Who Framed Roger Rabbit [Robert Zemeckis, 1990]

As an 8-year-old, I knew Roger Rabbit was one of the greatest movies out there, up there with Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Ghostbusters, Ghostbusters 2, All Dogs Go To Heaven, Home Alone, The Neverending Story, Fievel Goes West, and its prequel Fievel.  But I come at it now from a very different perspective than Brendon Bouzard — I never saw Roger Rabbit, and the Roger Rabbit paraphernalia he loved was Ghostbusters stuff in my house.

Obviously I did know a lot about Roger Rabbit at the time from hearing the word on the street among my cronies, and a few stabs at playing the NES game.  I also knew there was a pale imitation of Roger Rabbit called Cool World, which nobody had watched and which had an even worse Nintendo adaptation that nobody could find.  By the 21st century I had learned that the title was Who Framed Roger Rabbit*, and put it out of my mind because everyone had already seen it and gotten over it by 1992.  And because the lack of a question mark was irritating.

"Hey Doc, I don't know if I should be in this here pitcher, because I kinda distract from the story. Aintcha think so?"

Last week, just like in 1992, I knew to expect Roger Rabbit, Jessica Rabbit, the guy who played Mario in the Super Mario Brothers movie dressed like Colombo, and a bulbous talking taxi [though I thought it would sound like Chris Tucker].

What was unexpected was the villain.  He’s a combination police chief, judge, monopolistic industrialist and urban planning visionary, and he’s played by Christopher Lloyd, looking like a cross between Alucard, Max Headroom, and Father Lankester Merrin, with a prosthetic chin that Zemeckis would reprise on Jim Carrey’s CGI Scrooge.  This guy is the ultimate retro-cool villain for 1988.  He comes up with gadgets like he’s Professor Pat Pending.  He uses filthy barrels of neon liquid to dispose of his enemies.  He stocks the police force with his corrupt cronies.  He surreptitiously buys up huge tracts of Southern California land to profit from control of resources that will be needed for an ever-growing population, and all without committing incest.

To quote a sentence that appears in identical form in two sections of this Wikipedia article: The 1988 movie Who Framed Roger Rabbit is loosely modeled on the alleged conspiracy to dismantle the streetcar lines in Los Angeles.

And like so many larger-than-life characters we met around 1990 or so, Judge Doom is preparing to retire from public service and start a new peaceful life.  [Although it’s Benny the Cab who says “I’m too old for this”.  I guess he couldn’t say the S-word even once, unlike The Transformers: The Movie — WFRR is already rated PG-13 because of the “dinky” reference, the patty-cake scene, and various other sexual innuendo that can also be found in Tex Avery’s “Red Hot Riding Hood” of 1943.]

I also didn’t realize actual Looney Tunes and Disney characters would make cameo appearances throughout, instead of having a separate world based around Roger Rabbit, Baby Herman, the talking cab, and the giant ape bouncer.  And in fact, these cameos are insipid.  It would be better to see nothing but knock-offs than to see Betty Boop, Mickey Mouse, Porky Pig, etc. distract from the plot by uttering a catchphrase and then going away, like Roz “Pinky Tuscadero” Kelly on the Paul Lynde Halloween Special.  It would also be better to give those speaking roles to people like Slowpoke Rodriguez and Zé Carioca the dapper parrot, or whoever else would actually fit the roles into which M. Mouse and P. Pig are shoehorned.

But that’s a minor gripe.  Bob Hoskins is a great sport here, and the rest of the cast are fairly cartoonish character actors with distinctive voices.  Joel Silver does what I would describe as a horrible job playing himself.

Cool World [Ralph Bakshi, 1992]

I know that when I approach Movie B thinking “Movie B is the poor man’s Movie A”, I always end up being disappointed by my own closed-mindedness.  Clearly Cool World isn’t the poor man’s WFRR – it was conceived and directed by the Copernicus of cartoon films inappropriate for children, Ralph Bakshi.  Is it an adult answer to WFRR, without the juvenile fluff and nostalgia?  Again, no real movie fits a description that simple.  Bakshi had a quite dark story in mind, it was extensively and quickly edited, and it ended up being basically nonviolent and focussed on a character who must be partially intended as an edgy and un-romanticized answer to Jessica Rabbit.

