Classic Hollywood: On the case of ‘Roger Rabbit’
Disney’s frenetic live-action/animated comedy “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” was the second-highest-grossing film of 1988, earning more than $156 million. The comedy won three Academy Awards and transformed its lead, British actor Bob Hoskins, into a bona fide Hollywood star.
But more importantly, the film marked the first time beloved animated characters from rival studios — such as Disney’s Mickey Mouse and Warner Bros.’ Bugs Bunny — appeared together. The traditionally hand-drawn animated film heralded a renewed appreciation of the Golden Age of animation and spawned the modern-era of animation, especially at Disney.
Directed by Robert Zemeckis, “Roger Rabbit” combines the wonka-wonka, eye-popping, fast-paced comedy style of Looney Tunes cartoons combined with a film noir plot. It is set in 1947 Los Angeles where cartoon characters, a.k.a. Toons, interact with humans and live in their own Toontown near Hollywood.
Hoskins plays Eddie Valiant, a down-on-his-luck gumshoe with a hatred for Toons who finds himself coming to the aid of high-strung cartoon star Roger Rabbit (voiced by Charles Fleischer) after he’s accused of murdering the owner of Toontown for having an affair with his sultry wife, Jessica.
On Thursday, Zemeckis, Fleischer, actress Joanna Cassidy, associate producers Don Hahn and Steve Starkey, supervising animator Andreas Deja and screenwriters Peter S. Seaman and Jeffrey Price will be reuniting for a screening of a new digital restoration and conversation at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Samuel Goldwyn Theater. (The event is sold out, but there will be a stand-by line the night of the event.)
Seven years before the film was released, Seaman and Price were hired by Disney to adapt Gary K. Wolf’s novel, “Who Censored Roger Rabbit?”
“Disney sent our script out to several directors, and one of them was Bob Zemeckis,” said Seaman. Zemeckis had directed two films at that point, “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” and “Used Cars.”
“I thought it was always a great idea, but it needed massive amounts of development,” Zemeckis recalled, and in any case he was busy developing what would become his 1984 hit, “Romancing the Stone.”
Years went by and a new regime took over at Disney: Michael Eisner, Frank Wells and Jeffrey Katzenberg, who now heads up DreamWorks Animation.
“After Steven Spielberg and I made ‘Back to the Future,’ the new regime had gone through their films and thought maybe Steven would be interested in ‘Roger Rabbit,’” Zemeckis said.
Spielberg mentioned the project to Zemeckis.
“I said, ‘I read that script years ago.’ He said, ‘Let’s do it,’” Zemeckis said. “The new regime at Disney was very enthusiastic about going forward.”
Zemeckis said Spielberg’s “good will” in the industry facilitated getting competing studios to allow their cartoon characters to appear in the film: “We were in the perfect place at the perfect time.”
He then hired Richard Williams, a Canadian animator based in London, to be director of animation.
Exteriors were shot in late 1986 on Hope Street in downtown Los Angeles and then the production moved to London, where Williams had set up the animation team. Deja, who was the animator of many memorable Disney characters, including Scar in “The Lion King,” was dispatched by the studio to help.
“The crew were Dutch, Spanish, Canadian,” Deja said. “There were so many scenes with Roger Rabbit, many people were needed. I also jumped around to other characters. I did the introduction of the Weasel leader when he’s threatening Bob Hoskins. I did a lot of the cameos of the classic characters.”
Zemeckis auditioned several actors for the role of Valiant before selecting Hoskins. The actor had earned rave reviews in 1986 for “Mona Lisa,” for which he would earn an Oscar nomination, but he wasn’t known to American audiences outside of the art house crowd.
“It was a brave choice to put Bob in the movie considering he was not a big movie star,” Price said.
“We saw all the screen tests and there were a lot of good people who tested, but Bob just killed it,” added Seaman.
As for Fleischer, Zemeckis had caught the comedian’s stand-up comedy act a few years before and brought him in to assist in the process of auditioning actors for the Valiant role.
“I did several of those auditions, and after a few of those, Bob asked me if I wanted to go to London and be in this movie,” Fleischer said.
During filming, all the voice actors were off camera performing their lines, so “the rhythm and the timing would be right,” said Zemeckis.
Fleischer truly got in the spirit of Roger by wearing a version of the character’s costume, including Roger’s oversized red jumper and polka-dot tie. He completed the ensemble with rabbit ears.
“Bob and I would rehearse just as if it were a live-action film and then, when it was time to call ‘action,’ I would step off camera to my designated area with my own microphone,” Fleischer said.
“Then we would do the scene. I was carefully watching everything [Hoskins] did. If he would grab Roger and yank up him by his ears, I would react to that. I referred to it as transprojectional acting!”
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