**** (Masterpiece)

Directed by Robert Zemeckis

Written by Jeffrey Price and Peter Seaman

With Bob Hoskins, Joanna Cassidy, Christopher Lloyd, Stubby Kaye, Alan Tilvern, and the voices of Charles Fleischer and Kathleen Turner.

Imagine, if you can, that the characters who appear in animated cartoons actually exist. A repressed minority and endangered species known as Toons, they live on the fringes of Hollywood in 1947 in a ghetto known as Toontown; when they aren’t working for Disney or the other cartoon studios, they take on menial positions as waitresses, bartenders, cigarette girls, bouncers, and entertainers–at a segregated club called the Ink and Paint. (Among the acts at this dive are Donald Duck and Daffy Duck, who perform a duet on two pianos, and a vocalist named Jessica, a curvy vamp who’s a human Toon, accompanied by the bebop crows from Dumbo.)

Imagine, as well, that the live-action 40s Hollywood that these Toons are working in is the world of Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, or at least that world as it was revised and “updated” by Robert Towne when he scripted Chinatown in the 70s. In the place of Chandler’s Marlowe and Towne’s Jake Gittes is Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins), a gumshoe whose jobs are mainly Toon-related, and whose partner and brother Teddy was killed a few years ago when an unknown Toon dropped a piano on the brothers, considerably dampening Eddie’s sense of humor and appreciation of Toons in the process.

Eddie is hired by R.K. Maroon (Alan Tilvern) of Maroon Pictures, a cartoon studio, to photograph the marital infidelities of the voluptuous Jessica, who’s married to one of Maroon’s stars, Roger Rabbit. Roger’s in such a state about his unhappy marriage to Jessica that he keeps blowing his lines or, more precisely, reacting to cartoon violence with a circle of twittering birds over his head rather than the halo of stars indicated in the script. Maroon hopes that a few compromising photos of Jessica will persuade Roger to drop her and get over his agitated lovesickness, and Eddie, borrowing a camera from his girlfriend Dolores (Joanna Cassidy), obligingly snaps some pictures through the window of Jessica’s dressing room at the Ink and Paint; they show her “playing patticake” with Marvin Acme (Stubby Kaye), a jokester who supplies props and gags to Maroon’s cartoons.

In Maroon’s office, Eddie shows the photos to Roger, who goes into paroxysms of grief that send him crashing through the window. (Being a Toon, he can easily survive such violence, and is next seen sobbing on the studio lot below.) The next day, inside Marvin Acme’s cavernous warehouse of props, Acme himself is found murdered, a safe having been dropped on his head. Roger Rabbit, who pleads his innocence to Eddie, is the major suspect. Hot on Roger’s trail is Judge Doom (Christopher Lloyd), a Toon-hating villain cloaked in black, who has devised a primordial stew of turpentine, acetone, and benzine known as the Dip, concocted for the purpose of dissolving undesirable Toons. (In an attempt to emphasize the minority status of Toons, the filmmakers reportedly first thought of calling this deadly brew the Final Solution.)

It’s an irritating but essential facet of the most exciting and original movies that they’re the hardest to describe with any precision, and the preceding paragraphs, at best, sketch the point of departure for Who Framed Roger Rabbit and the explicit meaning of its title–which uses the film noir meaning of “framed” to ask, Who set Roger up? A less obvious reading of “framed,” a self-referential and cartoon meaning, leads to the question of where Roger and his movie came from–another mystery, and one that’s much harder to solve.

A good auteurist case could be made that director Robert Zemeckis is the main culprit. A writer and director whose sensibility often suggests the jeering teenage irreverence found in the original Mad (when it was still a comic book), Zemeckis (a former Chicagoan) came to prominence under the tutelage of Steven Spielberg, cowriting the underrated 1941, I Wanna Hold Your Hand, and Used Cars, as well as directing the latter two. He went on to direct the less interesting but more successful Romancing the Stone and to cowrite and direct the somewhat better Back to the Future, another box-office hit.

