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When Hollywood Went to Toontown

Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988).

When Hollywood Went to Toontown

It’s been 30 years since Who Framed Roger Rabbit let cartoons loose in a live-action film—or is it the other way around? A visual history of the best (and weirdest) moments in cartoon-human relations.

In one of the early scenes in the 1988 film Who Framed Roger Rabbit, the human protagonist, Detective Eddie Valiant, played by Bob Hoskins, is drinking in a bar when he’s approached by a local knucklehead. The guy starts teasing Valiant about his choice of clients, asking whom he was working for that week: “Chilly Willy? Or Screwy Squirrel?”

Valiant kicks the stool out from under his tormentor. Gripping the man’s head in his hands and shaking with anger, he growls: “Get this straight, meatball: I—don’t—work—for toons!

But as you probably know, not only does Valiant work for toons, but the success of Who Framed Roger Rabbit meant that soon the rest of Hollywood wanted to work for them too. When that film, which turned 30 this year, cast human actors alongside a band of rubbery, spring-loaded, zany-violent cartoon characters, it was taking a massive risk: the film went way over budget by around $28 million, attempting technical feats of animation that had never been pulled off before to make the cartoons and humans look like they were really shooting and pawing at one another. But it paid off, taking in $156 million (coming in second only to Rain Man in profits that year) and winning three Oscars.

Anchors Aweigh (1945).

Roger Rabbit was far from the first film to feature cartoons and humans overstepping the, well, color line. Cab Calloway made appearances in Betty Boop cartoons such as Minnie the Moocher (1932), some of which started with real footage of the Cotton Club bandleader dancing before revealing a version where he’d been rotoscoped into an animated ghost (more on that below). By the 1940s, animation technology was good enough for humans to actually share the screen with cartoons, so Gene Kelly could tap dance with Jerry Mouse in Anchors Aweigh (1945). But Roger Rabbit broke new ground, even beyond Jessica Rabbit’s curves: it proved to film studios not only that audiences loved cartoon-human mash-ups, but that cartoons in general could make serious money.

Imitators followed, and cartoon-human joint productions became a fruitful genre between the late 1980s and mid-1990s. To help make sense of this unusual moment, we’ve assembled a visual history of human-toon relations. Just like Roger Rabbit, those follow-up productions were tinged with racial messaging, the tension (sexual and otherwise) between flesh-and-blood and pen-and-ink winking at the danger and thrill of miscegenation. Toontown is a debauched but lovable ghetto, in danger of being razed; in the video for Paula Abdul’s 1989 song “Opposites Attract,” she sings a duet with an “urban” (read: black) cartoon feline named MC Skat Kat. “It ain't fiction/just a natural fact,” they croon. “We come together/cuz opposites attract.”

Two stills from Song of the South (1946).

First Contact

You could say that cartoons have almost always overlapped with human bodies: early animator Max Fleischer invented the rotoscoping technique in 1915, so animators could paint over motion-picture footage to get the most realistic movement possible, frame by frame. (This was the technique that allowed Cab Calloway to dance with Betty Boop in Fleischer-produced films, albeit only as one of his cartoon avatars.) By 1919, Fleischer had made films that combined live action and cartoons, such as his series starring Koko the Clown. The results were a little crude, but audiences were amazed.

Pretty soon, though, techniques improved. The concept was attempted, with varying levels of commercial and creative success, through three decades, in segments of movies like The Three Caballeros (1944), Anchors Aweigh (1945), Song of the South (1946), Mary Poppins (1964), The Incredible Mr. Limpet (1964), and Pete’s Dragon (1977).

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Stills and promotional images from The Three Caballeros (1944).

Forget It, Eddie—It’s Toontown

No significant advances in the human-toon bond were made until June of 1988, when Roger Rabbit presented a world where humans and cartoons existed in the same frame seamlessly. But the movie’s revolutionary visual effects served a greater purpose, creating its own reality where these two worlds could finally interact meaningfully, instead of humans controlling cartoons’ every action. Now either party could manipulate, charm, seduce, or kill the other. A cartoon might not get hurt if a refrigerator was dropped on his head, but his pride could be wounded or he could have a bad day at his job.

