Why ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’ Was Revolutionary


Who Framed Roger Rabbit, the 1988 cult classic famous for fusing live action with traditional animation, turns 25 this year, and a special-edition Blu-ray of the film debuts today to celebrate the anniversary. We’re excited to see it in a form that enhances the movie’s already mesmerizing effects, which took 14 months to create in post-production — but they’re far from the only extraordinary aspect of this groundbreaking film.

Roger Rabbit was the second highest grossing movie of 1988 (topped only by Rain Man) and is among the 25 highest-grossing animated films of all time. It won more Oscars than any other animated flick, as well as a handful of other prestigious awards. Numbers aside, this film noir pastiche was more important for the art and business of cinema than most people realize. Here are ten reasons Roger Rabbit should be considered revolutionary.

1. Roger Rabbit renewed viewers’ interest in animation — especially the work of Richard Williams — and started the Disney Renaissance

Due to the enormous success of the film among audiences young and old, not only did the film result in spin-off comic books and theme park rides, but it also made the public crave animation like never before — and proved to be the best springboard Disney could ask for. The company finally put The Little Mermaid, for which plans had existed since the ’30s, into production, starting off a decade-long golden era that ended with Tarzan in 1999. All through the ’90s, the company made animated classic after animated classic. On a smaller scale, propelled by the film’s success, Roger Rabbit‘s animation director, Richard Williams, signed an agreement with Disney and Steven Spielberg to distribute The Thief and the Cobbler, his life’s work of 28 years. Everyone wins!

2. Its use of rotographing was groundbreaking

Making Roger Rabbit was a pain in the ass. The process of rotographing involves drawing characters into every frame of a film. After a rough cut is done, animators do three layers per animation, to give the illusion of shadow and light and make them dimensional. While this style had already appeared in films such as Mary Poppins, you just can’t compare an animated dance number (with notably less meticulous shading) to an entire film in which the cartoons are the second-class citizens that a live-action protagonist must defend.

3. Jessica Rabbit’s sequin dress

Remember the nightclub scene in which Jessica seduces her audience by singing “Why Don’t You Do Right?” One of the most impressive parts of the scene is Jessica’s dress, whose sparkly effect was created when animators shined light through a plastic bag that had been distressed with steel wool.

4. The actors had to address characters and objects that weren’t actually there

For live-action scenes, rubber mannequins and marionettes were used to stand in for Roger Rabbit and the other toons who would be added to the sequences in post-production. What was so groundbreaking at the time — humans acting opposite cartoons — is now an integral part of how we make movies, as actors must increasingly share scenes with computer-animated co-stars.

5. Roger Rabbit has an incredibly intricate plot

Any screenwriting class would do well to put the Roger Rabbit script at the top of its syllabus. With plenty of references to Depression-era film noir, a complex protagonist — a private detective trying to help Roger Rabbit, despite his intense dislike of toons, since one of them killed his brother — and a detailed plot involving murder and blackmail, the story is so tightly wound that even the jokes drive the plot along or hint at something that will be important later (like the blank piece of paper Roger uses to write a love letter to Jessica).

6. It features strong, surprising female characters

When we first gaze upon Jessica Rabbit, it’s in a room full of whistling men that she ogles while singing a pretty little number. Shortly after, she’s caught “playing patty cake” with another man, and we think we have her all figured out. But we soon learn that she was forced into posing for the photos in order to help her husband — and, if anything, Eddie Valiant is the fool in the situation. Jessica soon teams up with the detective to save Roger, alongside Eddie’s bartender girlfriend, Dolores, who ends up outsmarting him a few times herself.

7. It touches on a real-life conspiracy theory

Towards the end of the film, Judge Doom’s hubris causes him to reveal his true motivation for all his evil deeds: he wants to build a freeway in place of Toon Town. An unusual villain goal, it actually parallels a conspiracy theory involving General Motors buying out and dismantling the streetcar industry in LA in order to force people into buying cars. While GM is off the hook on this one, the film did draw attention to the case years after it was closed.

8. The film’s dark and risqué elements blurred the boundary between movies for kids and adults

An antidote to cutesy princesses dancing in the woods with happy animals, Roger Rabbit touches on adult themes, including affairs and even the death of toons via Doom’s “dip,” a chemical created to slowly disintegrate cartoons into nothingness. The film unapologetically mixes more mature content with the childish elements of cartoons, creating the rare Disney movie that also catered to adults.

9. Roger Rabbit is nothing if not self-aware

Perhaps the appeal of Jessica’s famous line, “I’m not bad; I’m just drawn that way,” is that it’s unabashedly self-aware and picks up on decades of animation tropes. The film also shows an awareness of its own contradictions, such as the moment when Eddie has to figure out a way to hide Roger after they end up handcuffed together, even though Roger is a cartoon and can’t be confined by cuffs. (Roger later slips his hand out of the cuff right as Valiant tries to saw him out, explaining that he could escape “only when it was funny.”)

10. It inspired a dance craze