Certainly all of the above works are triumphs of engineering with varying degrees of cartoonish detail, anticipating some of the conditions that make Roger Rabbit possible. But can we, on the basis of this circumstantial evidence, convict Zemeckis of being Roger’s auteur? What about former advertising men (and fellow Chicagoans) Jeffrey Price and Peter Seaman, who wrote the initial script independent of Zemeckis? What about the novel they adapted, Gary K. Wolf’s Who Censored Roger Rabbit? (which is about comic strip characters)? What about the director of animation, the brilliant Richard Williams, or the well over 300 other animators who worked under his guidance? What about the countless past animators who developed the famous cartoon characters used for crucial cameos here? What about the special effects devised at George Lucas’s Industrial Light & Magic? And what about Spielberg himself–who not only made Zemeckis, the brightest of his proteges, possible, but, as executive producer, participated in the framing of Roger as well?

Paradoxically, despite the number of crisscrossing creative intelligences behind the camera–as well as a team of workers that seems about the size of a small country–Roger Rabbit consciously and systematically mystifies the creative work behind the cartoons that it euphorically exemplifies and celebrates. The only remotely auteur-like characters in sight–jokester Acme and an irate studio director are dispensed with early on in the proceedings, and the great Hollywood animators of the past are present only through example and emulation. The Toons are apparently self-generated creatures who create their own gags whenever they aren’t acting in studio productions–embodiments of the poetic notion that characters can exist independently of their works and authors.

Indeed, one of the central metaphysical conceits of this movie, underlying many of its most interesting effects, is that the separate worlds of Walt Disney, Tex Avery, Chuck Jones, Bob Clampett, and others are strangely compatible; and thanks to real-life, behind-the-scenes agreements, Donald and Daffy, Bugs and Mickey, Porky and Tinker Bell can all rub shoulders for the first time.

There’s a hint of perversity in all of this–a sense of transgression in crossing studio boundaries and fusing disparate styles and sensibilities–that is only one of the means by which Roger Rabbit moves beyond the borders of simple light entertainment. Although Roger steadfastly maintains, in a running argument with Eddie, that Toons do crazy things only in order to make people laugh, in fact, cartoons are too closely related to dreams and waking fantasies to be written off simply as innocuous laugh machines. The “serious” and scary stretches of the early Disney features are only the most obvious examples of this. The traditional seven-minute Hollywood cartoon, with its everyday violations of the ordinary laws of space and time, life and death, thought and action, routinely traffics in material that is potentially frightening and disturbing as well as funny, and the emotional density of Roger Rabbit is due in part to its capacity to teeter on the dangerous edges.

The combination of film noir and cartoon intensifies this possibility for upset. By and large, the separate worlds and characters of these two genres are shown to coexist and eventually to learn from one another, but Jessica is a character who in many ways seems caught in the interface between them. (Even her full name poses an existential problem: Jessica Rabbit describes a human Toon married to a rabbit.) Modeled after Veronica Lake and Lauren Bacall in the 40s, as amplified and upholstered by the crazed sexual imaginations of Tex Avery and Frank Tashlin (the latter worked in live action after a career in cartooning and animation, and in The Girl Can’t Help It and Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? made Jayne Mansfield into a live-action cartoon), Jessica is certainly more of a sex symbol in the movie than Eddie’s live-action girlfriend Dolores. Her voice is supplied, significantly, by an uncredited Kathleen Turner, underlining Jessica’s relation to Turner’s vamp roles in movies like Body Heat and Prizzi’s Honor–films that are themselves nostalgic–pastiches, harking back respectively to styles of the 40s and 60s. Yet because Jessica is married to a rabbit Toon, and at the very least flirts with such live-action males as Marvin Acme and Eddie Valiant, hints of bestiality on the one hand (“I love you more than any woman has ever loved a rabbit”) and fetishism on the other are never far away. (“I’m not bad,” she professes to Eddie after literally blowing him a cartoon kiss, “I’m just drawn that way.”) Such perversity has always been a staple of cartoons–think of the polymorphous perversity of Disney–but Who Framed Roger Rabbit makes it a good deal more explicit.

