn’t be in the same set. All I had for company was thirteen photographs of the dwarves on top of stands with little lights — whoever’s talking flashes up. Pretending you’re with thirteen other people when you’re on your own, it stretches your technical ability to the absolute limits. And I cried, actually. I cried. Then I said out loud, ‘This is not why I became an actor.’ Unfortunately, the microphone was on and the whole studio heard.”
Hoskins himself quipped he hallucinated for some time after filming Who Framed Roger Rabbit? because he was so intently imagining cartoon characters moving and acting in front of him. He wasn’t the first pick for Detective Eddie Valiant. Eddie Murphy, Harrison Ford and Bill Murray (who regretted missing out on the part so much that he made sure he showed up in another famously nostalgic animation crossover, Space Jam) were all considered. Surely any of these actors would have worked in different ways, but I don’t think they could have shared the limelight with Roger Rabbit in the way Hoskins does. Roger is the star of this movie, and it’s really a testament to Hoskins’ skill that his acting shares that space as much as the effects.
At this point in Hoskins’ career, he was a multi-nominated BAFTA actor, winning the award outright with his performance in Mona Lisa, which also garnered him a Golden Globe win and an Oscar nomination. He had built a living playing gruff, authoritative characters, and his trademark voice cadenced with his lovely Cockney accent easily could have meant continued robust work inside this milieu. He didn’t have to take any risks outside of crime and drama films, but he did — finding himself in Alan Alda’s comedy Sweet Libertyand Terry Gilliam’s tour de force Brazil, where Hoskins’ natural acting talent was obviously uncontainable.
So it wasn’t as if the comedic bug never bit Hoskins, but he’s certainly not the first name to pop into your head when coming up with comedic actors. But in the five years following Mona Lisa, Hoskins would etch himself on the memories of many ’90s kids by playing Valiant (he loved it), Smee in Hook and Mario Mario in Super Mario Bros., the best video game film adaptation ever made (he hated it). He made as indelible of a mark on me then as Robin Williams or Jim Carrey ever did, and it’s a joy to watch his interviews.
But you didn’t have to be a kid to appreciate Who Framed Roger Rabbit? because it was extremely ambitious and succeeded on that ambition at every turn. This isn’t just because of the attention to detail that the animators used to give the film that Golden Age feel. At the time, it was the most expensive film ever made because of that work. It was also because of actors like Hoskins and because, like all great animation, the doubling of one meaning for adults and another for children makes experiencing them together something special. Pattycake has never been so enchanting!
Who Framed Roger Rabbit? is the product that results from a combination of audacity and success. Have one or the other, and you can discover your cult classics and your blockbusters. Have both, and you have found the mythical classic.