The seed for Who Framed Roger Rabbit came from the 1981 mystery novel by Gary Wolf called Who Censored Roger Rabbit? (Biggest difference: in the book, Roger Rabbit is a character in a comic strip, not a moving picture.) Like Roman Polanski’s 1974 masterpiece Chinatown, the film version of Roger Rabbit is a callback to the noirs of the 1940s, following down-and-out detective Eddie Valiant as he tries to unravel who killed gag inventor Marvin Acme and why the murder is being pinned on the titular floppy-eared dimwit. Also like Chinatown, it depicts the corruption and ruthless greed that Los Angeles’s growth was built on. In the LA of Roger Rabbit, toons are second-class citizens, confined to a ghetto that they don’t govern and regularly executed by the authorities in the streets.

The Incredible Mr. Limpet (1964).

Before filming began in 1986, director Robert Zemeckis and director of animation Richard Williams agreed that combinations of live action and 2-D animation in previous films hadn’t worked: the camera was usually locked in a single location, so it was easier for animators to draw in the cartoon characters later, and that rendered the results flat and lifeless. Williams instructed Zemeckis to shoot Roger Rabbit as he would any of his other films and he and his team would figure out how to handle the animation afterward. “I told Bob I was convinced every single rule about the use of animation and live action was baloney, and if we made the film, I'd throw them all out and let him move the camera," Williams told the Los Angeles Times in 1988.

Lead actor Bob Hoskins would later say he spent so much time imagining cartoons during his performance that by the end of shooting, he was hallucinating them in his regular life. The voice actors for the cartoons were brought on set to deliver their lines off-camera. Comedian Charles Fleischer, who voiced Roger Rabbit, would even dress in a rabbit costume during his scenes, just to get into character.

Pete’s Dragon (1977).

After essentially the entire movie was shot and edited, the animation process began. More than 300 animators worked for over a year to finish Roger Rabbit, completing it just 20 days before the movie’s premiere. It’s estimated to have cost $58 million, far exceeding the $30 million for which it was greenlit—but it earned over five times its final budget at the box office. And those three Oscars.

Mary Poppins (1964).

Paula Gets Inked

Roger Rabbit wasn’t an easy act to follow, and lots of its imitators flopped. But not this one. A year after the film’s release, Paula Abdul debuted the music video for her sixth single, “Opposites Attract,” in which the 27-year-old ex-choreographer duets and dances with MC Skat Kat, an animated rapper cat in sunglasses and suspenders. Sharon Oreck, the video’s producer, says that Abdul had the idea to do something inspired by the sequence in Anchors Aweigh where Gene Kelly dances with Jerry Mouse. In this call-and-response tune, Abdul and Skat Kat sing about all their conciliable differences, with Abdul playing the good girl to Skat Kat’s bad influence: she hates staying up late, cigarettes, and being loud, while the rapping cat … likes all those things. “She's got the money,” he calls, and she responds: “And he's always broke.”

Paula Abdul, “Opposites Attract” (1989).

“Opposites Attract” was directed by the husband-and-wife duo of Mike Patterson and Candace Reckinger. The couple had worked on 1985’s groundbreaking animation-and-live-action video for a-ha’s “Take On Me,” plus subsequent clips for artists such as Suzanne Vega and Sting. Though the Abdul video is less than four minutes long, its elaborate animation took months to complete. The filmmakers ended up pulling in as many animators as they could afford to get the video done. “It was a room full of the weirdest nerds you’ve ever met in your life,” Oreck remembers.

The video, which features Abdul and Skat Kat prowling around in a generic “inner-city” landscape, was a huge success, getting heavy rotation on MTV and winning the Grammy for Best Short Form Music Video in 1991. “Opposites Attract” came just as jokey hip-hop tracks like Tone Loc’s “Wild Thing” and Young MC’s “Bust a Move” were infiltrating the pop mainstream—and there was a lot of cash potential in an ostensibly African American anthropomorphized cat who could rap and dance.

Oreck and the directors, who were the co-owners of Skat Kat, took a meeting at Warner Bros., which was interested in giving Skat Kat his own spinoff show. “They handed us a giant folder, and the folder was filled completely with products,” she says. “It was like, ‘If you give us Skat Kat, we are going to sell all this stuff.’ It was T-shirts, fluffy toys, water bottles, lunchboxes.” But for the show to happen, they would need Abdul’s approval. Her team wasn’t interested, probably because it was clear how much the TV people didn’t want her. They just wanted the animated cat.