They certainly don’t try to lure people into the movie by seeming family-friendly at first.  The credits look really cheap and they’re set to a pounding piece of rave music.  I expected the first scene to have Eric Roberts strangling a cartoon prostitute or something, but in a bizarre transition we see Brad Pitt coming home from World War II to the loving arms of his mother in a small town in Nevada.  He ends up in Cool World [the cartoon universe] soon enough.

This movie doesn’t meld its world with iconic branded properties, and mostly takes place in Cool World.  WFRR is almost all set in the human world with a few cartoon characters here and there, and the brief excursions into Toontown don’t suggest a lot of world-building.  The greatest artistic accomplishment in Cool World is the cartoon backdrops, which sometimes look drawn, sometimes look real, sometimes look 2D and sometimes look 3D.  If you watch on Netflix On Demand like I did, this effect works even better because of the terrible transfer.

The odd thing about Cool World is that although it’s a comic book universe, not a refuge for animated cartoons, it’s pretty similar to Toontown.  There’s cats and chefs and giraffes, running around dropping anvils on each other and bouncing rhythmically like Toby the Pup and his pals.    Cartoon characters are called “doodles”, and humans are “noids”.  There’s a great scene where the Goons pile up furniture, elephants, etc. Goofy- and Mickey-style to get a view of the reproductive act through a millionth-floor window.

Amid the cute and wacky characters, who gamble and swear a lot, we have a few human “doodles” including the Jessica Rabbit analogue, Holli Would.  She’s certainly seductive, but since we’ve gone from Golden Age Hollywood to a world created by an ex-con living in a mobile home near Las Vegas, she’s also trashy and desperate.  And like Toby the Pup and Bosko, her default mode is standing in one place dancing.  That’s her character. She stands there dancing erotically to music by Moby and My Life With The Thrill Kill Kult, brimming with sexual frustration [as are all “doodles”, especially the hot babes].  Kim Basinger makes a valiant effort at translating this to the live-action world, including a hilariously botched torch song.  Gabriel Byrne [second-billed] and Brad Pitt [third] are impressive as the inarticulate artist tortured by longing for the world he created, and the cocky sullen noir cop guy.

This is Brad Pitt's police partner, Nails. I loved this guy. He's the only un-jaded character.

20 minutes from the end, I’d all but checked out of the movie and started reading this.  Boring chase scenes lead us to the nexus of the two universes, at which doing something would reverse whatever had happened, unless someone else does something.  It’s definitely not clear why the threat of Cool World’s disruption is a terrifying prospect.  Personally I thought we were going to learn that noids and doodles need to intermingle and not be so uptight.

But then there’s a collision of worlds, which is creative and funny, one of two really kinetic and exciting sequences in Cool World**.  The logic falls apart even more, and suddenly we’re hearing Maurice LaMarche.  Overall, it’s frustrating that during the window when movies like these had become possible but didn’t look obsolete compared to CGI, more wasn’t done with the possibilities.  Who Framed Roger Rabbit stands alone, as far as most of us know.

* Remembering when I thought there was one movie called “Star Wars”, or one movie called “Indiana Jones”, and wasn’t really bothered when one viewing of “Indiana Jones” had scary German guys looking for Egyptian stuff, and the next viewing had scary Indians with crocodiles … it makes me mad when they make bargain-basement sequels to things like Bambi.

** The other exciting sequence is a completely nonsensical car chase set to My Life With The Thrill Kill Kult’s “Sex on Wheels”.  And I mean nonsensical in that it ends with different characters being involved than were at the beginning.  The music in Cool World is really good, and I can imagine that amid all the compromises on the film’s content, the filmmakers got some solace from assembling the most cutting-edge collection of sleazy and serious dance music they could.  Moby, Future Sound of London, Ministry, this great song by the guy from the Smiths, the guy from New order, and the guy from the Pet Shop Boys, DAVID BOWIE in a preview of his Black Tie White Noise era, and of course, MLWTTKK.  Please watch the “Sex on Wheels” music video. It exemplifies 1991 more than the “Groove Is In The Heart” and “Cherry Pie” videos put together.  Because it basically is those two videos put together, set to a style of music that was popular for about eight months [think Ministry lite crossed with Nine Inch Nails lite — see Nitzer Ebb for more examples].  And it’s really catchy.

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