14 February 2011

DISNEY SUNDRIES: IS THAT A RABBIT IN YOUR POCKET, OR ARE YOU JUST HAPPY TO SEE ME?

At long last, I am wrapping up my survey of the sneaky little corners of Walt Disney Feature Animation with a film that wasn't technically made by WDFA at all, but it would have killed me to exclude it. My thanks and apologies to everyone who has asked if I'd be reviewing this in the past few months.

When the Walt Disney Company fell under the control of Michael Eisner and company in the 1980s, one of the biggest changes they made to corporate culture - and this is, in hindsight, so utterly self-evident that it hardly bears me saying it - was a new emphasis on movies that would make lots of money. Well, duh, you might think, and yet in the era of The Black Cauldron and its discontents, it seems that whoever was minding the shop at Disney had no idea at all of how to make a wise business decision.

I bring this up because the film Who Framed Roger Rabbit, eventually released in the summer of 1988, is an excellent case study of how the company under Ron W. Miller was different from the company under Michael Eisner. It was Miller who first purchased the rights to Gary K. Wolf's 1981 novel Who Censored Roger Rabbit?, a humorous mystery novel about a world where comic strip figures and human beings interact. Nothing came of the idea until 1985, when Eisner thought that the story would work well in the new wave of blockbuster effects-driven comedies that were coming into vogue around that time; and at that point, he approached Steven Spielberg about executive producing. That, in a nutshell, is the sea change that happened to company: from thinking an idea looked fun and offered good opportunities for the animators (noble impulses, that I would not like to denigrate, though a 1981 version of Roger Rabbit would undoubtedly have been much worse than the one released), and actually figuring out how to go about making a successful movie. Miller would never, ever have thought to co-produce a movie with Amblin Entertainment; nor would he likely have been okay with outsourcing the animation to the degree that was done. Eisner was, and it was a result of these and similar choices that allowed Roger Rabbit to be produced for an amount of money unheard-of in those days, and that caused it to be one of the great comic masterpiece of the 1980s. Only eleven years separate Roger Rabbit from the flaccid Pete's Dragon; they are divided much more by two different worldviews of what "Disney Entertainment" could mean.

And truth be told, the film really doesn't feel very "Disney", for all that Roger made the expected appearances at Disney theme parks and in Disney comics for several years after the film came out, before its popularity started waning around the turn of the '00s (it was, at any rate, released through Disney's "grown-up" label, Touchstone Pictures). It feels much more like the work of its director, '80s tech whiz Robert Zemeckis; Spielberg was undoubtedly more hands-on than any Disney executive; even the animation itself is less reminiscent of the genial vaudeville of a Mickey short than of the gleefully morbid work that Tex Avery did at MGM.

But a Disney movie it nonetheless is, and a fairly important one for the company's continued well-being: the highest-grossing of all the studio's films in the 1980s, the second-highest grossing film of 1988 (behind, unfathomably, Rain Man), the highest-grossing animated or semi-animated film upon its release. That last point is the most important one: it's a commonplace among animation scholars that Who Framed Roger Rabbit re-ignited the Western audience's interest in cartoons, demonstrating to Americans for the first time that there could be such a thing as - get this - animation that was made for adults. The huge success of this film primed the pump for The Little Mermaid the following year, and the subsequent Disney Renaissance, and the rest is history; you did perhaps notice that five of the ten highest-grossing features of 2010 were animated?

A lot of influence, a lot of success; it couldn't have happened to a more deserving picture. Personal bias being what it is, maybe it doesn't mean a lot for me to argue that Roger Rabbit is the best film directed by Zemeckis; the best of the many great high-concept '80s popcorn-comedies; the best American film of 1988. But I'd argue every one of those things anyway.

If you've forgotten - or if, God forbid, you haven't seen it - Who Framed Roger Rabbit is a neo-noir set in the hazy Los Angeles of 1947. Private detective Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins) has been living in a bottle these past few years, scrounging for any bit of dirty money he can find, when he's offered the latest in what we can assume is a long line of sleazy "cheating spouse" jobs. But in this case, it's not the husband paying him, but the husband's boss: R.K. Maroon (Alan Tilvern), head of Maroon Cartoons, is concerned that his toon star Roger Rabbit (voiced by Charles Fleischer) has been driven to distraction by rumors that his wife, Jessica (voiced by an uncredited Kathleen Turner, with singing courtesy of Amy Irving, in those days none other than Mrs. Spielberg), is cheating with novelty toy manufacturer Marvin Acme (Stubby Kaye). Valiant's job is to prove it one way or the other, which he does in short order; but when Acme ends up dead and Roger takes the blame, Valiant quickly ends up in the heart of a mystery involving murderous anti-toon Judge Doom (Christopher Lloyd) and his weasel henchmen (each of them given a name and one personality trait - Stupid, Wheezy, Psycho - in parody of the Seven Dwarfs, though only five weasels made it to the final script), a company named "Cloverleaf", and the land rights to Toontown, the animated neighborhood where most of Hollywood's cartoon actors live.

