Created by Gary K. Wolf
“It’s the story of a man, a woman, and a rabbit in a triangle of trouble.”
— original tagline for the film.
And now, for something completely different…
In Who Censored Roger Rabbit?, the 1981 novel by Gary Wolf, we meet EDDIE VALIANT, your typical 1940’s-era garden variety P.I., a down-and-out ex-cop with a drinking problem and a sad story.
Yeah, we’ve never seen that before…
But the author gave Eddie and his world a little spin: in the version of Los Angeles he inhabits, cartoon and comic strip characters (“toons”) live side-by-side with humans. In this surreal romp, toons walk the streets, word balloons spouting from their mouths, drinking booze from bottles marked XXX, getting stuffed into trombones, run over by steamrollers and all those other fun things toons do.
And so it goes. Eddie is hired by comic strip second banana Roger Rabbit to find out why his employers, the DeGreasy Brothers, sleazy owners of a cartoon syndicate, have reneged on a promise to give Roger his own strip. My copy calls the book a “cult classic” but I wouldn’t go that far. It’s still a hell of an idea, but definitely not for everyone.
As Baker and Neitzel said in One Hundred and One Knights, back in 1985:
“This strange and surreal novel is neither satire nor parody. Exactly what it really is is a good question. If you can accept this nonsensical casting and go along with your critical senses numbed and in suspended animation, maybe you can overcome your disorientation long enough to finish it. For Wolf’s sake, we hope some readers find it funny. Apparently some did because recent word has it that Disney productions has purchased the film rights and intends to film it. Such courage is admirable.”
They forgot profitable, because the eventual film, Who Framed Rogar Rabbit?, released in 1988, starring Bob Hoskins as Eddie, and the voice of Charles Fleischer as Roger, was a huge critical and commercial smasheroo. You ask me, rarely has a film so completely overshadowed its source material.
While Wolf’s vision may have been brilliant, on paper it was at times clunky, frustratingly inconsistent, disorienting and hard to envision. The film, though, was a joy to behold. It smashed right through the novel’s limitations by showing, not telling. Though Wolf’s vision was certainly original, it took big bucks (Speilberg! Disney!) and the then state-of-the-art magic of Hollywood to make it all come true.
Director Robert Zemeckis managed to streamline Wolf’s vision, getting rid of those annoying word balloons (too gimmicky by half) replacing them, in an inspired bit of big name clout, with the ultimate collection of licensed classic cartoon characters from a slew of studios (including Disney, Warner Bros., MGM, Fleischer and Universal). They’re all here: Betty Boop, Woody Woodpecker, Droopy Dog, Goofy and all the rest.
Imagine! Mickey and Bugs Bunny together in the same scene! Daffy Duck and Donald Duck quacking away indecipherably, playing a piano duet that soon becomes an arms race. Droopy manning an elevator! A tired, over-the-hill Betty Boop serving up drinks. For anyone who grew up watching cartoons, it’s pure heaven to see all these old favourites again.
And the originals are just as good. Roger is one stuttering, sputtering, hyperactive, accident-prone bunny. His co-star in cartoons is the pint-sized, diaper-wearing, foul-mouthed, cigar-chomping Baby Herman, and then there’s the anotamically over-correct Jessica Rabbit. She should be ridiculous, but she’s possibly the sexiest woman ever to (almost) spill out of a dress. You know that cliché about legs up to here? Hers go further.
And boy, do they all these characters look good. As Leonard Maltin points out, this is an “incredible blend of live-action and animation” that allows us to “believe that Roger and his cartoon colleagues actually exist.”
For years there were rumours that Who Ordered Delancy Duck?, a sequel to the original novel, was imminent, but it took until 1991 and the film’s success for Who P-P-Plugged Roger Rabbit? to finally appear.
The long-delayed follow-up definitely took note of the movie’s success and clever use of name-dropping. In the sequel, Eddie is hired by Roger to find out whether Clark Gable’s beaten him out for the lead in Gone With the Wind (Baby Herman’s also in contention for the role). And, in a clever bit of double-dipping, Eddie’s also takes on Gable himself as a client, to find out who’s been planting tabloid stories that say he’s gay.
And did I mention Jessica?
