Hasitha Fernando revisits Who Framed Roger Rabbit as it turns 35…
Before Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park hit cinemas to inspire awe and wonder amongst audiences the world over, there was Who Killed Roger Rabbit which debuted back in the year 1988. The effort of Back to the Future helmer Robert Zemeckis and executive producer Steven Spielberg, the movie went on to become the second highest box office gross that year, whilst simultaneously winning the hearts of critics and movie goers alike. And so, on its 35th anniversary lets dive in and have a look at the lengthy creative process that went into the creation of Who Framed Roger Rabbit.
The movie was an adaptation of a hardboiled detective mystery novel
Who Framed Roger Rabbit was based on the 1981 novel Who Censored Roger Rabbit? by writer Gary K. Wolf. Walt Disney purchased the rights for the book shortly after its publication. Although many of the core characters featured in the source material made it to the feature film, in terms of plot and other elements, the movie adaptation greatly differed from Wolf’s effort. For example, in the novel the cartoon characters are primarily comic strip characters while the movie featured animated cartoon stars. So, instead of Dick Tracy, Snoopy and Beetle Bailey, we ended up with the instantly recognizable IPs like Daffy Duck, Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse.
Robert Zemeckis was initially rejected by Disney
Before filmmaker Robert Zemeckis’ career blew up with the likes of Back to the Future and Romancing the Stone, the guy was having a bit of a bad patch with back-to-back box-office duds. Therefore, when Zemeckis offered his services as director in 1982, Disney declined his generous proposal.
Spielberg brokered deals with multiple animation studios to use their characters
Disney brought Amblin Entertainment on board to co-finance their venture, and with it came Steven Spielberg in an executive producer capacity to overlook proceedings. As executive producer Spielberg was given an extensive amount of creative control (as well as box-office profits) and using his influence as a creative convinced a number of studios including Warner Bros., Turner Entertainment, Fleischer Studios, Famous Studios and Universal Pictures/Walter Lantz Productions to “lend” their characters so that they may appear on the film. To this day, Who Framed Roger Rabbit is the first and only instance in animation history where Warner Bros. and Disney animation characters – like Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny – have ever officially appeared onscreen together.
The casting process was an arduous one
When you look back at Who Framed Roger Rabbit you will probably not even think of anyone else other than Bob Hoskins in the role of hardboiled detective Eddie Valiant or Christopher Lloyd as the utterly terrifying (or at least it was the case when we were kids) Judge Doom. But such was not the case during the casting process, ‘cos neither actor were Zemeckis and Spielberg’s first choice for the iconic roles. Spielberg’s first choice for Valiant was none than Indiana Jones himself – Harrison Ford. But his hefty price tag dissuaded them from pursuing the actor. Chevy Chase was the second choice and he didn’t express much interest in the role. Other actors considered were Bill Murray, Robin Williams, Jack Nicholson, Eddie Murphy, Ed Harris, Sylvester Stallone, Wallace Shaw, Edward James Olmos, Charles Grodin and Don Lane.
In the end, Bob Hoskins nabbed the role, since Spielberg was impressed by his acting chops and because he looked like he belonged in that era. When it came to casting the role of Judge Doom several actors were in contention. A clear frontrunner at the outset was British character actor Tim Curry who, a few years prior, dished out a deliciously diabolical performance in Ridley Scott’s dark fantasy epic Legend. But his take on the character was deemed too dark and scary. Christopher Lee, the go-to guy for Hollywood villainy, too passed on the role. Peter O’ Toole, F. Murray Abraham, Roddy McDowell and Eddie Deezen were all considered, until Christopher Lloyd was cast. Lloyd was primarily cast because of his previous work experience with both Zemeckis and Spielberg on Back to the Future.
Settling on the perfect title proved to be harder than expected
Although the title of the novel upon which the movie was based ran as Who Censored Roger Rabbit? the filmmakers and producers wanted something different. For the longest time they were playing around with multiple working titles like Murder in Toontown, Dead Toons Don’t Pay Bills, Trouble in Toontown and The Toontown Trial, which functioned as throwbacks to film noir classics of yesteryear, before finally settling on Who Framed Roger Rabbit, a subtle tweak on the source material’s original title.
The film felt like three movies rolled up into one
During a behind-the-scenes interview Zemeckis described the film as three movies rolled up into one, “It was a period film-noir live-action movie, it was a full-length animated movie and it was a special effects movie.” Because of this, figuring out the logistics of production was a challenging one. First the the film needed an ace animation director. Disney executives suggested veteran Looney Tunes animator Darrell Van Citters, but Spielberg & co. decided against it. They instead went with Canadian- British animator Richard Williams to bring to life the animation that Zemeckis described as having, “Disney’s high-quality, Warner Bros.’ characterization and Tex Avery humor.” But Williams was dubious about working in Los Angeles due to the “Disney bureaucracy” and so production was shifted to England where a studio, Walt Disney Animation UK, was created.
Rubber mannequins, costumed actors, puppets and animatronics mimicked the toons during production
Zemeckis employed a mixed-method approach when it came to mimicking the toons during production. During rehearsals rubber mannequins and costumed actors were used to train the actors where to look and how to interact with non-existing cartoon characters, which would be replaced during post-production. In some instances, real-life props – like the cigar Baby Herman smoked during the movie – were used on set and these were manipulated by a mechanized arm or clever puppetry to imitate their movement.
Post-production for the film ran well over a year
Nowadays, a movie having an extensive post-production period is nothing new but three decades prior it was kind of a big deal. The 14-month post-production was used solely for the purpose of bringing the toons to life. This was done using traditional cel animation and optical compositing which was quite time consuming. Although Industrial Lights and Magic (ILM) had used CGI and digital compositing on movies like Young Sherlock Holmes, this level of digital animation could not be accomplished with the computers they had at that time. Hence, the use of optical compositing and cel animation, for the movie.
The flick was a major box office hit and an awards season darling
Who Framed Roger Rabbit was a major box-office success upon its release, raking in a worldwide gross of $ 351,500,000 by the conclusion of its theatrical run. It was Disney’s biggest opening weekend ever at the time of its release, the second highest-grossing film of 1988 and the 20th highest-grossing movie of all time during its debut. Now if those aren’t some significant box-office milestones, I don’t know what is! During awards season, the movie nabbed six Academy award nominations in the technical categories winning three of ‘em, and in addition received a Special Achievement Award for animation director Richard Williams’ contribution to the film, which had a major impact in rekindling interest in the Golden Era of American Animation.
Plans for a sequel didn’t quite go as planned
Following the box-office success of the award-winning flick there were early talks to make a sequel with the same creative behind the project. The story would have focused on the early days of Roger Rabbit and would have explored how he met his future wife Jessica Rabbit, as well as the search for his mother. Unfortunately, Spielberg backed out of the effort due to the apparent sub-plot involving Nazis and he didn’t want to be part of something that satirized the controversial group after making Schindler’s List. Zemeckis expressed interest in the sequel for the longest time, however Bob Hoskins’ passing and Disney’s lack of interest in the IP means it will probably never happen.
What are your thoughts and memories of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Let us know on our social channels @FlickeringMyth…
Hasitha Fernando is a part-time medical practitioner and full-time cinephile. Follow him on Twitter via @DoctorCinephile for regular updates on the world of entertainment.