In all the chatter about the film's technical excellence and its loving tribute to classic American cartoons, one thing is routinely ignored, and thus I will begin there: Who Framed Roger Rabbit is a pretty damn good neo-noir; or rather, a pretty damn great post-WWII, California-bound detective story, for noir suggests a certain amount of curdled, world-weary cynicism, and the combination of Disney and Spielberg was certainly never going to count cynicism among its attributes. But aside from that, the film does an exemplary job of pushing through a complex story of, in Valiant's own words, "greed, sex, and murder." I'm not the first to point out that writers Jeffrey Price & Peter S. Seaman reworked the novel into, for all intents and purposes, a gloss of Chinatown: it starts with a private investigator taking a sleazy adultery case that proves to be a set-up; that same PI has a history with a particular Los Angeles neighborhood that he's forced to re-visit in the course of this investigation*; he becomes embroiled with the woman at the center of his earlier investigation; and the whole thing unfolds against a true story of shady dealings in developing the infrastructure of southern California. Frankly, even with its sunny ending and humorous tone, Roger Rabbit is closer to the spirit of Chinatown than the dismal sequel The Two Jakes (allegedly, the never-made third Jake Gittes movie was to center on the same topic of how the freeway came to Los Angeles, and was even to have the title Cloverleaf).

In other words, Roger Rabbit relies, maybe a bit too much, on familiar generic tropes, but I do not call it a great detective story because it apes Chinatown. It is a great detective story largely because it has a great detective marching from step to step through a plot that, thanks to the film's mainstream aspirations, has no choice but to be told with concision and clarity. And by "great detective", I of course don't mean that Valiant is a brilliant, Poirot-esque investigator, but that he's a great character, played by Hoskins in one of his better performances (though isn't Hoskins always giving one of his better performances?) as a hard-living, worn-out sack of humanity. The film never condescends to him, and that's actually another one of its unheralded triumphs: that it plays the mystery story so entirely straight. This is not, as I have seen claimed, a "parody" of Chinatown. A rip-off if we're being mean, an homage if we're being nice; but not one single element of the detective genre is played for laughs.

Indeed, the movie's not much of a conventional comedy. One might even be bold enough to claim that it's no comedy at all, for most of the humor in the film is built in to the concept. That is to say: Who Framed Roger Rabbit is a dramatic mystery that takes place in a world where a sizable portion of the population are driven, by their essential nature, to make jokes. Consider this: in most comedies, the humor takes place above the film, you might say; the characters don't think of themselves as making jokes or taking part in gags, but we laugh because we see what they're doing as absurd. In Roger Rabbit, the gags happen within the film: save for a few reaction shots here and there, every single joke in the movie centers on a character who knows that they are being funny. It's a straight narrative about funny people, in essence. And that's a major part of what makes it work so terrifically well: it is perfectly sincere about its story, and about the manner of the telling.

That said: the film has always been chiefly beloved for its tremendous craft, and that's perfectly fair. This is a miraculously well-made film in a great many respects: before CGI was used for everything from creating whole characters out of thin air to slightly adjusting the text on a sign in the background, Roger Rabbit was a major achievement of visual effects used to tell a story. Compared to the other works combining live-action and animation, this film is so vastly more sophisticated that it hardly seems possible: the camera moves all about with abandon, cartoon characters interact with a real environment in ways both major and almost invisibly small. Zemeckis was not the first choice to direct (Terry Gilliam turned the film down), but he was the best choice: few filmmakers have ever been so consistently alive to the dramatic possibilities of special effects, and I'm not sure there's anyone I would have trusted more in the mid-'80s to direct a a feature in which most of the cast did not exist on set. Even beyond being an effects-driven filmmaker, Zemeckis is certainly great at his work, something I don't think he gets credit for often enough; his work here is both typical and unusually accomplished, with the expected show-off touches (a remarkable tracking shot around Valiant's office, explaining all his backstory through props and photos, feels just like the shot of Doc Brown's place in Back to the Future) along with perfect little touches to add just that little oomph where we need it (e.g. the trick, which I hadn't notice before, where he always reflects light off of Judge Doom's glasses and makes them big circles of white, blocking our view of his eyes; it's both unnerving and a cunning bit of foreshadowing).

