Notwithstanding the release date, Who Framed Roger Rabbit might be the first great movie of the 1990s.
Before the Disney renaissance and the Pixar revolution, Robert Zemeckis’ technically audacious blend of live-action and cartoonery reminded audiences of animation’s potential for wit, complexity and joy.
The film rests on the still-effervescent gag that Toontown is a real place where Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny et al still live and work.
When studio boss Marvin Acme is murdered, it’s pinned on two-dimensional slapstick star Roger Rabbit (voiced by Charles Fleischer), forcing private investigator Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins) to put aside anti-toon prejudice to clear his name.
All bets are off the moment not-so-innocent Baby Herman walks off an animated ‘set’ into a live-action studio: a moment of movie magic to rival Dorothy’s arrival in Oz.
Toontown resembles a Looney Tunes version of Entourage, where classic characters bitch and lust just like their human counterparts.
Reality itself warps to accommodate, with Zemeckis’ pinball camerawork turning Hoskins into a flesh-and-blood ’toon. While the live-action/animation mix was nothing new, it had never been integrated with such precision.
Zemeckis dares to be difficult, convincing us that Eddie and Roger co-exist through clever use of robotics, pulleys and other practical, pre-CGI effects. Ironically, whereas digitally enhanced photo-realism (including Zemeckis’ own later attempts) can be distracting, it’s easier to accept the visuals here because they’re so clearly unnatural.
The film’s other breakthrough was to bring MTV-generation postmodernism into mainstream animation, with a string of in-jokes and homages that anticipate The Simpsons’ magpie referencing.
Zemeckis knows no boundaries in rifling through the archives, leading to the incredible casting coup of studio rivals Donald and Daffy Duck sharing screen time (however ungraciously).
A brilliantly conceived story supports this cinematic mash-up by somehow locating the shared beat of two wildly disparate genres.
The plot sticks so rigidly to film noir conventions that it’s a worthy addition to the genre. Yet cartoon logic enhances noir’s traditional paranoia with genuine surrealism, as a kiss from a femme fatale literally flies across the room.
Even so, this would be little more than a wallow in nostalgia had the animators not made their new creations as indelible as old favourites.
Opening short Something’s Cookin’ is such a flawless pastiche of Chuck Jones and Tex Avery it feels as if we’ve known Roger for years.
Jessica Rabbit, meanwhile, is an instant icon of Hollywood sexuality and the film’s ultimate synthesis of reality (Kathleen Turner’s sultry tones) and fantasy (those impossible, drawn-to-be-bad curves).