Deep Analysis: Who Framed Roger Rabbit?


In celebration of the forthcoming release of L.A. Noire, Flixist has teamed up with its sister sites Japanator and Destructoid to give a bit of background on what noir (we’re spelling it that way) is all about. Throughout the next week and leading up to L.A. Noire’s release, we’ll be reviewing/analyzing classic noirs set in L.A., explaining exactly what noir is and a few more awesome things.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit? is one of those rare movies that has stuck with me since childhood. Indeed, it has that fairly magical ability to add layers and layers of new discoveries and ideas as I grow older and learn more about film. As a kid, we all say pretty much the same stuff. “THE RABBIT IS FUNNY!” “IT’S DUMBOOOO!” “MICKEY!” Now, as an adult, I remark on Bob Hoskins’s surprisingly nuanced performance, especially for a “kid’s” movie. I notice that this film is special, historically important, even, for being the first and only onscreen interaction between Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny.

Moreover, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? is one of the last great classic examples of film noir. I don’t mean the neo-noir of Brick or the sci-fi noir trappings of Blade Runner. Both are spectacular movies in their own right, but Roger Rabbit is really the last great film noir in the old school of John Huston. Also, there is a cartoon rabbit that makes his face like a whistle. 

If you’re doing your due diligence, you’ve read Sam’s great article defining film noir. I mention that because this is mostly going to be a lot of me pointing out things in Roger Rabbit and pointing at Sam and saying, “This is that. Yes.” So be ready for that.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit? is a celebration of film noir as much as it is a celebration of cartoons. One must look no further than the protagonist, Eddie Valiant, for one of the biggest pieces of evidence of this. Eddie is basically every noir protagonist archetype rolled into a ball and spat into a fedora. He’s a former cop that left the force to be a private detective. He’s a hard drinker with a hard life, living and working in the same one-room apartment. He’s got the classic sad familial past (his dead brother), which counts as a two-for-one, because his brother’s death also gives him a chip on his shoulder the size of Texas and a grudge against the toons, the client he worked so hard to protect in his past. 

Despite all the trappings mentioned above, Eddie is defined by his honor. He’s a drinker, yeah, and he’s not below hopping onto the back of a train car for a ride, like a scrappy teen, but when it comes to the job, he does it. He may hate toons for what they did to his brother, but in the old noir fashion, a job’s a job. He grows into a less selfish person by the end, finally able to let go of his brother and stop blaming every toon for his death, but that sense of honor, that’s such a constant for noir detectives, defines him.

Of course, there’s no way to talk about Roger Rabbit without mentioning Jessica Rabbit, the ultimate femme fatale. Designed as the ideal woman, Jessica exudes sex appeal, right from her first, breathless appearance. I mean, her first appearance is her leg sticking out from behind a curtain, right before she sings a song seducing every man in the audience. She appears to be at the center of the film’s greatest mystery, the death of Marvin Acme, and her motives are constantly suspect. About the only thing that separates her from most femme fatales is that, at the end of the day, she has a good heart, and she only wants to protect the rabbit she loves. All of her mystery inevitably hides a decent, scared person. Also, as a corollary, it is nigh impossible to look for pictures of Jessica Rabbit at the workplace. The reasons should be obvious.

A surprising number of noir films wind up centering around shady men and back alley land deals. Look at Chinatown. The key mystery there is kicked off through buying a new dam and what is essentially the entire San Fernando Valley. Bor-ring. The same is true of Roger Rabbit. Judge Doom’s entire convoluted plot is all to purchase Toon Town, destroy it, and create the first California freeway. Truly, he was a master of evil.

There’s also a lot of interplay between light in shadow in Roger Rabbit, possibly one of the most easily recognizable noir tropes. Look at the scenes where Eddie is in his office. Through the blinds, the shadows fall across his desk in just the correct way, specifically highlighting the objects on his desk that we need to see, those being the various plaques and pictures filling in his backstory. The alleyway scene in Toon Town is another prime example. The wacky, colorful tones of the rest of Toon Town give way to muted blues, grays, and browns and all those glorious shadows. Look two pictures up, at the still of Jessica Rabbit with the gun. That shot is so noir it hurts. Every object has a shadow cast across it in some dramatic way. The score also calls to mind the classic John Huston/Bogart detective tales. There’s a lot of wailing, muted brass, providing a decidedly mournful, deliberate tone. This conflicts with the more cartoon-y sections, but when it works, man, does it make the more grounded sections cook.

It’s a strange feeling, realizing that a movie about a detective helping a cartoon rabbit is one of the best detective stories, and one of the best examples of film noir, of the last thirty years. But Who Framed Roger Rabbit? stands as a testament to the power and the versatility of film noir.