20 January, 2005

munkey's-eye view: WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT?


What do you get when you cross a Raymond Chandler noir-mystery novel with a Looney Tunes cartoon?

Before Robert Zemeckis went all over-earnest and Tom-Hanks-luvvin on us, he was one hell of a film maker. And this genre-bending tour de force is probably his master-work, combining a complex plot, snappy dialogue, unforgettable characters, a stylish visual flair... and of course the seamless integration of old-school animation and live-action film.

One look at the story-line shows that this is no just-for-kiddies romp, despite the riotous animated opening sequence. This is a tale of murder and blackmail, where a successful actor is framed and his lounge-singer wife is set up as a philanderer, so a corrupt corporation can bump-off a businessman and get its hands on a huge area of land. The film's protagonist is Eddie Valiant, a mourning, alcoholic Private Eye who must uncover the conspiracy before the framed star is caught and executed for a murder he never commited. Of course the twist is, the actor is a nutty cartoon bunny, his wife is the sauciest ink-and-paint vixen ever, the businessman is the mad inventor of the "Acme" products (endlessly used by Wile E Coyote et al) and the piece of land up for grabs is Toontown: a psychotic carnival-land which the madcap animated characters call their home.

The successful merging of noir and toon seems improbable to say the least, but Zemeckis creates this integrated world so deftly, the audience doesn't even stop to question it. These Toons are simply actors who come from their crazy home every day to work for the cartoon studios in Hollywood. They have all the "physical" characteristics of animated beings, but operate within our world and interact with humans.

Of course, this premise is entirely reliant on the movie's brilliant visual effects, all the more impressive for the fact that every frame of animation is hand-drawn. The film does not contain a single digital effect or computer-generated image, with the illusion of Toons holding, moving and interracting with real objects and people, created entirely through robotics, puppetry and of course intricate paint-cell animation utilising movement in three dimensions... a rarity in conventional animation as it requires much more complex drawing than the single-plane movement seen in most cartoons.

Credit of course must go also to the human actors, in particular the underrated Bob Hoskins as Eddie, who relates so closely and so phyisically with Roger, it seems inconceivable he was alone on the set when the scenes were filmed.

As Hollywood in the last couple of years seems to constantly churn out generic, easily definable, by-the-numbers crowd-pleasers, film-buffs can only look back with longing at films like Who Framed Roger Rabbit?. It almost seems that gone are the days when a mainstream director was prepared to take huge risks with genre and style to create a movie from out of left field like this. And yet how else is film as an art-form to remain fresh, ground-breaking and continuously engaging to kids, adults, and cinema-freaks alike?

(out of 5)




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