When you get used to spotting a film noir; it’s relatively easy. As a genre, it’s much more about style than anything else. Noir is full of atmospheric photography and oblique lines, which seem to trap the main characters within them. Its pervading feeling is one of claustrophobia and melancholy. The plot is often twisting and the dialogue tends to be enigmatic.
Since the 1930s, the genre has been developing, decade by decade, in a way which reflects the anxieties of its own era. Over time, the distinctive separation between good and evil figures has become more blurred and women, thankfully, have been given increasingly complex characters. If one thing is being proved, it is this: society is as seedy and corrupt as it ever was, and we still have something to say about it. Noir has been parodied, noir has also been used in pastiche; sometimes noir just seems like the best way to tell a story.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) is not a children’s film; it’s too noir for that; there’s scenes of drinking, smoking, sexual intrigue and murder. The strong animated aspect, however, draws children into the film and these dark overtones engage them in a completely different way. That’s one of the things that’s so special about Roger Rabbit; you feel as if you’re watching a film made for an adult audience using elements that appeal to one’s more childish side. The USA and UK ratings of the film are a PG, so younger audiences can still watch. However, the twisting noir-esque plot focusing on Judge Doom’s attempt to destroy The Red Car trolley service and ToonTown in order to build a freeway can be hard enough for adults to follow.
The film is based on a Gary K Wolf novel called “Who Censored Roger Rabbit” which I had to ask my boyfriend to download for me on his Kindle, as it seems virtually unobtainable as a hard copy. Apparently there are also several sequels and related short stories. The book itself reads as an even more straight-laced noir, though I think this makes the characters less likeable. Who Framed Roger Rabbit is directed by Robert Zemeckis, also responsible for the Back to the Future Trilogy (1985, 1989 and 1990). The film’s release date is nestled between the first and second Back to the Future films. Zemeckis would also go on to direct the two fantastic Tom Hanks epics, Forrest Gump (1994) and Cast Away (2000)
Eddie Valiant is a classic noir hero. Once, the Valiant brothers, Eddie and Teddy, were heroic police detectives who used to focus on cases which stood up for the rights of toons (animated characters). Following the death of his brother Teddy, however, and at the hands of a toon, Eddie has become a disillusioned drunk. Although many others were supposedly considered for the role of Eddie, and several others auditioned, I honestly couldn’t imagine anyone but Bob Hoskins in the part. He commits himself fully, acting with make-believe toons in a touchingly convincing way, reminiscent of how a child would in the playground (apparently Hoskins watched his daughter playing with her imaginary friends to help him get into the role).
This is why the film works so well; everyone is committed and the characters show no awareness that they’re in a PG rated noir with elements of comedy; they commit as if they are in a 1940s, life-or-death, grown-up movie. There is a particularly touching scene where Eddie looks through his old newspaper cuttings, reminiscing about the good old crime fighting days with his brother, until he is reminded of the circumstances of his brother’s death all over again. This is played with all of the deadpan delivery of a real noir, as is Eddie’s retelling of Teddy’s accident to Roger, when he reveals that a toon, “dropped a piano on his head.”
I honestly think that Bob Hoskins was an undervalued actor. He probably didn’t get enough meaty roles, but he’s sparkly and entertaining as Smee in Hook (1991), chilling, with a convincingly creepy Birmingham accent as Joe Hilditch in Felicia’s Journey (1999) and as Vivian Van Dame he is charming, dignified and stubborn in Mrs Hendersen Presents (2005). In Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Hoskins adopts a subtle American accent and the trademark noir hat, suspenders and trench coat. He manages to be miserable and mean spirited, but also loveable and funny.
Jessica Rabbit (voiced by Kathleen Turner) looks like the ultimate femme fatale, all physical dominance and sexual intimidation, but as she says, “I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way.” The noir idea of a predatory ‘spider woman’ is subverted, and it turns out that Jessica is a deeply loving and faithful wife to Roger. It’s only a shame that Turner is not credited in the part.
Roger (voiced by Charles Fleischer) is not an annoying character. It would be so easy for him to grate; he has all the exhausting energy of a small and repetitive child, but everything he does is for the love of Jessica (as it turns out, everything she does is ultimately for him too, including that game of patty-cake…) He is a mash up of Goofy, with the hands of Mickey Mouse and a more Warner Brothers style face and voice. The bright and positive attitude of the character of Roger is in such contrast to the noir genre of the film, and yet somehow it works.
Joanna Cassidy plays the caring yet surely barmaid, Dolores, an old flame of Eddie’s. Here, we see another typical noir female; the working war-years woman. The unblinking Christopher Lloyd breaks the mould slightly more; Judge Doom is a maniacal caricature that terrified me and I’m sure many others as a child. His henchmen, the ruthless zoot-suit wearing weasels, feel much more in keeping with the genre, especially when they pile out of their automobile and prowl around Eddie’s apartment in search of the wanted rabbit.
The film, set in 1947, is packed with 1940s iconography. There are; drunks rotting in a dingy bar, black and white newsreel footage showing at the picture house, eerie shadows and alleyway chases, and a reasonably intricate plot, full of scheming and double-crossing. The divide between humans and toons also highlight 1940s issues of segregation and difference – the toons perform and serve in the Ink & Paint Club but cannot go there as customers. Eddie also treats the toons with prejudice; he assumes that because one killed his brother, they are all evil. Incidentally, the filmmakers attempted to only use cartoons from the 1940s and earlier, although this rule is not strictly followed (Tinkerbell, for example, is from 1953’s Peter Pan).
Who Framed Roger Rabbit contains some disturbing moments (that poor little squeaky shoe facing The Dip), populated by some cynical and criminal characters. Conversely, it’s a celebration of animation and beloved animated figures, with a good sense of humour and a great big heart. The noir feeling helps to give balance to the zany and less mature elements of the film. I love Who Framed Roger Rabbit as much now as I did about two and a half decades ago.