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‘Roger Rabbit’ a precursor to animation revolution

Ryan Huddle/globe staff

When it was released, in 1988, “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” seemed like a glorious one-off. Robert Zemeckis’s marriage of live action and animation — the marriage was more like living in sin, actually, or at least it was whenever Jessica Rabbit showed up — wasn’t the first time filmed actors had appeared in the same frame with animated characters. Remember Gene Kelly dancing with Tom and Jerry, in “Anchors Aweigh”? But never had a feature-length film indulged so fully, let alone so frantically, in mixing and matching.

What’s now evident, with this week’s release of the two-disc “Who Framed Roger Rabbit: 25th Anniversary Edition” on DVD and Blu-ray, is that Zemeckis’s film was less one-off than way station. What’s now (rightly) thought of as the Pixar revolution in animation can be seen to have had a precursor in a certain bunny-titled release from another Disney affiliate, Touchstone.

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Pixar wouldn’t release its first feature, “Toy Story,” for another seven years. What people focused on then was the studio’s pioneering use of computer animation. But no less impressive was that film’s inspired wit and sophisticated storytelling, both far more developed than viewers were accustomed to in feature animation.

Ezra Pound famously declared that poetry had to be as well written as prose. The achievement of Pixar has been to show that animation can be a match for live action in terms of emotion and intelligence and humor. Well, “Roger Rabbit” did it first — only without computers and, you might say, only halfway. After all, half of the movie was live action.

The impact of “Roger Rabbit” on animation got obscured because of a quirk of Hollywood history. Disney animation began its highly successful comeback the very next year, with “The Little Mermaid.” A string of hits followed: “Beauty and the Beast,” “Aladdin,” “The Lion King.” They seemed to be taking feature animation in a new direction. Looking back, one can see that those films, rather than marking a departure, were instead a culmination. (In fairness to Disney, Robin Williams’s genie, in “Aladdin,” is like one long, helium-filled outtake from “Roger Rabbit.”) As we now can see, the great breakthrough — the new chapter in feature animation — came with Pixar and “Toy Story.” Zemeckis’s film was its prologue.

Roger Rabbit (with Bob Hoskins, right) from the 1988 classic.

Touchstone Pictures and Amblin Entertainment Inc

Roger Rabbit (with Bob Hoskins, right) from the 1988 classic.

Gary K. Wolf’s 1981 novel, “Who Censored Roger Rabbit?,” provided the basis for the film. In the novel, most of the nonhuman characters come from comic strips rather than movie animation. It’s only fitting, of course, that the film version should make that shift. One of the glories of the movie is how it serves as a veritable United Nations of animation. There are cameos by numerous famous characters from both Disney and Warner Bros.’s Looney Tunes, not to mention such outliers as Woody Woodpecker and Betty Boop (who looks distinctly askance at Jessica Rabbit). You would not want to have been the rights person on “Roger Rabbit” tasked with getting clearances. The legal labors were worth it, though. Getting to see Donald Duck and Daffy Duck in the same frame, and Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny, is like finding Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio playing in the same outfield.

The title “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” is a pun. Roger, an imaginary popular cartoon character of the ’40s (virtuosically voiced by Charles Fleischer), gets framed all the time in his line of work. But besides the film frame, there’s also framed in the sense of being falsely accused of a crime. That’s where the live-action part of “Roger Rabbit” comes in. Gumshoe Eddie Valiant, whose patter is straight out of Raymond Chandler, gets hired by the head of Maroon Pictures to find out whether Roger’s wife, Jessica, is two-timing him. So “Roger Rabbit” is an homage to three Hollywood genres: not just the cartoon, but also film noir and the detective picture.

Bob Hoskins, as Eddie, caps a pretty amazing 10-year run. Beginning with the lead in the BBC version of Dennis Potter’s “Pennies From Heaven” (1978), he would play Iago — brilliant casting — to Anthony Hopkins’s Othello in the 1982 BBC production of Shakespeare’s tragedy, directed by Jonathan Miller; be three very different gangsters, in “The Long Good Friday” (1980), “The Cotton Club” (1984), and, what may be his finest performance, “Mona Lisa” (1986); and contribute to the controlled delirium that is Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil” (1985). Pauline Kael admiringly described him as “a testicle on legs.” Let’s just say that cartoonishness came naturally to him.

Just as “Roger Rabbit” succeeds at having it both ways visually, as live action and animation alike, so does it succeed at having it both ways in another sense. Jeffrey Price and Peter S. Seaman’s script has an insane gusto. The knockabout slapstick finds a match in the dialogue. Roger’s saying “Only when it’s funny” (which Eddie discovers, to his immense vexation, is the one limit on cartoon characters’ physical pliability) is one of the great meta-punch lines in any Hollywood comedy, and Jessica’s “I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way” is the most seductively self-exculpatory. But there’s something much darker going on here, too.

Jessica with Christopher Lloyd (left) and director Robert Zemeckis.

Touchstone Pictures and Amblin Entertainment Inc

Jessica with Christopher Lloyd (left) and director Robert Zemeckis.

Treated as second-class citizens, the animated characters live a ghettoized existence in a section of Los Angeles called Toontown. Actually, they’re beneath class. That’s what happens when you’re two dimensional in a world with three dimensions. “Roger Rabbit” is an allegory for race in this country at mid-century, and it’s the very outrageousness of the story that makes the allegory so effective. What we see on screen is every bit as ridiculous as the prejudices that defined Los Angeles, and America, in 1947 — except the real-life ridiculousness had horrific, and horrifically real, consequences. The film historian David Thomson is only half-facetious when he describes “Roger Rabbit” as being a truer follow-up to “Chinatown” than its actual sequel, “The Two Jakes.” At no point in the movie would it be surprising to hear a character say to Hoskins, “Come on, Eddie, it’s . . . Toontown.” Another subplot, about the abandonment of mass transit for the automobile, doesn’t work quite as effectively.

“Roger Rabbit” was an enormous success both critically and commercially. The only film released in 1988 with higher grosses was “Rain Man.” Not everyone loved it. Kael, of all people, called it a “nightmare.” Not deigning to review it, she called “Roger Rabbit” “a horrible genre all its own.” Well, nobody’s perfect.

The previous sentence occurs at the end of another American comedy. You may have heard of it, “Some Like It Hot.” Like “Roger Rabbit,” it draws on sex, show business, crime, and a lipsmacking cannibalization of movie genres. In the case of Billy Wilder’s film, the genres are the gangster picture and two kinds of comedy, romantic and screwball. The comparison doesn’t end there. Jessica Rabbit is only a bunny hop or two away from Marilyn Monroe. And while everyone knows that “Some Like It Hot” belongs in the Hollywood Comedy Hall of Fame (its floors littered with banana peels and wet with the spritzed contents of seltzer bottles), so does “Who Framed Roger Rabbit.” Looking ahead and holding its own with Pixar, it also looks back and holds its own with the likes of “The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek” and “His Girl Friday” and “Duck Soup.” Hail, hail Freedonia? Hail, hail Toontown, too.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.
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