The effects work is not always seamless: often, the actors aren't quite looking at the right place, and the sheer complexity of compositing that many elements without computer help almost ensured that there would be times when that compositing was very obvious. If you're watching for it, Roger Rabbit is a treasure trove of what the IMDb calls "revealing mistakes": places where things simply didn't come together as well as the filmmakers hoped.

But that's the rub: you have to be watching for it. And in an act of sleight-of-hand that can hardly be over-praised, Zemeckis does everything he can to prevent you from doing so. What the film actually reminds me of, as so many things do, is ventriloquist Edger Bergen. If you've not seen Bergen, a major radio and film star in the '40s with his iconic dummies Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd, let me assure you: he was a terrible ventriloquist. In terms of sheer technical proficiency, I can guarantee that you, personally, would be no less effective a ventriloquist than Edger Bergen. Sometimes, he didn't even try to hide the fact that he was moving his lips. Yet, as I said, he was a major star, and it wasn't because audiences in the '40s were idiots (though the fact that he broke big in radio couldn't have hurt). It's because Bergen kept things moving quickly, and created such arresting personalities for his dummies: watching his routine, you're naturally drawn to the dummies, who are at any rate more interesting by far than their creator.

So it is with Roger Rabbit: Zemeckis keeps things popping along so briskly, and throws so many hugely ambitious tricks, and favors the animated characters visually, so that you never look at the seams unless it's because you're looking for the seams. The filmmakers gamble that we'll be so amazed and delighted by e.g. a cartoon rabbit jumping out of a real sink and spitting real water, that we won't pause to notice that, in fact, the whole thing is rather shaky; it's the Big Lie, basically, the hope that we'll be so impressed by the broad stroke that we'll overlook the little brushwork. For my money, the gamble pays off handsomely. It's what separates this film from e.g. Mary Poppins: in that film, the static shots call all the attention they can to the effects work-

-but here everything is so busy that we're thinking more about what is happening than how it's happening. It's surely no accident that the film looks better in motion than it does in stills - a hell of a lot better.

The animation itself, though Disney has never done much to promote this fact, was sort of a hybrid job. The much-esteemed Richard Williams was given job as animation director, and he very quickly made it clear that he wasn't interested in working in the institutional guidelines of Walt Disney Feature Animation. Thus it was that the animation was itself produced in England, and largely with non-Disney animators; though the supervising animators, including Dale Baer, Andreas Deja, and Phil Nibbelink, came over from Disney, and this film turned out to be the first of many Disney projects for such important figures as James Baxter and Nik Ranieri.

Under Williams's care, the animation in the film proved to be thrilling removed from the Disney house style, befitting characters working at the fictitious "Maroon Cartoons". It's often said that Roger Rabbit boasts Looney Tunes characters with Disney-quality animation, but I don't find that to be a persuasive shorthand: the character design is closer to Warners than Disney, admittedly, but it's something new and original, something that looks of The 1940s in general without looking like any of the three big animation companies of the '40s specifically. Jessica Rabbit in particular is a magnificent collage of ideas: it's easy to read her as a rival company's attempt to copy Tex Avery's Red Hot Riding Hood, with a few key redesigns (Veronica Lake's hair jumps to mind) to make her Maroon's own; at the same time, she's much sketchier than any other character in the film, barely having a face at all. "I'm not bad, I'm just drawn that way" is a good laugh line, but there are two meanings to the word "bad", and it's worth pointing out that a cartoon figure largely meant to be a pin-up isn't expected to be as expressive as a slapstick hero.

Really, the only point where I find Williams and crew to be working at a disappointing level is the opening sequence, where we visit the set of the newest Roger Rabbit short: as funny as "Somethin's Cookin'" is (better by far than the three Roger Rabbit shorts Disney put out in the four years after the feature), it does not remotely feel like a '40s cartoon, not even the most sprawling and ambitious. There's too much movement along the Z-axis; too many camera angles that would have taken too long in the cookie-cutter world of studio animation. It looks, in fact, like a bunch of '80s animators showing off. Showing off beautifully, but showing off nonetheless.

