I had an interesting conversation with a friend the other day. They were going through a rough patch and were stressed about a few things. However, they still seemed happy. I asked why?
“Simple” they said “I got on Youtube and looked up some old Sesame Street clips that I had remembered. It’s always good that you can escape to those childhood pleasures.”
I expressed some surprise to this. For the most part, I had long ago abandoned such pleasures. They held no real special relevance to me anymore, I explained. I had changed, but the material had not. I had grown up in the new Disney “Renaissance” that produced such “classics” as The Little Mermaid and The Lion King. Back then, I suppose they were enjoyable. But now, I simply can no longer accept them. They are well animated, sure, but that is about as far as it goes. For the most part, Disney spent their time remaking the same film over and over again and calling it a masterpiece. I simply can no longer accept such laziness. There is no reverence for it in my mind.
I explained all this to my friend. They were horrified by me. I cannot say that it was completely unexpected. But I was still surprised.
I kept this reaction in mind while watching 1988 classic Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Notice I did not use quotation marks around classic this time. That is because the film really is a classic. As an adult, I can look at it and still say that. This is how every family film really should be. It is a technical marvel and, even better, a loving tribute to Hollywood’s Golden Age.
The film is about private eye Eddie Valiant, who is still mourning the loss of his brother. He gets involved in a job for Hollywood tycoon R.K. Maroon who hires him to take pictures of Jessica Rabbit, wife of his biggest star Roger Rabbit. The job leads to the murder of the man who was caught with Jessica, leading Eddie to uncover a real estate scam that could lead to the destruction of the toons in Hollywood. Oh, and yes. The toons are real, and are imposed onto the various real life locations in Hollywood
Watching the film now, I was completely floored by the effort and technology, something that never even occured to me as a child. More than once, I uttered aloud “How did they do this?” The cartoon characters are not just present on film. The interact with real world objects. They leave marks on funiture. They tug on actors legs. They appear as real as the actors and sets. It takes a magician, not just a filmmaker, to accomplish this feat. I still wish to know how they did this.
But this technical achievement is…well, it’s a major one. But it is not why the film is successful. It is successful because of it’s remarkable knowledge of the past. It takes place in Los Angeles. But his is more than Los Angeles. This is a perfect time capsule of golden era Hollywood. It pokes fun at the Hayes Code, actor/studio relations, and big time directors who treated their talent like cattle. It also features characters straight out of a Dashiell Hammet work.
It is also not afraid to take on adult themes. That is something Disney desperately needs to learn. Yes, the film is “dirty.” But it is never gratuitous. It is gentle. Valiant’s pun of “nice booby trap” after someone reaches into Jessica Rabbits skirt is about as bad as it gets. Well, alright, it gets worse. But for that a viewer would have to examine the film frame by frame. No regular viewer is going to do that.
This film still resonates with viewers. When I purchased this, the used record store clerk commended me on my “excellent choice.” This is an indie person in every sense of the word, and Roger Rabbit still resonates with him. It takes a special kind of film to have that impact after all those years.