Reviewed by
Colin Jacobson

Title: Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)
Studio Line: Touchstone Pictures - It's the story of a man, a woman, and a rabbit in a triangle of trouble.

Once in a generation a film like this comes along. Now Touchstone Pictures, Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis have teamed to give us Who Framed Roger Rabbit, a four-time Academy Award winner thatís already a contemporary classic.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit is a tale of a man, a woman and a rabbit in a triangle of trouble. Itís a world where laughing can be dangerous, romance can be hilarious, and Toons and people live side by side. Itís a wonderful place youíll want to visit again and again.

Director: Robert Zemeckis
Cast: Bob Hoskins, Christopher Lloyd, Joanna Cassidy, Stubby Kaye, Alan Tilvern, voice of Charles Fleischer
Academy Awards: Won for Special Achievement Award-Richard Williams, Best Visual Effects, Best Film Editing, Best Sound Effects. Nominated for Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Best Sound, 1989.
DVD: Widescreen 1.85:1; audio English DD 5.1, French DD 5.1; subtitles none; closed-captioned; single side - single layer; 19 chapters; rated PG; 103 min.; $29.99; street date 9/28/99.
Supplements: None.
Purchase: DVD

Picture/Sound/Extras: B-/B-/F

While I'll never claim that Who Framed Roger Rabbit is one of the all-time great movies, it is a very good one, and more than that, it stands as one of the finest technical achievements in motion picture history. In fact, unless they ever get around to making the sequel, we're unlikely to see something on the scale of this film again because of the daunting costs and difficulties creating such a detailed and unique environment. Plus, WFRR started the revitalization of Disney's animation studio, an area of the business that had almost been left for dead. Not bad for a movie about a cartoon bunny, huh?

Previous films had attempted to integrate live action and animation, probably most notably in Disney's own Mary Poppins and Gene Kelly's Anchors Aweigh. This films used the cartoons more as a brief novelty, though; no one tried to honestly mix in animation with real-life action until WFRR, in which the filmmakers try to make us believe that Toons and humans actually coexist on a day-to-day basis.

Overall, director Robert Zemeckis and his crew succeed at this, though I was never really able to suspend my disbelief; I remained too conscious of the trickery that occurred to allow the Toons to "interact" with the live action environment. Nonetheless, I think they did a pretty terrific job. I was always conscious that Roger and the others were indeed cartoons, but to be frank, many of us are so accustomed to caring about animated characters that the differentiation between cartoon and real is virtually insignificant; as demonstrated by Disney films from Snow White through Tarzan, it's the quality of the characters that matters, not whether or not we see a real person on screen. Just because we know that the image displays drawn matter instead of photographed humans makes the content no less exciting or emotional to me.

As such, I didn't care less or more about Roger and his cohorts because of the fact that they don't actually exist; the characters work because they're well-written, neatly animated, and nicely acted by the voice talent. Not that voice alone even matters; probably the scariest and saddest moment in the film occurs when Judge Doom (Christopher Lloyd) "dips" a cute little Toon show. Man, that scene's almost shocking; it's amusing, just to see that we react that way to what we know is a cartoon, but it's also a little scarier to see a Toon "die" in a real-life setting.

While the technical wizardry at work in WFRR is excellent and hasn't dated a bit over the last eleven years, none of that would matter if the content and the performances didn't work. Happily, they do. While I admit that I've never loved the film to the degree I always felt I should - I like it a lot, but I don't love it - I still see that it functions well on virtually all levels.

(By the way, when I stated that a project of this sort probably will never again be attempted, I am aware that non-human characters and environments have been used to a much greater degree in The Phantom Menace. To me, the distinction is that WFRR didn't use computer technology to accomplish it's goals. Actually, it did, but not the same way; WFRR relied on hand-drawn animation for its characters, something that's ultimately much more expensive than computer animation. That's the part that makes it unlikely we'll see another WFRR anytime soon...)

The plot is nothing special, but it's functional and the writers add a high degree of cleverness and wit. It's a spoof, but not one of the broad Naked Gun variety; the filmmakers toss in a great deal of material but they do so with a subtle touch. We're virtually never hammered over the head with self-consciously clever bits. Instead, the viewer has to seek out many of them. For example, when Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins) snaps out of his alcohol-induced funk and gets out his gun before he ventures into Toontown, we see an inscription from Yosemite Sam on the inside of the case. Many, if not most, filmmakers would zoom in to highlight the inscription, but Zemeckis demonstrates restraint; if the viewer sees it, great, but he doesn't belabor the gag. I found that made the bits that much more entertaining, since they aren't telegraphed.

WFRR also contains an incredible roster of vintage animated characters who appear within the film. Chances are the even if you've heard of all of them, it'll take you many viewings to identify them all. I certainly haven't tried, but if you're game, you may want to check out the terrific book Encyclopedia of Walt Disney's Animated Characters by John Grant; it provides what seems to be a comprehensive listing of all the Disney Toons who show up in the movie. (Actually, even if you don't want to spot all of these characters, you should get this book; I've read a lot of Disney animation tomes, and this one's the most detailed and informative of the bunch. Anyone with an interest in Disney animation should grab this sucker.)