- “I’m not bad; I’m just drawn that way”
— Jessica Rabbit (with a little help from Kathleen Turner) in the film
- Eddie: I’m sick of taking falls, I’m bouncing off the walls, when I get done I’ll have some fun I’ll kick you in the…
Weasel: That don’t rhyme with ‘walls’.
Eddie: No, but this does! <boot!>
- “An original mix of fairy tale and burlesque…wacky!”
— Publishers Weekly on Who Censored Roger Rabbit?
- “I was just poking around your site (again) and realized you didn’t list one of the greatest film private eyes of the past decade – well, a little over a decade. I’m talking about Eddie Valiant, tough guy extraordinaire, hero of the classic Who Framed Roger Rabbit? A true masterpiece, featuring snappy patter, bonks on the head, dum-dum bullets, and even uncensored patty-cake… I trust you will rectify this omission forthwith.I haven’t read the book, but the film was terrific. The technical achievment of making cartoons do things like grab your tie or splash water in your face was cool enough, but the story was just as good. A lot of it succeeds through nostalgia, a longing for a better time, which is appropriate on two levels. Eddie, of course, used to have a girl, a brother, and a reputation as a crackerjack detective; now all he’s got is long nights with a bottle, staring at his brother’s empty chair. And someone wants to get rid of the old streetcar line… And of course the movie is aimed not at kids but at adults who watched cartoons when they were kids, so they’re reminded of a simpler time. But forget all that, this movie makes me laugh more than anything else I’ve ever seen. Bob Hoskins’ dance at the end was absolutely hilarious.”
— Graham Powell on Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
- “Late 1940’s Los Angeles, convoluted scams, murder, a tough private eye, and funny animals abounded in this live-action-animated phenomenom…(But) lost in all the slapstick and guest shots…was, in fact, a solid and fairly clued mystery.”
— William D’Andrea in Encyclopedia Mysteriosa, on Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
- “Lots of comic subplots and compulsive wordplay with the new toons Ferd Flatfoot (Eddie’s brother-in-law) and Joellyn Rabbit (Jessica’s 5-inch twin sister), who comes on to Eddie by popping out of a cupcake. But the net effect of all the high jinks…is wearying; you’ll be reminded of why S.J. Perelman never wrote a novel. The perfect bookstore browse, though most readers will have had their fill before reaching the register.”
— Kirkus Reviewson Who P-P-Plugged Roger Rabbit?
- Who Censored Roger Rabbit? (1981) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- Who P-P-P-Plugged Roger Rabbit? (1991) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- The Road to Toontown (2012) | Kindle it!
A collection of short stories, many featuring characters from the original books.
- WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT? | Buy the DVD | Buy the Blu-Ray
(1988, Amblin Entertainment /Silver Screen Partners/Touchstone Pictures)
Based on the novel Who Censored Roger Rabbit? by Gary K. Wolf
Screenplay by Jeffrey Price and Peter S. Seaman
Directed by Robert Zemeckis
Animation directed by Richard Williams
Associate producers: Steve Starkey, Don Hahn
Producers: Frank Marshall, Robert Watts
Executive producers: Steven Spielberg, Kathleen Kennedy
Original music by Alan Silvestri
Non-original music by Franz Liszt (from “Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2”)
Starring Bob Hoskins as EDDIE VALIANT
and (the voice of) Charles Fleischer as Roger Rabbit
Also starring Christopher Lloyd, Joanna Cassidy, Stubby Kaye, Alan Tilvern, Richard LeParmentier
With the voices of Charles Fleischer, Lou Hirsch, Morgan Deare, Mae Questel, Mel Blanc, Tony Anselmo, Mary T. Radford, Joe Alaskey, David L. Lander, Fred Newman, June Foray, Russi Taylor, Les Perkins, Richard Williams, Wayne Allwine, Pat Buttram , Jim Cummings, Jim Gallant, Frank Sinatra, Tony Pope, Peter Westy, Cherry Davis, Amy Irving, Jack Angel
And Kathleen Turner as Jessica Rabbit (uncredited)
- Oh, The Games People Played Then
Some Early P.I. Videogames (including Who Framed Roger Rabbit?)
- So It’s Come to This
The Film Geeks’ Top Ten P.I. Films. James and Gustavo have spoken.