WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT (25th Anniversary) – Blu-ray review

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.” Though a previous DVD cover proclaimed it “deliciously outrageous fun the whole family will enjoy,” no such claim appears on the Blu-ray box. Maybe that’s because many parents won’t want their little ones to watch “Roger” 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.

Cartoon Noir
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.  Needless to say, it’s not for everyone. More people will appreciate the artistry involved than the film itself, because it IS so manic.

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 Brothers 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 alongside hapless Bob Hoskins, the humanoid who carries the live-action workload.

Meesa Thinking . . .
Though Williams says that the title character is a combination of Daffy Duck’s manic prattle, Bugs Bunny’s cheeks, Porky Pig’s bowtie, Goofy’s pants, and Mickey’s yellow hands from the ‘40s, it’s the non-stop woo-woo-woo silliness that may drive anyone crazy who thought Jar-Jar Binks ruined “Star Wars: Episode One.” The make ‘em laugh Rabbit is a superstar at Maroon Cartoons—as in, “What a maroon!” (one of Bugs’s favorite lines)—who’s voiced by Charles Fleischer and acts like the Energizer bunny on speed. But he’s intentionally juiced up to pay homage to the adrenalin-rush characters that the legendary Avery pioneered, complete with eyes popping and jaws dropping. Look past the slightly annoying Roger and constant wash of manic cartoon noise and you’ll experience an otherwise flawless film that’s a great detective story and a marvel of special effects.

Hoskins was a terrific choice to play Eddie Valiant, a hard-drinking, hard-boiled private eye who’s hired to prove that the superstar Rabbit’s sexpot wife, Jessica Rabbit (voiced by Kathleen Turner), is “playing patty cake” with Marvin Acme, head of the Acme gag factory and owner of Toontown. 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).

To Buy, or Not to Buy
I was a little concerned to see what “Mary Poppins” or “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. The green screen work was painfully obvious. 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, it’s still a sparkling transfer with more detail than you got on the DVD. So the short answer is “yes,” it’s worth the upgrade.

The AVC/MPEG-4 transfer (32mbps) is a good one. I saw no compression artifacts and nothing to take away from the dazzling animation or the integrated live action. Edge detail was strong, and so, by turn, was the sense of three-dimensionality. Colors have plenty of pop, and the humans retain their natural skin tones despite the bright colors all around them. “Roger” is presented in 1.85:1 aspect ratio.

I half thought that with such a raucous soundtrack Disney might go with a 7.1 audio, but maybe the film didn’t break down that way. Or maybe they figured the English DTS-HD MA 5.1 was plenty of firepower (It is!). French Dolby Digital 5.1 is an additional audio option, while subtitles are available in English SDH, French and Spanish. It’s a LOUD movie, but if you listen carefully you’ll hear that the sound is distributed naturally across the channels, with plenty of bass to give it presence.

Included here are three digitally restored Roger Rabbit shorts (“Tummy Trouble,” “Rollercoaster Rabbit,” and “Trail Mix-Up”) that were made to satisfy a Roger-hungry public and shown on the big screen with other Disney features. Then, ported over from the DVD, there’s a mini-documentary narrated by Fleischer that gives a brief glimpse into the process behind the filming.

Also ported over is an audio commentary featuring director Robert Zemeckis (“Back to the Future,” “Forrest Gump”), co-producer Frank Marshall, associate  producer Steve Starkey, visual effects supervisor Ken Ralston, and screenwriters Jeff Price and Peter Seaman. With a gang that large you’d think that they’d step all over each other, but the commentary is fluid and engaging, full of background and production information. We learn that the director of animation studied under one of the Warner Brothers legends, while one of them admits, “Toons swearing, that was a big Disney problem”—which is another reason why we’ll never see this sort of film again. As a commentary, it’s way better than average.

Better still is the “Toontown Confidential” visual commentary option, where trivia, questions, and facts pop up—things like Hoskins was a circus fire-eater before he became an actor, and that Robert Redford, Jack Nicholson, and Ed Harris were also considered for the part! Jessica’s hair-do? Modeled after Veronica Lake’s peek-a-boo tresses. Another pop-up tells how Hoskins took his family to Antigua after filming was finished, and his wife insisted he keep his shirt on—not because of his bear-hair, but because of all the bruises he got while working on the film.

Also included is a deleted scene that was actually semi-reinserted when the movie played on television in the early ‘90s, along with Zemeckis’s explanation of why it was cut and where it would have gone. You’ll probably wish that some of the features were longer or offered with commentary, like the “Toon Stand-Ins” clip showing the cast rehearsing with full-scale rubber dolls for each animated character, the “On Set! Benny the Cab” behind-the-scenes production footage, or the “Before and After” split-screen, showing the first drawings and live-action footage alongside the finished product.

“Behind the Ears: The True Story of Roger Rabbit” is a satisfying making-of feature that includes interviews with Hoskins and the crew. Those are the bonus features on the Blu-ray. The DVD has “The Valiant Files” interactive set-top gallery and other things that apparently worth porting over to the Blu-ray.

Bottom Line:
If I had to pick one word to describe “Roger Rabbit,” it would be clever. No . . . manic. Oh, maybe cleverly manic. This film, based on the book Who Censored Roger Rabbit? by Gary K. Wolf, was a milestone in animation that revived the public’s interest in full-length animated films. It’s not for everyone, because watching “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” is like spending a weekend locked in a room with the looniest Looney Tunes characters. But it’s hard not to admire every aspect of filmmaking that contributed to this wacky classic.