rogercoverGrade:  A-
Entire family:  No

1988, 104 min., Color
Rated PG for cartoon violence, some sexuality
Aspect ratio:  1.85:1
Featured audio:  DTS-HD MA 5.1
Bonus features:  B-
Includes:  Blu-ray, DVD

When Shrek took a playful slap at the sun-is-shining, birds-are-chirping world of Disney animation, audiences were absolutely delighted. What audacity, we read from all the reviewers. But let’s not forget that Disney took the first shot years ago with Who Framed Roger Rabbit, a 1988 live-action and animation combo that won Academy Awards for Best Sound Effects, Best Visual Effects, and Best Editing. Richard Williams, the man who gave birth to the clownish Rabbit and directed the animation, was also given a Special Achievement Award.

In Roger Rabbit, the Buena Vista bunch paid tongue-in-cheek homage to the wise-guy humor, the physical comedy, and the hyperactive Daffyness of rival Warner Brothers animation studios—and spoofed their own characters for good measure. The result is a film that’s light years away from the ultra-wholesome Mary Poppins. Many parents won’t want their little ones watching until they reach the cusp of puberty.  There’s cursing, shouting, violence, hard drinking, big bosoms, sexual innuendo . . . and that’s just the first 15 minutes.

Released by Touchstone Pictures, Disney’s adult division, this one isn’t really aimed at small children. It’s an affectionate parody of 1940s hard-boiled detective flicks (especially trenchcoat Bogie affairs like The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep) that also draws inspiration from Chinatown. Somehow it manages to combine a moody, shadowy noir atmosphere with the Acme gag-a-minute Tex Avery style of exaggerated animation that kept knocking characters like Wile E. Coyote for a loop.  

Bob Hoskins plays Eddie Valiant, a hard-drinking, hard-boiled private eye who’s hired to prove that a cartoon rabbit superstar’s sexpot wife, Jessica Rabbit (Kathleen Turner), is “playing patty cake” with Marvin Acme, head of the Acme gag factory and owner of Toontown, a place near the studios where all the cartoon characters live. Valiant gets the incriminating evidence and shows Roger Rabbit, but when Acme (Stubby Kaye) turns up dead, Roger turns up as the prime suspect. Enter Judge Doom (Christopher Lloyd), who bought his Toontown judgeship and is sadistically determined to eradicate any “toon” that he can. Who else can Roger turn to, but the Valiant one? There’s more involved, of course, and it’s up to Valiant to sort things out, with the support of his woman, Dolores (Joanna Cassidy), and the assistance and encouragement of Roger’s toon friends, Benny the Cab (Fleischer) and Roger’s cigar-smoking co-star, Baby Herman (Lou Hirsch).

jessicaIt’s clever, but manic. Watching Who Framed Roger Rabbit is like spending a weekend locked in a room with the looniest Looney Tunes characters. More people will appreciate the artistry involved than the film itself, because it IS so unique and perfectly executed.

As the some of the bonus features remind us, this is a movie you’ll never see again. Made before computer-generated images, it took 82,000 hand-painted cels and roughly a million drawings from an animation staff of 326 to pull this off. Somehow, executive producer Steven Spielberg managed to wrangle the one-time rights to Warner Bros. cartoon superstars IF they got equal time with the Disney headliners. That won’t happen again, we’re told, so enjoy watching Daffy and Donald Duck in dueling piano duets and Mickey and Bugs free-falling with parachutes the alongside hapless Valiant.

I was a little concerned to see what Who Framed Roger Rabbit would look like in HD, because 1080p exposed the trickery behind Pete’s Dragon when it was released on Blu-ray last October. But I think Disney learned from that and didn’t push the detail and definition quite as hard on this release, leaving enough grain to protect the seamlessness of the live-action and animation blend that wowed audiences when it first played in theaters. Yet, the Blu-ray is still a sparkling upgrade from the DVD.