There are so many streaming options available these days, and so many conflicting recommendations, that it’s hard to see through all the crap you could be watching. Each Friday, The Verge’s Cut the Crap column simplifies the choice by sorting through the overwhelming multitude of movies and TV shows on subscription services and recommending a single perfect thing to watch this weekend.
What to Watch
Who Framed Roger Rabbit, a film noir set in an alternate version of Golden Age Hollywood in which animated characters, or “Toons,” share the town with their human counterparts — sometimes with murderous consequences.
Adapting Gary K. Wolf’s 1981 novel Who Censored Roger Rabbit? was never going to be easy. It’s one thing to use words to create a world in which cartoons coexist with a world made of flesh, blood, wood, and concrete. It’s another to bring that world to life on the big screen without making it look ridiculous. Maybe that’s why the film cycled through several directors before ending up in the hands of Robert Zemeckis, who took it on as his follow-up to his 1985 hit Back to the Future.
Back to the Future, no doubt, presented its share of special effects challenges, but it was nothing compared to integrating Richard Williams’ remarkable animation — filled with both new creations and cameos from famous characters like Bugs Bunny and Donald Duck — with live-action footage in which private eye Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins) teams up with Toon star Roger Rabbit (voiced by Charles Fleischer), trying to clear his name.
Roger appears to have murdered a mogul whom he suspected of having an affair with his Toon wife Jessica (voiced by Kathleen Turner). But as the title suggests, all is not as it first appeared, and the search for the truth sends Eddie and Roger into the darkest corners of Los Angeles, including the Toon-populated neighborhood of Toontown. To make that journey believable, the film has to work as a story, of course. But if the effects didn’t make audiences forget they were watching a movie, the story wouldn’t have mattered. Whether Roger Rabbit would fall flat on its face was its own sort of mystery until it hit theaters in June 1988.
Why Watch Now
Not only did the film end up working, but it’s since quietly become one of the most influential films of the last few decades, and the new Detective Pikachu is one of its obvious followers.
As a mystery that teams a human up with an animated sidekick, Detective Pikachu owes an obvious debt to Who Framed Roger Rabbit. And Roger Rabbit’s blurring of reality and cartoons also helped set the stage for a current moment when it’s often not possible to see where reality ends and fantasy begins, thanks to special effects advances in the years since Zemeckis’ film.
Its legacy wasn’t always so obvious. A long-discussed sequel never developed, and after a few years of making clever Roger Rabbit shorts to run in front of its feature films, Disney seemed to lose interest in the character. What’s more — apart from Ralph Bakshi’s borderline unwatchable Cool World — other movies didn’t much take up the idea of teaming up humans with cartoons. But while early examples like Jar-Jar Binks and Blarp, the horrifying space monkey from 1998’s Lost in Space, weren’t all that inspiring, the mixing of human actors and special effects creations has since become an expected part of moviegoing, in a world where the Hulk can take selfies with fans in Avengers: Endgame. We now live in a world Roger Rabbit saw coming.
What’s been lost — and what’s at the center of Who Framed Roger Rabbit — is the reflection of what it means for the world of movie magic to bleed into something like the real world. (Or at least the real world as filtered through classic detective stories.) Scripted by the team of Jeffrey Price and Peter S. Seaman, Who Framed Roger Rabbit makes Roger a thoroughly realized character while still forcing him to abide by the rules of the Toon world. He gets jealous, hurt, and fearful, but he’s bound by the compulsion to be funny, sometimes at the expense of his own well-being. Jessica looks like a femme fatale, but is she? “I’m not bad,” she says, “I’m just drawn that way.” It’s a funny line, but it’s also one that raises all kinds of question about free will. She has to be breathy and seductive, but is Eddie any less constrained by the expectations of the hard-bitten private eye role he’s playing? (And, for that matter, are you and I not playing characters bound by rules we don’t always understand?)
Beneath the sight gags, the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it guest spots, and the funny homages to classic noir (all in service of a plot inspired by real Los Angeles history), Who Framed Roger Rabbit forces viewers to consider how movie illusions work. Sometimes they’re painful: in one haunting sequence, the villainous Judge Doom (Christopher Lloyd) demonstrates his Toon-killing substance by trying it out on a cute, squeaky cartoon shoe that becomes increasingly panicked as its death nears. Then it’s silenced in a hiss of steam.
It’s as difficult to watch as the most graphic Saw movie. It’s also, of course, just lines drawn on paper, put to film, and given the illusion of life. But who, in that moment, can remember that it’s just part of a movie? Watching any film — whether it’s Roger Rabbit, a superhero extravaganza made possible in part by its special effects innovations, or a slow-paced bit of neo-realism filmed on location with non-actors — is like taking a trip to Toontown. It’s just that some movies are more eager to remind viewers of that than others.
Who It’s For
Who isn’t Who Framed Roger Rabbit for? It’s a fun mystery story that kids can enjoy, providing the squeaky-shoe scene doesn’t prove too scarring. It’s filled with clever references for animation buffs, and it’s a neat consideration of how movies work.
It’s also worth watching as the film that set Zemeckis down a path he’s followed ever since, one that’s found him trying to figure out how the latest developments in technology could be used to tell stories, whether that’s dropping Tom Hanks into historical footage in Forrest Gump, or the fantasy world of Welcome to Marwen. Zemeckis’ innovations haven’t always caught fire with moviegoers (see: Welcome to Marwen), but that’s sometimes the price paid by those willing to take risks others aren’t.
Where To See It
Who Framed Roger Rabbit is available for rental on all major streaming services.