While the Toons lend WFRR its novelty and its uniqueness, it's up to the human actors to ground the project, and they do so admirably. Notably, to a one, the humans perform their roles without irony. This is crucial to the success of the film, since if they'd added some of that "wink wink, nudge nudge" quality to their work, it would have been less "real" to the audience; if there's any chance that we will believe that Toons actually interact with real people, we have to feel that the humans onscreen believe it as well.

The actors don't play it completely straight, of course; there's a slight tone of hamminess to the performances that one expects in a period spoof. Actually, "hamminess" may not be the correct description; the actors portray their roles with a degree of almost over-seriousness that seems to match the detective films of the era.

Whatever it is, it works. Bob Hoskins is absolutely splendid as Valiant. He's onscreen for virtually the entire film and he offers the viewer a nice entry into the world of the Toons; hey, if this gruff bad-ass believes that Toons are real, who am I to argue? Hoskins maintains that high degree of believability from start to finish through what must have been a difficult part; Hoskins spends much of his time interacting with characters who didn't actually exist when he filmed his parts, and he does so virtually flawlessly.

In a crucial supporting role, Christopher Lloyd has a less challenging time of it, but that shouldn't diminish how terrific he is here. Even though I've seen this movie upwards of ten times now, I still delight in the nuances of Lloyd's acting. One of the most subtly amusing parts of the film comes when Doom's searching for Roger in the bar; the quietly rude way in which he intimidates the barflies - using an armless vet's sleeve to erase a chalkboard, for example - is simply wonderful.

Joanna Cassidy fills out the roster of main actors as Valiant's somewhat-estranged honey Dolores. Cassidy's fine in the role, but the more I watch the movie, the more I realize that she exists mainly as a symbol for Eddie. She's there to remind him - and us - of the happy world he left behind when he became a bitter drunk. She also lets the audience know that no matter how much of a bastard he may appear to be, Eddie's really a good guy and she still has faith that he'll come through in the end.

Interestingly, I think the filmmakers used color in conjunction with Dolores' scripted part to convey this impression. WFRR is largely a very monotone film; other than the scenes in Toontown, the image displays an almost sepia-tone cast to the entire proceedings. Almost to a one, the human participants and the locations display little color.

I understood the logic to this; it makes the Technicolor extravagance of Toontown standout that much more when Eddie heads over there during the film's third act. What I also found notable is that there is an exception to this "colorless human" rule: Dolores. No, she doesn't wear fantastically hued outfits or makeup, but there's enough there to communicate to us that something's different about her. I think that this influences the symbolism of her role; we connect her colorfulness with the Toons, which again reminds us of the happier times that Eddie abandoned, but can still recapture.

Or something like that. Enough pseudo-film school blather; suffice it to say that Who Framed Roger Rabbit is a fun and entertaining film, one that audiences will continue to watch for years to come. Have Disney done it justice with their DVD release?

The DVD:

Yes and no. First off, the DVD offers the film in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 on a single-sided, single-layered disc. As with virtually every other Disney-distributed DVD, WFRR has not been enhanced for 16X9 TVs.

Overall, I found the image to generally appear very good. The picture looks consistently sharp with very little evidence of edge-enhancement, "jaggies" or shimmering. Black levels are a strength of this DVD; Judge Doom's coat appears dark and rich and has probably never looked better. Colors are pretty strong, though they seem slightly oversaturated for the animated pieces; although Roger's pants and Jessica's dress hold up well, reds have the most trouble in this regard and they bleed a bit more than they should.

The main problem with this transfer comes from the condition of the print itself. It's not terrible, but it displays far more faults than it should. White spots and marks are a very frequent detriment to the viewing experience. They never overwhelm the image, but they are quite distracting at times. In the end, I found the picture of WFRR to be pretty satisfactory despite the lack of 16X9 enhancement, but Disney definitely should have sued more care in working with the film's print; the image looks very good, but it easily could have been great.

WFRR features a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix that's nothing more than glorified Pro Logic. Actually, "glorified" is probably too much praise; there's virtually no evidence of any of the benefits Dolby Digital has to offer. I think that Disney simply recoded the mix to Digital but didn't bother to equalize the sound so that it actually sounded different.

The audio from the rear speakers is clearly monophonic in nature, and the frequency range seems limited, just like it would be for a Pro Logic mix. The track doesn't really use the rears for much other than music; a few effects pop up back there, but very little. That fact makes the limited frequency response of the rear channels even more exasperating; there's a notable difference in quality in the music between the front and rear speakers, and this decrease in sonic effectiveness negatively affects the impact of Alan Silvestri's excellent score. The sound would work much better if the rears blasted the music as effectively as they should.