Perhaps the fundamental philosophical difference between film noir and cartoons can be found in their separate approaches to death and mortality. As animator Pete Burness put it a quarter of a century ago, “In the American cartoon, death, human defeat, is never presented without being followed by resurrection, transfiguration. A cartoon character can very well be crushed and turned into a plate by a steamroller . . . but he arises immediately, intact, and full of life in the next shot. So it seems evident to me that the American cartoon, rather than glorifying death, is a permanent illustration of the theme of rebirth.” In the world of film noir, by contrast, the Big Sleep tends to be more permanent; characters who have pianos or safes dropped on them are not likely to get up again.

But in its blend of cartoon animation and film noir, Roger Rabbit alters both genres in certain ways. Toons can be annihilated by the Dip, for example, and the evil cartoon weasels who accompany Judge Doom on his raids are capable of laughing themselves to death. (The dead weasel Toons promptly become angels with harps, but no longer have any effect on earthly matters.) Eddie, on the other hand, can be flattened like a pancake in a Toontown elevator and reemerge intact; and Judge Doom, after being crushed and turned into a plate by a steamroller, springs back to life as a Toon in disguise.

The elaborate and exquisitely detailed interactions between Toons and real people, Toons and real objects, real people and Toon objects can’t all be subsumed under a fully coherent metaphysics, but they create some exhilarating moments: Eddie and Roger, in a talking Toon taxi named Benny (whose voice, like Roger’s, belongs to stand-up comedian Charles Fleischer), are chased by Judge Doom and his weasels in a real black van; Eddie arms himself for Toontown with a Toon gun given to him by Yosemite Sam, and loads it with talking bullets that sound like Andy Devine and Chill Wills; Benny the Cab climbs into a real car next to Roger and takes over the driving. The world thus assembled (or disassembled) may be an unsteady one, but it feeds on the power of both genres, and the characters from each take on certain capacities they never had before.

The movie begins with a straight cartoon–a Maroon production entitled Somethin’s Cooking, starring both Baby Herman and Roger the Rabbit, reportedly an attempt by Zemeckis and company to ape the zaniness of a Looney Tune. It does draw on some of the stuttering and spluttering speech patterns of Sylvester the Cat (according to Zemeckis, Roger has “a Disney body, a Warners head, and a Tex Avery attitude”), but it reminds me much more of a Tom and Jerry cartoon: in its domestic setting, its hyperbolic violence and cruelty–reminding one that MGM’s famous cat and mouse were the Three Stooges of the cartoon world–and its overall emphasis on physicality and action over voice and character. Yet there’s something about the pile-driver approach of Somethin’s Cooking in relation to its classic Tom and Jerry setup (the elliptically framed lady of the house departs after instructing her pet to keep an eye on the baby, and a string of domestic disasters rapidly ensues) that makes it a good deal more unsettling than its sadistic, meat-and-potatoes model, despite the fact that it gets a comparable quota of laughs. Roger slips on soap, is electrocuted, and gets pinned under a fleet of knives while Baby Herman climbs for the cookie jar, unleashing endless forms of chaos; but there’s something distinctly different about the treatment of these catastrophes.

For one thing, Roger Rabbit is warned by the departing matron that if he doesn’t keep a lid on things, “he’s going back to the science lab”–conjuring up visions in the spectator’s mind of vivisection and torture even before the domestic mayhem commences. For another, the frenetic, juiced-up speed and movement of the cascading gags distort the space of the kitchen so that it is made to seem at least as huge as a stadium–an early anticipation of the movie’s mainly live-action climax in the comparably vast reaches of the Acme warehouse. From the outset, then, there’s a slightly disturbing discrepancy between this cartoon’s familiar models–which traditionally took place in a more “realistic” world tied to the present–and its own hyperrealist period nightmare, which is unfolding much more explicitly in a dream space.

