One of the main points of praise that critics lavish upon animated films is their ability to pepper a children’s story with humour that adults enjoy, without it seeming alienating. Pixar set the bar for this quality and regularly smashed it, from avoiding curses due to the presence of pre-school toys, to just plain making a film about the mid-life crisis of superheroes, or a clownfish’s parental angst. On the other hand you have the likes of Shark Tale, taking a kid’s tale and shoehorning in a bunch of Goodfellas references. And while I still like Shrek, every time they force in another random pop culture reference (The Matrix, fucking Smash Mouth, etc) I do cringe somewhat. But I digress.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit? is a film that belongs on the other hand, with a twist. It’s a film about the classic Disney and Looney Tunes cartoons featured in every healthy childhood, and when I watched it as a child I followed this part. Obviously I did. However, unlike Shark Tale or its ilk, not only does the film litter this kid’s fable with adult themes and references, it goes somewhat further – there’s occasional swearing of the 1940s variety (a “wiseass” here, a “son of a bitch” there, and a character actually called Smart Ass), lots of film noir tropes, and – of course – Jessica bloody Rabbit.
For the first hour, Roger Rabbit does feel adult-orientated, as all of the childish schmaltz is deconstructed. The gloriously violent opening ‘toon of Baby Herman & Roger Rabbit gives way to the film’s noir stylings, and there is a real sleaze in much of the setting that you could easily see the dark noir tones taking hold. But its final act does fall prey to some genuine cheese, and after Bob Hoskins’s Eddie Valiant capers through Toontown and they defeat the villain and sing as the credits roll, you’d mistake it for the kind of thing it’s been deconstructing. It leaves the film with a tonal contradiction: this is either an adult’s film with a children’s ending, or a children’s film with some pretty inappropriate content.
I feel I’ve started off this article a bit ranty. It’s a very enjoyable film. The blend of live-action and animation still looks great, with occasional exception (being thrown out of a club by a cartoon, Hoskins has clearly been harnessed and it looks ridiculous) and the references to the films I grew up with are all nostalgically pleasing (That said, it doesn’t make me regress to infancy enough that I can fully enjoy the ending). I couldn’t remember whether there were a lot of big-name cartoons in the film or whether it was just the odd real one here and there – I definitely remembered Betty Boop – but there’s Mickey, Bugs, both Ducks duelling on pianos… Fantasia was always a favourite of mine so the early reference (and snippet of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice) were delightful. But the film wisely keeps most of these to very brief cameos.
While I do criticise the aforementioned tonal contradiction of the film, I’d completely forgotten about the pattycake moment. Valiant, a private investigator fallen on hard times, is hired to snap some revealing shots of Jessica Rabbit cavorting with another man, and after some very suggestive noises from the room, we cut to Roger being shown the photographs, of Jessica playing pattycake with him. It seems to be that in this world, even Valiant (usually outside the cartoon weirdness) finds this scandalous, and Roger is distraught. It’s a simple enough subversion, but one which nails the balance between the general sleaze of the setting, and the fact that it’s populated by children’s cartoon characters.
The rest of the film doesn’t really maintain the balance too well. At more dramatic moments, the cartoons can kill the mood; when Hoskins enters a completely cartoon world, falling off skyscrapers and driving a cartoon car, I felt like it negated much of the film’s deconstructive qualities. Indeed, the balance between Roger and Valiant is often frustrating; there was many a time I wondered why Valiant, a pretty sensible guy, didn’t just throw Roger to the wolves (or the weasels, I guess). I imagine that to children, Roger’s manic energy is entertaining, but he is just so annoying. He’s wanted for murder, and yet he can’t shut up in a cinema or hide in the bar because “he’s meant to entertain people”. Fair enough that this frustration is probably the whole point, but when it goes beyond casual scampish antics to the point where I’m really not bothered if Doom dips the fucker, then it’s probably not working right.
Maybe it was made as a film for adults to reflect on how ridiculous many of their childhood cartoons are. Maybe all my frustrations with the film were in Robert Zemeckis’s mind too, and he deliberately went ahead with it for the purposes of one day being briefly analysed in a Telstar feature. As I said, it didn’t hinder my enjoyment of the film too much, but it is just such an oddity. And I certainly wouldn’t show it to children.