Stereo separation in the front speakers is also somewhat limited but often pretty effective. It's definitely not a showy mix, but it works acceptably. We occasionally hear sounds pan across the front channels, and the soundstage itself seems appropriately broad at most times. Probably the best audio moment in the film occurs when Eddie first ventures into Toontown; the Toons' rendition of Smile, Darn Ya, Smile spreads nicely across the front speakers.

Overall, the quality of the audio is good but not exceptional. It doesn't crackle with realism, but it sounds fairly natural and warm. The low register seems lacking to a large degree, but the mix avoids harshness or a tinny quality. Dialogue works fine, although the high degree of overdubs frequently becomes apparent, especially in regard to Hoskins' speech. In an age in which crummy mono tracks from films like Deliverance and Halloween are mutated into very effective 5.1 mixes, the audio for WFRR stands as acceptable but definitely disappointing; as with the image transfer, the sound is decent but could and should have been better.

Although I had some issues with both sound and image, there's no doubt what the weakest aspect of this DVD is: supplements. There aren't any, not even the trailer that's promised on the case. What makes this even more ridiculous is the fact that 1998's laserdisc re-release of WFRR offered a new audio transfer from Zemeckis and other members of the crew. Why is it not here? Who knows?

Not only does this decision seem contemptuous toward the audience, but it also appears to be a bad business choice. I don't know the actual figure, but I'd estimate that it can't cost much at all to add physically add an audio commentary to a DVD (since it already exists, the issue of production costs for the track itself are not a factor). I'd be willing to bet that the additional costs to master the commentary for the DVD who be outweighed by the number of additional purchases that would occur simply because of that supplement. On Internet newsgroups, many DVD fans who like this movie have stated that they will not buy it because of Disney's questionable DVD choices; the inclusion of the audio commentary probably would have been a small piece of good will that could have placated these folks, but as it stands, I can't argue with their reasoning.

Speaking of Internet newsgroups participants, they've also spent much time discussing a controversy about censorship in regard to WFRR, one that's easily noticeable, one that's not. I'll cover the latter first, since it's more infamous.

When WFRR first hit home video, the news quickly got around that those nutty animators had snuck a little bit of visual naughtiness into the film. When Eddie and Jessica fly from the cab when it crashes, Jessica's panties are visible. For a few frames, you can see that the underwear disappears and Jessica's womanhood becomes noticeable. This piece is hard to see on VHS, but is more apparent on the CAV laserdisc release.

Upon the LD re-release of WFRR in 1998, Disney went back and touched up these frames. Many have cried foul over this "censorship," but it doesn't bother me. It doesn't affect the film at all; it simply eliminates something that was on the level of a subliminal message. Anyway, I went back and checked the CAV LD, and the way Jessica's... uh... "rabbit" is displayed is so subtle that even with freeze-frame it's almost unnoticeable.

More disturbing is the elimination of a visual gag during the film's first few minutes. Originally, as Baby Herman stormed off the set of the cartoon, he used a finger on his left arm to "goose" a woman under whose dress he walks. It didn't require still-frame to see this; it's readily apparent at normal speed on my CAV LD. On the re-released LD and on the DVD, however, Herman's arm has been redrawn so that it's at his side. Why is this? Who knows? The film contains other gags related to sexual body parts, so why they found this one so objectionable is anyone's guess; I have yet to hear any official word about this. I don't mind the alteration because the gag was so great; it's just upsetting to see them tamper with a film in such a way.

(Since the DVD itself offers no supplements, I will with a brief piece of trivia. Actor Richard Le Parmentier, who plays Lieutenant Santino, also appeared in Star Wars as Admiral Motti. That character's name doesn't ring any bells? He's the Imperial officer who touts the benefits of the Death Star and mocks Vader's belief in the Force; Vader then chokes the doubting bastard! Anyway, if you'd watched WFRR and thought that guy looked familiar, now you can place him!)

You know what's the worst aspect of the lack of supplements? There are few films ever made that are as deserving of a true special edition as is WFRR. This is a very successful movie that received excellent critical acclaim and that stands up as well now as it did more than a decade ago. It is a unique technical achievement that certainly offers lots of topics for discussion. Bizarrely - since Disney did embrace lavish special editions for some laserdisc titles - there has never been a strong video release of WFRR; that audio commentary is the ONLY supplement any LD or DVD has yet offered. Maybe someday WFRR will receive the treatment it deserves, but I'm not holding my breath.

I have a hard time offering a concrete recommendation for this title. On one hand, the DVD does what it really has to do pretty well; it's a very good movie with a borderline-excellent transfer. The sound is relatively weak, but not bad. On the other hand, $30 is pretty expensive for such a no-frills DVD, especially one that lacks features it claims to have! I like the movie, and I generally like the DVD, but I'd be reluctant to buy it unless I got a nice deal on it. Definitely don't go any higher than $20 for it; at $15 or less, it's a definite "go," but don't overspend for the title.

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