Every now and then an idea comes along that put to film, on TV or into a book which has every reason to fail. Perhaps those involved never showed an aptitude for what the idea was, perhaps there was a history of similar ideas failing or perhaps the whole thing was just too crazy. These kinds of ideas get tried all the time and most rightfully fail, and fail big. However sometimes, when the fates align and serendipity lends a hand, all the pieces can fall into place and those crazy ideas work despite the odds. This is an article series that will examine the workings of projects that should have been doomed but managed to triumph. An examination of why the particular idea should have failed and why it didn’t.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit? is probably the best described as an animation mash-up. Disney characters, Warner Bros. characters and a smattering of others from Droopy to Betty Boob all take the screen along with live actors. The sheer copyright logistics of getting all the people who control these characters to sign off on the idea alone is enough to make the head spin. The complications of animated characters who needed to actively interact with live sets, props and actors was a logistical nightmare (remember this was 1988: back before computer graphics came into play and made this sort of filming common place.) The plot is a hard boiled detective story with an alcoholic leading man played by an actor barely known in the US. There’s a cigar chomping and foul minded baby as well as what may be the chestiest female animated character ever put on screen. There’s murder, sexual innuendo, and intoxication… and this is supposed to be a family movie. There’s no way that should have worked.
The origins of this one of a kind film started with a book entitled Who Censored Roger Rabbit? written by Gary K. Wolf. Disney purchased the film rights to the novel back in 1981 and a great many changes to the story would occur before it finally found its way onto the screen. In the book the toons came from newspaper comic strips rather than animation. The novel didn’t deal with any pre-existing characters (like Mickey Mouse or Bugs Bunny) and of the near innumerable characters that appear in the film only four are from the novel: private investigator Eddie Valiant, Roger Rabbit, Roger’s wife Jessica and Baby Herman. The plot also deviated heavily as the book actually dealt with the murder of Roger Rabbit rather than the excitable hare being framed for a crime. The lure of the general premise which paired toons and real people is probably what appealed to Disney. Though it’s surprising even now that they would embrace the darker tones of a detective novel so fully (even though they pretty much threw the plot details out.)
Once Disney acquired the rights to the book the project languished for some time. Robert Zemeckis (who would ultimately direct the film) attempted to get onto the film as director as early as 1982, but since he didn’t have a bit hit to his name at this point Disney passed on his offer. The project went through several scripts in this time but no real forward movement occurred. Then in 1985 the newly installed Disney CEO Michael Eisner reached out to Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment to produce the film. Spielberg’s involvement would become crucial to the final film that would eventually emerge. Initially though the budget that Amblin projected ($50 million) was above and beyond what Disney was prepared to spend on the property and it looked like the film might never happen.
Thankfully Who Framed Roger Rabbit? had a champion within the Disney company: Jeffrey Katzenberg. Katzenberg had been tasked with trying to turn around the company’s film division, specifically it’s failing animation department. He was able to convince Eisner that this film could help save Disney animation and succeeded in getting approval for the film at a reduced budget of about $30 million. At the same time Robert Zemeckis was finally approved to direct the film following the runaway success of Back to the Future. Though it’s interesting to note that Zemeckis still wasn’t the film choice and the project was first offered to Terry Gilliam (Brazil, Time Bandits, Twelve Monkeys.) Gilliam passed on the project believing the combination of animation and live action to be too technically difficult. While Gilliam would go on to regret turning the project down it did pave the way for Zemeckis to take the reins and direct the live action portion of the film. Animated sequences were handled by British animator Richard Williams. However even with all these talented players it was clear that Steven Spielberg was not only the controlling force but also the main reason the film was able to have all the characters that it did.
Spielberg was given a very high degree of creative control over Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and it was was he who set out to get the rights to all of the non-Disney characters. Spielberg personally was responsible for the inclusion of all of the Warner Bros. animated characters (such as Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck) as well as characters from several other sources (such as Droopy from MGM.) Not all of what Spielberg wanted made it into the film however. His first choice to play the role of human detective Eddie Valiant was Harrison Ford, but the A-list star was too expensive for the budget. The part would ultimately go to British character actor Bob Hoskins. Even though Hoskins was an Academy Award nominee for best actor (for 1986’s Mona Lisa) he wasn’t well known to American audiences at that point. Ultimately it was in the best interest of the film to have a skilled but lesser known star so as not to detract from the outlandish premise or the lively animated characters.
The logistics involved in shooting Who Framed Roger Rabbit? in a way that would allow the animated Toons to freely interact with the live actors and sets were unprecedented at the time. It’s true that mixing actors and animation was nothing new to the Disney Studio, having already put actors in animation in films such as Mary Poppins and Bedknobs and Broomsticks. However those earlier films had the actors in fully animated worlds, the actors had to react to things that weren’t really there but the animated characters didn’t have to manipulate anything real. In Who Framed Roger Rabbit? animated characters who had no physical presence on the set had to do things such as knock over plates, open desk drawers, play pianos and even hold and fire guns. It was not all completely new to film but none of it had been done on this kind of scale before and it turned nearly every shot in the movie into a special effects shot. Props and sets had to be rigged to react to the movement of characters who then had to animated and inserted later.
Amazingly Disney never seemed to express any concern over the darker aspects of the plot, most of which came from the noir style of the detective story. The only objection that Disney ever raised was on the rising budget as it climbed towards $40 million. Once again it was Katzenberg who was able to talk Eisner into letting the project go through to completion. The issue of the frightening story moments is an interesting one to examine, particularly in hindsight. There are three deaths of humans (one of which is a shooting shown on screen) as well as multiple deaths of Toons including an execution of an innocent shoe by Judge Doom. Then of course there’s Jessica Rabbit with her gravity defying bust and extreme curves. Looking back on it now it seems as though Who Framed Roger Rabbit? managed to get into theaters just ahead of the rush of political correctness in children’s entertainment. While some mention was made about Jessica most adults seemed to get that she (and the jokes surrounding her) was mostly there for them, which was also true of the detective story. The kids got to enjoy the wild antics of the toons and there was something that the adults could enjoy which was specifically targeted to them.
In spite of the more adult leanings of the film (or perhaps even because of them) Who Framed Roger Rabbit? became much more than a film, it became a minor phenomenon. It was the second highest grossing film of 1988 (coming in behind Rain Man) and helped spur a renewed interest in the “golden age” of animation and the characters from those years. The success of the movie proved that Disney animation still had legs and this would lead to the Disney Renaissance of the late 1980s through the 1990s (which included such films as The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and The Lion King.) The film now stands as an animation classic. An animated/live action combination film with murder, mayhem, sexual innuendo and featuring more classic cartoon characters than most people can name. There’s no way that should have worked, but it did.