“Be careful with that gun! This ain’t no cartoon, you know!”
Every once in awhile, a movie comes along that asks, What if cartoons were real? These are usually cute and funny—for instance, Space Jam answers the age-old question of how well cartoons can play basketball. The original, though, is Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and it tells a very different story. Directed by Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future, Forrest Gump) and starring Bob Hoskins and Christopher Lloyd, Who Framed Roger Rabbit is a film noir that asks what happens when a cartoon murders someone. It follows the classic film noir formula, but injects it with classic cartoon gags and logic. The result is a darkly funny and unabashedly unique mystery-comedy that’s unlike any other movie out there.
The plot begins in a town where cartoons and humans co-exist. Famous toon Roger Rabbit discovers that his wife, femme fatale Jessica Rabbit, has been “playing pattycake” with Marvin Acme, a wealthy businessman and the owner of Toontown. Roger does not take the news well. When Acme is found murdered the next day, the blame is pinned on Roger. Roger seeks the help of Eddie Valiant, a washed-up alcoholic private investigator who was once known for helping toons in trouble, but has since turned his back on them after a toon murdered his brother. Thus begins a carefully crafted although somewhat silly mystery with plenty of twists along the way.
I’m not bad. I’m just drawn that way.
Even though the concept of cartoons and people living and working together is ridiculous, the movie feels very real. The special effects and attention to detail are great. Cartoons hold real guns and knock things over as they bumble around. But the cultural aspects portrayed in the film are well done too. Seeing two old celebrity toons (Donald Duck and Daffy Duck) perform a side gig as entertainers while the waitress, a black-and-white Betty Boop, complains that work is harder to come by since cartoons went to color gives an air of authenticity to the setting. There’s a special police-sanctioned goon squad to hunt down renegade toons that’s devised a special way to kill them. Even the cartoon characters, Roger, Jessica, and Baby Herman, have very real feelings and motivations underneath their cartoon personas. It’s all very well done.
There’s a sense of intrigue while watching this movie, not just because of the competent mystery, but also to see how cartoon tropes will play out in real life. The wacky toon antics are more than an act—they’re an obsessive compulsion for the toons. We see things like a cartoon gun and bullets or a portable hole and then see how their existence changes the outcome of this film noir. For anyone who grew up watching Looney Toons, these gags are instantly familiar, but seeing them used like this is very novel.
I’ll admit, Who Framed Roger Rabbit may be a niche movie. To truly appreciate everything in the film, it helps to be familiar with both classic films noir and classic cartoons like Looney Tunes and old Disney shorts, so some of the references might be lost on younger viewers. Also, the concept may just be too ridiculous for some. But the way the concept is pulled off is fairly brilliant and the technical aspects of the film hold up very well today. I’d recommend this to anyone who grew up with films noir and classic cartoons, as well as anyone who can handle a little silliness with their dark humor.
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Genres: animated, comedy, film noir, mystery
Movies Like Who Framed Roger Rabbit
Who Framed Roger Rabbit is pretty unique, but it’s a modern nod to the old films noir, so other modern nods to the genre or even some of the classics might be of interest.
- Chinatown – This modern film noir from the 70s takes the old formula and updates it for modern audiences. It boasts an amazing script and is one of the last great true films noir. It lacks the humor that Who Framed Roger Rabbit had, but you’ll see a lot of the same elements.
- The Third Man – This is an old classic film noir from 1949, but it’s a good mix of humor, mystery, and darker plot elements, much like Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Being from the age of movie censorship, it can only be so dark, but it has a lot of the same edge that Who Framed Roger Rabbit had.
- Zootopia – If you’re just looking for another animated detective story, this newer film fits the bill.