This week sees the release of the year’s first Christmas movie, Robert Zemeckis’ A Christmas Carol. The latest in a long line of adaptations of this classic story, Zemeckis has made it using his motion capture animation. This is the third movie Zemeckis has made using the technique, having perfected it after Polar Express and Beowulf. Zemeckis has been interested in combining human actors and animation for a long time. With news breaking last week of a sequel in development, it’s the perfect time to look back at 1988’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

Following huge success with Back to the Future in 1985, Robert Zemeckis was in big demand. This allowed him the clout to take hold of  what would be a hugely ambitious project. Live action had been combined with animation previously, most notably in Mary Poppins. No-one yet, however, had attempted a feature length movie.

Bob Hoskins is a 1940’s private dick, Eddie Valiant. Struggling with money problems, he can’t afford to be too choosy about the work he accepts. So when someone pays him to take pictures of Toontown owner Marvin Acme playing patty cake with Jessica Rabbit, he can’t say no. When the star of the pictures turns up dead, Valiant can’t shake the feeling he has been set up. The one accused of the murder has also been set up. ‘Toon Roger Rabbit had been distraught when he saw the pictures of his wife playing away, but was he really capable of murder?

On the lamb, Roger wants Valiant to clear his name. The problem? Valiant hates Toons. At one time a hero to the animated community, Eddie turned his back on them when his brother and partner was murdered by an unidentified cartoon character. Valiant does want to find out who used him in the murder plot however, and reluctantly teams up with the whacky rabbit, hiding him from the police, and the evil Judge (Christopher Lloyd) and his pack of weasels. The Judge has found a way to kill Toons, previously thought impossible. He is keen to introduce Roger to The Dip.

As Eddie follows the clues, he discovers a plot over real estate, Toontown, and a missing will. In order to uncover the truth, he is forced to face his fears and enter Toon town for the first time in years. Can Valiant solve the rabbit3mystery in time to secure the future of the Toons he now despises?

Twenty years on, in a time of great technological leaps, does Who Framed Roger Rabbit hold up? The movie was made with what is called ‘in ones’ animation. In most cartoons, the painted cells are often updated every other frames, or in some Japanese Anime up to once every five frames. This technique saves money, as only half the number of cells need to be drawn.

In Roger Rabbit, in order to keep the animation in sync with the live action, it was necessary to animate every frame, a very expensive and time consuming prospect. Combined with the complexity of drawing the cells with pinpoint accuracy to line up with the human actors, Roger Rabbit was a huge undertaking.

As a result of the techniques used, the animation is wonderful. Bright, fluid and imaginative, it is a joy to behold. Watched back in an era of perfect computer generated animation, you truly appreciate the complexity of having to hand draw each frame. The interaction between the human actors and cartoon environment are really very convincing.

A lot of the credit for this has to go to the artists and director, but it’s rrabbit5important to remember just how difficult a job actor Bob Hoskins had on his hands. Made before working with green screen (or in this case blue screen) became just another element of the job, Hoskins had to react to not just characters and backgrounds that weren’t there, but also props. He even had to drive a car that was drawn in later! But he sells it, completely. An actor best known for harsh gangster roles, he throws himself in to the slapstick sequences whole-heartedly.

For me, the best thing about Roger Rabbit is the little touches, the shout outs to classic animation conventions. is killed by a dropped piano in true cartoon style. Eddie convincing Roger to take a drink by using the Bugs rrabbit6Bunny dialogue switch, Betty Boop drawn in black and white, all show great attention to the theme. The really amazing thing is the appearance of characters like Bugs Bunny, Betty Boop and Droopy alongside the likes of Dumbo, Mickey Mouse etc, dozens of cartoon characters from several different companies appearing together. The red tape involved with the rights issues must have been monumental, you have to ask if it could be done in today’s corporate climate.

The answer may come, with the announcement by Zemeckis of a sequel in the works (read our story here). It’ll be interesting to see which characters are allowed to appear. It’ll also be interesting to see if Zemeckis utilises his new motion capture style of animation. I’m not convinced, in this era of computer animation, that there enough animators adept enough at hand-drawn cartoons available anymore for what would again be a huge undertaking. The nature of the new project is as yet unknown, but it seems likely to be a prequel, maybe set at a time when Eddie and Valiant were making a living working for Toons. Rest assured, we here at HUG will keep you posted on any and all news on this project.

The only real problem i had looking back at this movie was the far from compelling storyline. The forties noir-style detective story is overdone, the conclusion predictable. It takes Valiant an hour and a half to solve the mystery of the will, which puts him an hour and fifteen minutes behind the audience. The clumsy jabs at the rise of gas stations and freeways across America, effectively killing the Redcar transport system, are done with all the subtlety of an Acme anvil on the head. And Christopher Lloyd’s ‘cartoonish’ villain, with his over the top performance, is unnecessary in a movie already packed to the rafters with big, colourful characters.

The story, however, is unimportant. It’s just a vehicle for the fantastic animation, and the technical brilliance on display. Sit back and enjoy a true cinematic event, and lament the loss of traditional animation in Robert Zemeckis’ brave new computer-led world.