Monday, January 13, 2014

Some thoughts on the movie "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?"

Recently I found myself watching the film "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" with my family for the first time in many years. I remember this being one of the movies I loved so much upon first viewing that I went to see it a second time in the theater - an honor which I bestowed on perhaps two or three films during my childhood (the other one I remember doing this with was Splash). At the time we decided to watch it, I wondered what my current writer-brain would think of it. If you're also a writer, you may have noticed that diving into this craft can sometimes mean drastically lowering one's opinion of many shows, books, etc.

The good news is that "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" stood up to the writer-brain test. In fact, I think I had a deeper appreciation of it this time than when I was a child. The plot was really well crafted and I loved the way the protagonist's backstory fit right into the overall mystery. However, the biggest reason for my glee was stellar worldbuilding.

The story is set during the 1940's in Los Angeles, and the environment is well set-up. However, this is a very special kind of alternate history. They didn't just put together a vision of 1940's L.A., but one in which cartoons were real people and creatures who acted in the cartoons as actors do in films, and had their own district, and had grown along with the town. The inception of different characters along this timeline was clear, and for example we meet Betty Boop, a black-and-white cartoon character who has ended up working as a waitress because she has a hard time finding work "since cartoons went to color." While the origins of the toons were left relatively mysterious (we know they were drawn but not how they got their life force or precisely who created Toontown etc)., they clearly have a life of their own.

They also have their own culture. They have different driving rules because neither the toons themselves nor the cartoon cars can be destroyed by having an accident - which is why Eddie Valiant doesn't want Roger driving his car. They have different kinds of expectations for the manners of others. Eddie does well in Toontown because he's familiar with the 'toons and their ways, as when he is being pursued, and rips the white line from the center of the road and directs it into the wall (thereby causing his pursuer to follow it and splat against said wall). Judge Doom is also familiar with cartoon ways (for his own reasons) and therefore has a failsafe way of discovering that a toon is hiding behind the walls in the bar: "the shave-and-a-haircut trick." Because he is a cartoon, Roger continues to follow his own rules even when he is outside Toontown, as when he slips out of the handcuffs that attach him to Eddie while Eddie is trying to saw them open.  Eddie growls, "You mean you could have taken those off at any time?" and Roger replies, "Not any time. Only when it was funny." This really made me wonder if we were dealing with a physical law unique to cartoons, where Roger literally could not have extricated himself unless it was funny, or a cultural rule, where it would have been inappropriate for him to do so.

I was impressed again by the character of Jessica Rabbit, whose actions in the film lie right on a marvelous intersection point between strong-woman-character and cartoon culture. Modeled physically as she is between Veronica Lake (hair) and Vikki Dougan (the backless dress), she is in the ideal position to question sexist expectations. There's a reason why this scene is still well known, with its famous line, "I'm not bad, I'm just drawn that way." (it appears at 0:45 in the video below)
Jessica becomes a victim of others' judgment of her appearance in the film, but she does not sit there and let it happen. She's intelligent, she knows who to talk to to make change, and she does it. She also does some things that cast suspicion on her because of cultural misunderstandings between the cartoon world and the human world. In particular, she hits Roger over the head with a frying pan, stuffs him in the trunk and drives away with him to Toontown "because she doesn't want him to get hurt." This is perfect logic from the cartoon point of view, but from the audience's point of view, and from Eddie Valiant's, it looks very different. The other thing I like is that while she does get put in danger, she is never turned into a damsel in distress. When she does get tied up and has to be rescued by Eddie Valiant, she is tied up with her husband, which for me changes the traditional damsel equation significantly. The two of them are in danger because they are cartoons, not because they are male or female.

There is a lot more I could say, but these were the points that really stood out for me. If you enjoyed these observations, then it's highly likely you would also enjoy a rewatch of the movie. I welcome discussion in the comments.



  1. I also just watched it recently - I think I came across it on Netflix, and ended up sitting through the whole thing again. What caught me was how utterly clever the writing was. There was some great wordplay and puns that I know I didn't get when I was a child.

    Something that's worth watching in addition to this is the Making Of feature for the film. Really neat, if you're into the technical stuff.

  2. Andrew, thanks for your comment! I did watch the Making Of feature, but that was back when it first came out. I want to look for it so I can watch it with my kids. They are so accustomed to the digital magic era that I'm sure they would be fascinated. Yes, the wordplay in the movie is great.

  3. My favorite Jessica Rabbit moment is when the weasels are searching them and the really greasy one reaches down between her breasts, his tongue all hanging out, but then he yanks his paw out with a bear trap on it. Even though the entire scene was a complete setup for the "Nice boobytrap" line, the look on her face is priceless. I didn't really connect with Jessica when I was kid, but as an adult...she's probably my favorite character in the whole movie.

    1. Now I want to go back and look at her face - I didn't notice that! Thanks for the comment, Traci.

  4. I haven't rewatched it in a long while, but it's a great movie even if you just catch a fragment. Unless I miss my guess, I first saw it as part of an anthropology class assignment :).