"I'm not bad…I'm just drawn that way."
WHAT'S IT ALL ABOUT?
The first time I saw Who Framed Roger Rabbit was at a sneak preview in Costa Mesa, California, weeks before the scheduled premiere. The house was packed, and I felt a strong anticipation for the film, having salivated over its trailer for months. I was then, and am now, a huge animation buff, as well as a fan of film noir. To see those elements come together in something I'd never seen before was the stuff of dreams.
I can't remember the collective reception of that audience, but I was absolutely thrilled, amazed by what unfurled before me. Even cooler, much of the animation was unfinished, particularly in the Toontown segments and in the shots of Benny the Cab roaring down the streets of 1940s Los Angeles. But the animation that was finished was jaw-dropping—gorgeously hand-drawn Tex Avery-style animation with unprecedented depth and dimension, characters with real personality interacting with human beings. That was the gimmick of the film, the main thing that got me into the theater, but Roger Rabbit is much more that just a gimmick.
Based on Gary K. Wolf's Who Censored Roger Rabbit?, which merged the world of comic strips with the real world, Robert Zemeckis' Who Framed Roger Rabbit populates its real-world frames instead with the more visual personalities of the cartoon world. In a stroke of never-seen-before-and-never-will-see-again luck and brilliance, Zemeckis oversaw a remarkable cooperation between Disney and Warner Studios so that all our favorite childhood characters could take part in the festivities. The result is both a top-notch entertainment and a trip down nostalgia lane. In the 15 years since this film premiered, we may have forgotten a little of the magic of watching Donald and Daffy Duck perform a duet in the Ink & Paint Club—or the giddy wonder of watching Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse chatting as they freefall in Toontown—but trust me, the magic is still burned into those cels, and always will be.
Besides a wild assortment of major and minor characters from classic Disney and Warner shorts and features, Who Framed Roger Rabbit introduces some original characters of its own. There's the titular Roger, voiced with a speech impediment by Charles Fleischer. There's Baby Herman, the foul-mouthed infant with a predilection for babes and cigars. And, of course, there's the irresistible Jessica Rabbit, the curvy and voluptuous femme fatale voiced by an uncredited Kathleen Turner. An animated feature starring such a cast would provide enough fun for this fan of the genre, but the masterstroke of the film is that it places this cast in real-world Hollywood, circa 1947. Roger Rabbit is a film in which humans and cartoon characters (toons) live side by side in a kind of shaky harmony.
Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins) is a struggling private detective, down on his luck and deep into the bottle. The tragic loss of his brother years before has turned him sour on life and especially on toons. But he soon finds himself wrapped up in the world of toons when gag-king Marvin Acme gets "cacked" and Roger Rabbit, star of the popular short films, is the prime suspect. There's lots of intrigue involving the animation studio, the greedy and evil Judge Doom (Christopher Lloyd), not to mention a bunch of weasels. And looming over all is the spectre of the completely animated Toontown, just to the west, a happy-face sun beaming down on its fanciful inhabitants. As the story progresses, we get startling character arcs not only from the human characters but also from the toons. We get a dastardly villain and we get a cartoon dame who defied her ink and aroused a generation. We get music that careens bizarrely from noir to toon and back again.
But you know the movie. And you also know the exhilaration you felt the first time you saw it. This is the type of movie that changes the face of movies themselves. The type of film—like, say, Star Wars or The Matrix—that shoved the boundaries of special effects and film trickery to a new level, and raised the bar for whatever might come after it. More than anything, Roger Rabbit is unique: an original concept turned brilliant by a dedicated cast and crew who were themselves reaching far beyond themselves. This DVD is a testament to that excitement and dedication, a perfect presentation of a film that deserves the "film-school" treatment.
WHO CENSORED ROGER RABBIT?
Yeah, Disney did. And if you need to stand your moral ground, hey, I salute you. I was angry for a while, too. It was a matter of principles. No matter how small the form of censorship, it's still censorship, right? I agree to a point. But this set has done so much right, and Disney has even rectified one or two things.
Let me start by saying that if you own the original laserdisc set or the VHS tape, you're going to have to hold on to your older copies of the film. By all means, buy this one too, because the film has never looked so good for home video, but you're going to have to hang on to those uncensored discs.
If you don't know what I'm talking about, the censorship occurs on only a few frames of film. The first instance is when Baby Herman gooses a woman as he storms off set, early in the movie. In the original cut, he's clearly extending his middle finger and giving the woman a little more than your average goose. This was a blink-and-you-miss-it prank perpetrated by the animators. When Disney caught wise to the few frames of naughtiness, they re-animated Herman's arm so that it remained stiffly at his side as he brushed under the lady's skirt. As we saw on the first Roger Rabbit release on DVD, the re-animation was awkward and obvious and even enraging. Many of us were disgusted with the censorship and lack of care taken with a favorite film. Well, I have good news and bad news. First, the bad news: Herman still doesn't extend that finger. The good news: The arm still goes up. The sequence has been smoothed over and isn't nearly as noticeable. (I have good news later, though, about this sequence. Read on.)