It is a dream, moreover, from which we are rudely awakened once we discover that Baby Herman and Roger are on a soundstage–working as actors on a kitchen set of modest (if still exaggerated) proportions–and that Herman himself is a gravel-voiced, cigar-toting adult impersonating an infant. Later we encounter the same degree of elasticity in space and personality when live-action Eddie visits ramshackle and freewheeling Toontown, where the ordinary laws of fixed identities and distances no longer apply, and the Texan tall-tale exaggerations of Tex Avery gags take over. Believing that he has trailed Jessica up to her flat in a normally proportioned building, Eddie first discovers that the woman in question has a monster mug, and then, in flight from her, proceeds out the window, where he discovers there’s an infinite drop to the street below. (On the whole, Tex Avery is the presiding influence over most of the cartoon gags in the main body of the film, but usually, in more modest doses; the more minimalist and serial inventions of Chuck Jones’s Road Runner series are conspicuously absent, apart from the reference to Acme products.)

Perhaps the biggest commercial risk taken by Roger Rabbit is its near-exclusive address to those who are familiar with Hollywood cartoons, which may make some other spectators feel as segregated and as discriminated against as the Toons in the movie. The usual assumption that the world of cartoons belongs to kids, and innocent kids at that, is challenged by this film’s plentiful raunchy film noir gags and irreverent undertones: Dolores to Eddie: “Is that a rabbit in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?” Baby Herman to Eddie: “I’ve got a 50-year-old lust and a 3-year-old dinky.” Daffy to Donald: “This is the last time I work with anyone with a speech impediment.” Such lines bring home the fact that this is not just a movie for kids, but largely a nostalgic adult male’s ironic backward look at the cartoons of his youth. There are references aplenty to movies that unite generations–Judge Doom suffers a meltdown like the wicked witch in The Wizard of Oz–but the film noir references, such as the nods to Chinatown, are less likely to be universal, and adults without a taste for cartoons will probably feel alienated.

The mix of clashing genres that sparked the French New Wave almost 30 years ago, yielding such unstable yet volatile cocktails as Shoot the Piano Player (an untidy blend of thriller, slapstick comedy, and tragic love story) and A Woman Is a Woman (a “neorealist musical”), is behind some of the peculiar intensity offered here, and whether the jarring mismatches can be enjoyed by the Star Wars audience remains to be seen. What this movie shares with the other Spielberg/Lucas blockbusters of the Reagan era, for better and for worse, is an inability to view history as anything other than a reflection of film history (rather than the other way around)–which is as succinct an expression of the Reagan legacy as I can think of.

This historical shortsightedness brings a certain poignancy as well as potency to a limited number of themes but then a queasy void as soon as one steps outside them. I can’t claim that Who Framed Roger Rabbit transcends the rest of the Spielberg/Lucas oeuvre in this regard, even if it gives the tradition a bit of a bruising in the process of honoring it. There may finally be something morally tacky about equating the neglect of cartoons with the injustices suffered by Jews and blacks and something merely dotty about the movie’s apparent socioeconomic hypothesis that the death of Hollywood cartoons is somehow connected to the birth of Hollywood freeways. But in a movie whose plot and astonishing technical wizardry depend equally on a complex network of accommodations–an intricate system of cooperation and exchanges among filmmakers, characters, styles, and genres–the remarkable achievement is that it redeems a debatable approach to filmmaking around the same time that the approach is belatedly going out of fashion. After about a decade of the spurious mysticism and junk-shop bricolage of Spielberg and Lucas, a style founded on the exaltation of arrested development as a higher principle, here at last is a giddy and glittering labor of love and a grand entertainment that validates their approach to filmmaking if any movie does, or can.