Monday 25 June 2018

Who Framed Roger Rabbit? at 30: the game-changer Hollywood couldn't top

In 1988, the ambitious multimedia caper brought darkness and a satirical edge to the summer and the industry has struggled to match its inventiveness ever since

At a time when the predominant male gaze in the world of film criticism is being questioned by Oscar-winning female actors and lowly denizens of Twitter alike, the erudite New Yorker critic Anthony Lane took more flak than he might have expected for an irreverent review of Pixar’s innocent animated romp The Incredibles 2.

Roger Rabbit and Bob Hoskins as Eddie Vallant in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?. Photograph: Everett Collection / Rex Feature
Or not so innocent, depending on who you believe: Lane poked fun at what he claimed was Pixar’s overt sexualisation of cartoon superhero mom Elastigirl, likening her to Anastasia Steele in the Fifty Shades franchise before joking that she’d prompt many an accompanying dad to “[rest] his cooling soda firmly in his lap” at the cinema. Some found Lane’s exaggerated leering over a family comedy lewdly funny, others simply gross. What inspired less debate, however, was the question of whether Elastigirl – sleek in spike-heeled thigh boots and a rubber bodysuit, and seemingly made curvier than in the 2004 original – was hot. Animated form notwithstanding, she kind of is, and Lane is far from the first person to note that: brace yourself before typing the words “Elastigirl porn” into Google, is what I’m saying.

It’s funny that this flare-up should have occurred in the week that marks the 30th anniversary of Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, the film that probably prompted more bewildered arousal, across cartoon lines, among audiences than any other in history. “I’m not bad,” Jessica Rabbit cooed from beneath a peekaboo curtain of hair, flashing as much scarlet-draped thigh and sideboob as can possibly be squeezed under a PG certificate. “I’m just drawn that way.”

Bob Hoskins as Eddie Valiant and Kathleen Turner voicing Jessica Rabbit. Photograph: Allstar/Warner Bros/Sportsphoto Ltd/Allstar
Smokily voiced by Kathleen Turner (with Amy Irving taking over for the sultry torch songs) and drawn like an anatomically impossible hybrid of Veronica Lake and Rita Hayworth, Jessica Rabbit swiftly overtook Betty Boop as the ne plus ultra of animated sex symbols, and she wasn’t even the main attraction. A character of wittily adult conception and appeal, the 2D glamazon nonetheless slotted slinkily into the more antic, kid-friendly hijinks of Robert Zemeckis’s form-bending multimedia comedy, which pitted Bob Hoskins’ dishevelled 1940s Hollywood gumshoe against a manic ensemble of invented cartoon characters and Looney Tunes veterans to solve a snaky showbiz murder mystery.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit? was, in 1988, an imposingly high-concept confection by Hollywood standards: the driving gimmick of its limber script, that humans and ghettoised cartoon characters could live and interact in the same dimension, was fluidly realised with techniques light years ahead of Mary Poppins’ live-action/animation blending 24 years previously. (Those visual effects won Zemeckis’s film one of its four Oscars.) Were the film released today, its technology might not cause as many jaws to drop, but its storytelling still might: at a time when family-friendly studio entertainments are workshopped, focus-grouped and group thought to within an inch of their airless lives, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? still stands out as bracingly, remarkably strange for a multimillion-dollar product released under Disney’s auspices through their Touchstone Pictures division.

Drawn from a distinctly grown-up novel, Gary K Wolf’s nutso satirical noir Who Censored Roger Rabbit?, it worked intricate narrative properties from adult genres into the innocent realm of Saturday morning cartoons with dazzling fluency, balancing fast, charred verbal comedy with gloriously elemental slapstick. It may be the quintessential four-quadrant blockbuster: Jessica Rabbit’s sex appeal is just one dog-whistle component targeted to tease some members of the family while passing blandly through others.

The word “game-changer” is wildly overused in Hollywood, but if it feels applicable to Roger Rabbit, that’s because it’s built entirely on puckish game-playing to adults and children alike. You can feel the two-pronged impact of its winking, multi-levelled comedy in virtually every animated juggernaut of the modern era, from the low-hanging dirty punnery of the Shrek films to the plain LGBT subtext of Frozen to any amount of zippy in-jokes in, well, The Incredibles 2. (We’ll leave Elastigirl out of it for the moment.) Yet where Zemeckis’s film felt subversive in both its black-comic doublespeak and formal invention, this kind of layering now feels calculated and committee-tweaked in studio family fare: Pixar’s latest, written with a customary story supervisor and two “story managers” in attendance, is both slickly tooled and surprise-free.

Roger Rabbit & Christopher Lloyd as Judge Doom. Photograph: Allstar/Warner Bros
The non-traditional success of Zemeckis’s film for the Mouse House triggered the resurgence of their markedly more traditional animation: the next year, the delightful but conventionally fairytale-based The Little Mermaid was released and a renaissance was declared. Yet the experimental spirit of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? was essentially nipped in the bud: save for a few paler imitations in the Space Jam vein, few commercial film-makers followed the lead of its sharp mixed-media approach, while more technological innovation was poured into making “pure” animation as digitally pristine as possible. Zemeckis himself, who would win an Oscar six years later for the galumphing conservative populism of Forrest Gump but never topped this level of creative zest, wound up pioneering performance-capture techniques in such otherwise drab, soulless animated features as The Polar Express and Beowulf.

The striking, simultaneous adult-child function of Roger Rabbit’s storytelling, meanwhile, was largely watered-down into more innocuous family film asides. Even the film’s most obvious latter-day heir, Disney’s whiringly clever, politically infused animal kingdom mystery Zootopia, took fewer tonal risks in its daffy hybrid of kiddie adventure and heavily referential genre cinema – while visually, it was safe, pop-coloured Disney product. Thirty years ago, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? was the freshest thing out: a big, bright, eye-popping all-purpose romp that was also darkly funny, suspenseful, touched by madness and even weirdly sexy. It made bank, won Oscars and blazed a trail for what future family films could look, sound and feel like. As glossily as studio animation has evolved in the intervening decades, it’s hard not to feel that Hollywood didn’t follow the flames. Forget it, Jake, it’s Toontown.

(Source: The Guardian)

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