Perhaps the film's greatest claim to fame as far as animation goes, however, is its catch-all approach to animated characters; after much painful negotiation, Spielberg was able to secure the rights to depict characters from seven different studios (eight, if we count a Felix the Cat cameo so subtle it barely counts) in the film's universe, interacting with each other and the plot. Most of these come from Disney, for undoubtedly practical reasons (delightfully, significantly large cameos are given to the hummingbirds from Song of the South and the penguins from Mary Poppins, Disney's two most important live-action/animation hybrids before Roger Rabbit itself), but non-Disney characters are given some choice positioning: Yosemite Sam gets one of the film's most famous gags (and best-executed effects), while Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny get to have face time with, respectively, Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse, in a pair of scenes which were the result of long, tedious wrangling between Disney and Warner Bros. (Bugs gets in the last word, both times we see him); oddly, both Bugs and Daffy appear in their late-'40s character models, while Mickey and Donald are modernised.

Porky Pig has the privilege of the film's final line, Droopy Dog gets a fairly large scene to himself, and in a magnificent touch that couldn't possibly be motivated by anything other than a love of the form, Koko the Clown is scene wandering around the Maroon backlot. In a particularly subtle gesture of pan-studio solidarity the very Maroon Cartoons logos reference both the Looney Tunes circle logo thingy that I only just now realised has no actual name that I know of, and the Disney faces on a starburst cards, that opened those two companies' many shorts.

Personally, my most favorite nod to classic animation is none of these (the Micky/Bugs scene in particular has always struck me as forced just for the sake of combining two icons; it's not unlike the cartoon version of Righteous Kill) is when Betty Boop shows up, still voiced by a then-80-year-old Mae Questel, right before Jessica makes her first appearance; a subtle but, I think, wholly effective passing of the torch from animation's first caricatured sexpot to her newest descendant.

All of this can be, and has been, derided as so much fan service; and there's no denying that the animators of 1988 are a different breed than the animators of 1947. One of the film's harshest detractors was Chuck Jones, offended by the notion of a film in celebration of Golden Age American animation with a human protagonist; I'll spot him that objection without necessarily agreeing, and point out further that the gloss of high-budget animation serves in some degree to obfuscate what was always one of the most appealing traits of those post-war shorts, their primitivism. Looney Tunes in particular are in some ways brilliant because of their obvious cheapness, which married well to their anarchic spirit; Who Framed Roger Rabbit gets that spirit awfully well for a film made in the'80s, but it's all slightly too formal and regal. That is, beyond question, a nitpick; the film is an extraordinary achievement of the medium, and neither Chuck Jones nor I can take that away.

By all means, it's a populist film; I would love to make some claim for it as a profound work of historical inquiry into the changing nature of animated film, but it's simply not. It's only a top-notch piece of craftsmanship and entertainment made by one of Hollywood's most reliable directors of extravagantly-mounted popcorn movies (till mo-cap caught his eye and he want insane) at the very peak of his powers. Only that! Ah, how low I set the bar for Zemeckis and Williams and their teams. Would that every film of my childhood had aged half so well as Who Framed Roger Rabbit, that impossibly rare sort of thing that I have come to appreciate far more with every passing year.

4 comments:

Duckers said...

Great review. I love this film.

I think it not only paved the way for Disney's rebirth, but also reawakened a general love for the old school Warner Brothers/Tex Avery/United Artists-style. It certainly led to Spielberg attempting to revive Warner Animation fortunes through TV shows like "Tiny Toon Adventures" and "Animaniacs", and later movies like "Back In Action" and "Space Jam".

While those shows and movies weren't all that great they seemed to beget a new generation of TV cartoons that played to nostalgic adults as well as they did to kids.

Anyway, thanks again for another informative, entertaining blog.

Daniel Silberberg said...

Love the movie, though I must say, I thought it went considerably downhill once we get to Toon Town.

javi75 said...

Yeah, really great review.

I always wondered, are Doom's weasels new characters or taken from somewhere? I guess I'll check wikipedia or something.

So why doesn't "Enchanted" qualify for this? It's a Disney movie, and I believe the animated sections were supervised by James Baxter, notorious ex-Disney animator, right?
And "The Rocketeer" had a brief animated clip, Nazi animation!

Mysterious F. said...

Fantastic review. This movie remains seriously underrated. (I've been following your blog for some time, now, by the way. Good stuff.)