The second bit of censorship was to fix another animator prank: In the original cut, when Jessica Rabbit is thrown from Benny the Cab late in the film, she spins through the air and flashes her Barbie Doll pubes for a couple of frames. That was covered up in the previous release, and it's covered up here, too. I don't care one way or another about this case. The frames were never meant to be seen, and now they're not seen. Period. Fine. Now let's move on.
HOW'S IT LOOK?
Let's pay no attention to the full-screen version of Roger Rabbit that disgraces Disc 1—the so-called "Family Friendly" disc. I have a family, and I can assure you that this disc's feature presentation is by no means friendly to us.
No, let's move straight to Disc 2—the "Enthusiast" disc. Buena Vista presents Who Framed Roger Rabbit in an impressively film-like anamorphic-widescreen transfer of the film's original 1.85:1 theatrical presentation. This is a beautiful transfer, full of vivid, accurate colors—look at the richly bright primary colors of those toons!—and stunning detail, reaching far into backgrounds. I noticed no evidence of edge haloing. Needless to say, this effort blows away that of the previous non-anamorphic release.
I have very few complaints about this image. Sure, its age has given it a slightly dated look—some graininess and some minor shiftiness. But let there be no doubt that this is the finest this film has looked since its theatrical run—and probably better. In some instances, the transfer is so sharp that the toons seem almost too vivid, as if they're popping more noticeably away from the live action.
The print is cleaner than anticipated, although I did notice a few specks.
HOW'S IT SOUND?
On the "Family Friendly" disc's bastardized pan-and-scan version, you'll find only a Dolby Digital 5.1 track. Not that you'll listen to that soundtrack anyway.
On the "Enthusiast" disc, over the widescreen presentation, you get a Dolby Digital 5.1 as well as a DTS 5.1 track. Both are fine audio presentations, but even after switching back and forth frequently, I could detect only small differences between the two. DTS is a tad more open across the front, making the Dolby track seem just the tiniest bit muffled in comparison.
Dialog is mostly accurate, but both tracks suffer slightly from a loss of fidelity. You'll notice some minor distortion in the high end, during shrill screams, shouts, explosions, and other sound effects. However, that being said, the bulk of each track is wonderful. The score comes across with terrific depth, and it gets special treatment in the surrounds. Otherwise, I noticed little use of the rear channels, save for occasional sound effects. Honestly, I noticed more impressive surround activity in the Roger Rabbit shorts on Disc 1 (more on that later).
WHAT ELSE IS THERE?
The supplements in this fabulous set are enough to make any fan giggle like a titmouse. The animated menus themselves are new works of art: They feature Benny the Cab, glimpses of Jessica, and toons wandering across a studio back lot. One disappointment is that most of the extras—with a few notable exceptions—are presented in non-anamorphic widescreen.
Let's start with Disc 1, where we get a couple of cool surprises.
Ignoring the actual video presentation that this disc offers, you can delve into some extras that are primarily aimed at kids—with a few terrific exceptions.
First up is the ACME Warehouse section, which is full of silly easter eggs that lead you to brief toon explosions and other visual effects. But in the center of the screen is a menu of supplements. The first and most interesting is the Roger Rabbits Shorts. These short films were produced in the years following the release of the feature and were attached to various other Disney features, such as Honey I Shrunk the Kids. The cartoons are presented in 1.85 anamorphic widescreen and Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. They don't look quite as good as Somethin's Cookin', which opens Who Framed Roger Rabbit—they suffer from graininess and age—but they're more than watchable. The first is Tummy Trouble, in which Roger must take Baby Herman to the hospital after the kid swallows a rattle. The second is Rollercoaster Rabbit, in which Roger and Herman get into all sorts of trouble at a county fair. The third is Trail Mix-Up, in which Roger and Herman mess with Mother Nature. They're all hilarious, but my personal favorite is Rollercoaster Rabbit, which features some brilliant surround-sound activity.
Next is the rather annoying 11-minute Who Made Roger Rabbit featurette, hosted by Roger Rabbit himself, Charles Fleischer. Seemingly geared toward the kiddie set, this piece features some admittedly great behind-the-scenes footage of actors reacting to non-existent toons, but the ever-present Fleischer, inserting his clownish self into animation and finished footage, becomes grating.
The "Trouble in Toontown" Game is a rather brain-dead game aimed at the "Family Friendly" audience.
In the Ink & Paint Club section, you'll find sneak peeks for Schoolhouse Rock and Ultimate X. In Valiant's Office, you'll find audio options for the full-screen presentation.
The final supplement on Disc 1 is a rather cool easter egg—the film's groundbreaking original Theatrical Trailer, presented in anamorphic widescreen. And the best thing about the inclusion of this trailer is that it contains the uncensored shot of Baby Herman extending his middle finger while goosing the female stagehand. The image quality isn't great—it suffers from graininess, oversaturated colors, and dimness—but at least you completists have your "lost" footage. This easter egg is extremely easy to find.