Stills from Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

Noids and Doodles

The first notable feature that attempted to ride Roger Rabbit’s coattails came in 1992. Cool World was first conceived after Warner Bros. approached Ralph Bakshi—a director best known for decidedly adult animated flicks like Fritz the Cat and Heavy Traffic, which earned X ratings for their freaky-deaky depictions of animated sex and violence.

Bakshi had always tried to incorporate realism into his work. That could mean tracing photographs for his animated backgrounds, as well as tackling more, uh, practical concerns not found in the worlds of singing dwarves or wisecracking wildlife. “For every movie I made, I had to figure out, well, if your animated character is going to take off his clothes, how big should his penis be? Those are questions!” Bakshi says. “If an animated character is going to be Italian, how should he feel about his Jewish wife? That’s major stuff.”

Stills from Cool World (1992).

But before Cool World filming even began, the project started to come apart. “They rewrote my screenplay and didn’t tell me,” says Bakshi. “They just wanted my fuckin’ name on the screen. Even my kids don’t think I’m that great.”

Warner Bros. made Cool World’s plot about Jack Deebs (Gabriel Byrne), an underground comic-book artist fresh out of jail who is seduced by a cartoon named Holli Would (voiced by Kim Basinger) in an animated city that he mistakenly believes is a manifestation of the world he created in his comics. There he meets a human police officer, Frank Harris (Brad Pitt), who tells him the most important law of this universe: “Noids don’t have sex with doodles.” Deebs doesn’t listen. Once they’ve done the deed, Holli takes on a human form and crosses over into the (definitely not cool) real-world Las Vegas, where she causes chaos, sexually harassing Frank Sinatra Jr. and opening transdimensional portals. In a 1992 interview, Pitt called it “Roger Rabbit on acid.”

Somewhere buried inside this insanity was a commentary about interracial relationships and miscegenation. But who can tell? Critics hated it, and it tanked at the box office, making back less than half of its $30 million budget.

Space Jam (1996).

Dunking on the Box Office

Still, Warner Bros. kept trying to tell stories of human-toon relationships. In 1996, the studio released Space Jam, in which NBA star Michael Jordan and the cartoon cast of Looney Tunes play a basketball game against a group of animated monsters. If it seems a little, well, commercial, that might be because the film was literally inspired by a Nike ad—one made by the same director, Joe Pytka, in 1992, in which Michael Jordan and Bugs Bunny trounced a group of bullies on the court.

Though the film made over $230 million at the box office, it’s more fondly remembered thanks to viewers’ nostalgia (and its miraculously still-active website) rather than because of any innovations or deeper meaning. Looney Tunes: Back in Action, released in 2003, was similarly disappointing. “They're missing all the textures, they're missing all the filmmaking, they're missing many, many aspects that Roger Rabbit had in spades,” says historian and CalArts professor Jerry Beck about these inheritors to the toon-human throne. “They were just taking the surface of it.”

The trailer for Disney reboot Mary Poppins Returns (2018).

The Prodigal Toon

For years there has been talk about a sequel to Roger Rabbit, but it’s never come together. However, the forthcoming Mary Poppins Returns features a musical sequence with animation, in tribute to the original’s “Jolly Holiday” number. And, yes, there will be a Space Jam 2, directed by up-and-coming filmmaker Terence Nance, produced by Ryan Coogler, and starring LeBron—a decidedly black comeback for a genre with a questionable history. It remains to be seen if the plot’s politics will get an update too.

When cartoons and humans first started sharing the screen, it was like a dare. What would happen if two wildly different worlds met? The excitement was not only in the technical achievement but also in the trespass—between 2-D and 3-D, flat and embodied. Cartoons were designed as a way to blow off steam and indulge their creators’ (and viewers’) most illogical, violent fantasies. Who Framed Roger Rabbit put those desires right in line with real-life taboos in a way that was kind of radical. What if you didn’t just want to watch toons—what if you wanted to touch them?

Like all really original, successful things, Roger Rabbit also made that taboo look a lot less dangerous and a lot more bankable. By the time the first Space Jam rolled around, not only had the technology improved, but casting humans alongside cartoons just made sense. Now CGI technology has come to dominate the animated landscape, and it seems that toons and other drawn characters could someday outnumber humans on the screen. After all, it’s a lot easier to manage a toon than your average Hollywood star.

Photographs courtesy of Everett Collection.

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