Possibly the most anticipated feature of this set is the feature-length Audio Commentary by director Robert Zemeckis, producer Frank Marshall, screenwriters Jeffery Price and Peter Seaman, associate producer Steve Starkey, and visual effects supervisor Ken Ralston. This is a jovial affair, full of nostalgia and laughter. Everyone involved remembers the making of the film as a Herculean effort, and they're surprised but extremely proud that they survived the experience. Some highlights of the conversation include the Joel Silver cameo, the notion that Roger Rabbit is a film about civil rights, and the fact that Steven Spielberg paved the way for an unprecedented cooperation between Disney and Warner Brothers to gain access to so many cartoon characters. You also learn about Jessica Rabbit's impossible breast movements, and the brilliance of Bob Hoskins' acting against invisible eyelines.
Next up is a Deleted Scene. This so-called Pig Head Sequence is a scene that Zemeckis apparently regretted cutting. The packaging makes it seem as if the scene contains mostly unfinished animation and storyboards, but it's actually a fairly polished full-frame sequence, and it would have felt right at home in the feature, containing good humor and some great new footage of Jessica Rabbit and Judge Doom and Toontown. You can also view an Introduction by Zemeckis.
The Valiant Files section offers a whole mess of original sketches, background paintings, production stills, promotional posters, and photographs, all of which you can access as easter eggs by snooping with a magnifying glass through Eddie's office or from a simple menu at the bottom of the screen.
Before & After is a 3-minute video presentation that shows a split-frame comparison between the finished film and a workprint edition made up of storyboards and bluescreen elements. The scene is Eddie's entrance into Toontown. It's an extremely illuminating sequence that took me back to that first sneak preview.
Toon Stand-Ins is another 3-minute video piece. This one shows how the production team used silly-looking rubber stand-ins for Roger and the weasels during the bar fight (and throughout the film.). I remain amazed that these poor actors could keep a straight face.
Next is Behind the Ears, a 36-minute documentary about the evolution and production of Who Framed Roger Rabbit. This in-depth piece is composed primarily of behind-the-scenes footage and talking-head interviews with many participants:
* Robert Zemeckis (Director)
* Frank Marshall (Producer)
* Steven Spielberg (Executive Producer)
* Steve Starkey (Associate Producer)
* Don Hahn (Associate Producer)
* Peter Seaman (Screenwriter)
* Dean Cundey (Director of Photography)
* Arthur Schmidt (Editor)
* Richard Williams (Director of Animation)
* Dale Baer (Chief Executive and Supervising Animator)
* Simon Wells (Supervising Animator)
* Andreas Deja (Supervising Animator)
* Phil Nibbelink (Supervising Animator)
* Dave Spafford (Animator)
* Nik Ranieri (Animator)
* Ken Ralston (Visual Effects Supervisor)
* Michael Lantieri (Special Effects Supervisor)
* David Alan Barclay (Chief Puppeteer)
* Jon Alexander (Optical Camera Operator, ILM)
* Ed Jones (Optical Photography Supervisor)
* Alan Silvestri (Composer)
* Bob Hoskins (Eddie Valiant)
* Charles Fleischer (Voice of Roger Rabbit)
* Lou Hirsch (Voice of Baby Herman)
You can imagine, therefore, how thorough this documentary is about touching every aspect of the production. We go from concepts to live-action tests to animation composites. Zemeckis talks about how he approached the film as a regular live-action movie, with a particular emphasis on a non-stationary camera, thereby complicating the efforts of the animators. He says, interestingly, that what he wanted was the best of three worlds: Disney's beautiful animation, Warner's interesting characters, and Tex Avery's humor. Attention is given to the actors' mime training, props and mechanics, the fact that all the animation is hand-drawn, the insanely complex process of achieving animated depth that matched the real world, and on and on. Silvestri's combination of toon music and film noir is touched on, as is Charles Fleischer's odd behavior on the set. Toward the end of the documentary, the sneak previews in Costa Mesa are even mentioned! This is a valuable document for fans of the film.
On Set! is a 5-minute look at filming two Benny the Cab sequences—one on the streets of L.A. and the other on a bridge near Dodger Stadium.
Toontown Confidential is an entertaining and illuminating trivia track that plays over the feature. You can choose to listen to any of the audio tracks as this subtitle track provides a virtually non-stop collection of anecdotes, trivia, and hilarious tidbits such as "Before CDs, music was played on records." This track nods to Chinatown as a major influence, and talks more about Tex Avery. You also get lengthy bios of the major players. A cool aspect of this track is that it points out opportunities for freeze-framing the image and recognizing barely glimpsed animated characters, and it also tells you when and where each character first appeared in cartoon history. This was a LOT of fun.
That's it! However, I should mention that I found the easter egg on Disc 1 without trying too hard. These menus are RIPE for more, so you might spend some time searching for hidden features.
WHAT'S LEFT TO SAY?
I'm delighted with just about every facet of this disc. I wish the "Enthusiast" disc contained the original unedited cut, but I'm satisfied with the changes made to the previous disc's awkward slashing. This is a spectacular set that belongs in every film lover's library. The image and sound are top-notch, and the supplements add sumptuous value to a film classic.