Bright Lights Film Journal

On and Off, On and Off: Riding Through Roger Rabbit’s World

There’s more trouble in Toontown than even the Toons imagined

Cartoons and animated features have never been strictly made for children. But not until the 1960s did the cartoon gain serious acceptance from young adults. Especially appreciated were the Road Runner cartoons and Fantasia, the latter a favorite for the blossoming drug generation. It seemed a logical step from adults appreciating cartoons to the emergence of adult features like Fritz the Cat and Cool World, as well as adolescent/adult television favorites like The Simpsons, King of the Hill, and Beavis and Butthead. As serious entertainment, however, the animated feature had to wait until Beauty and the Beast was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. And now the animated feature has become a serious box office contender with the likes of Aladdin, The Lion King, Mulan, and Anastasia.

At the dawn of this era of serious animation – serious in terms of big dollars thrown into the production – stands the witty and inventive Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Superficially, this part animated, part live-action film seems like a throwback to the adult subtexts of Warner Brothers’ Looney Tunes. The film is honeycombed with the childish amusements – unreal slapstick violence of the cartoons within the movie (the opening sequence) and the chase scenes (Eddie Valiant riding a Toon car) – but, within the same framework, the film dishes out sophisticated parody and earnest historical references. Because director Robert Zemeckis cannot satisfy both audiences, he opts to satisfy the child within the adult audience, consistent for the Zemeckis and Spielberg (executive producer) canon, and never fully takes his parody and history to the end of the line.

Much of Roger Rabbit’s plot derives from Chinatown’s – the detective being set up, a past incident affecting the detective’s life, and corruption involving a public utility. The allusion is brought home completely when Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins) photographs Jessica Rabbit and Toontown owner Marvin Acme (Stubby Kaye) playing patty cake; even younger members of the audience will understand the risqué element. After Eddie shows Roger Rabbit the pictures, the Chinatown allusion hits older audience members and brings fidgety amusement. In Chinatown’s opening scene, Curly (Burt Young), a client of Jake Gittes, moans at the pictures of his wife having sex with another man in the woods. Several of the photos show her being taken sexually from behind! Appropriate perhaps for the quintessential detective/paranoia neo-noir of the early seventies, but within the frame of a cartoon, and “patty cake” subbing for “delivery in the rear,” the ultimate effect becomes unsettling. However, in the film’s on and off pattern, the disturbing element of the Chinatown parody takes us nowhere in terms of meaning. That is, we aren’t meant to think through the allusion but simply allow it to get on and off our consciousness without effect.

In the historical frame, the club where the patty cake session takes place is situated in a racially separated America, resembling a Hollywood version of the Cotton Club. The Toons replace blacks in the roles of waiters, doormen, maitre d’s, and entertainers for the strictly human clientele. By extension, the Toons are barely tolerated minorities relegated to their own ghetto, Toontown, yet seem to accept their decidedly inferior social status. They are depicted as rebellious, cunning, and knowing their place. Toontown as a separate but ideal place appears, upon reflection, mildly disconcerting for us because reality has been pruned to a comfortably commonplace nostalgia for a simpler past. Consistent within the motif of Toons-as-minority, Judge Doom (Christopher Lloyd) emerges as the classic self-hating figure within that minority by posing as a human. He dispatches Toons who get out of line into “the Dip.” The Toons here also resemble another minority, the Jews, and Toontown becomes a World War II East European ghetto, while the Dip simulates a Toon gas chamber/crematorium. Only at the end of the film is Judge Doom exposed as a Toon when a steamroller squashes him.

We mustn’t forget, though, that the Judge’s goal is to destroy Toontown, erase it from public memory, and for what?

I see a place where people get on and off the freeway. On and off. On and Off. All day, all night. Soon where Toontown once stood will be a string of gas stations. Inexpensive motels, restaurants that serve rapidly prepared food, tire salons, automobile dealerships, and wonderful, wonderful billboards reaching as far as the eye can see. My God, it’ll be beautiful.

He wants more for humans than most humans would want. The Judge becomes the substantive visionary for a future that Eddie, Eddie’s girlfriend, and Toons scoff at. Eddie assumes that the highway won’t be needed because the city already has an efficient and profitable trolley-car system: “Nobody’s gonna drive this lousy freeway when they can take the Red Car for a nickel.” The “Red Car” was, in reality, a profitable public transit system in Los Angeles in the late 1940s, and would cease to exist in 1961 because of a corporate conspiracy led not by Judge Doom but by three major corporations, General Motors, Firestone, and Standard Oil of California, that had a vested interest in seeing the automobile proliferate. The conspiracy was proved in court in the 1950s, and the three companies paid nominal fines but were not compelled to resurrect the trolley system. In Roger Rabbit, the judge’s company, Cloverleaf Industries, has bought the trolley system and plans to dismantle it.

In the Spielberg/Zemeckis film universe, however, good guys must prevail. Judge Doom and his gang are themselves dissolved by the Dip (don’t have to worry about them after that) and Toontown is saved – Acme’s will leaves it to the Toons. The highway can wait. Forget the historical parallels. Who would want to spoil the carefully conceived fantasy with even a mild social critique? More than the realist in me chafes at the ending. Zemeckis gets on and off the historical reality. Just as the parody caused a breach within our initial humorous response, the historical parallels, from the demise of the Red Car line to the apartheid treatment accorded the Toon, suffer from the happy ending.

The substance of the parody and historical parallelism, their placement within the film, arises from the same impulse to convoke certain historical-cultural twitches in audience members. The “Spielmeckis” approach has no label or ideology but reflects cultural indifference to the implications of historical events. It reduces, say, the Holocaust to a survival exercise and science to dinosaur theme parks. History and Art have become nothing but pastiches of retrieved material. I don’t object to the choice of the scene from Chinatown because it causes discomfort for the audience, but wonder whether the film’s authors have seriously calculated the association of patty cake and graphic sex in a family film.

Judge Doom’s euphoria, quoted above, anticipates Amon Goeth’s comment before razing the Krakow ghetto in Schindler’s List to the effect that both celebrate the cessation of their victims’ existence. To save Toontown and halt the building of the Los Angeles Freeway accomplishes an analogous historical obliteration – via the feel-good mentality fostered by the Spielmeckis worldview.

Toontown as such represents the state of the American imagination as it slouches toward history. Herein lies the knack to absorb realities and present them with the most realistic and impressive touches (Forrest Gump, Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan), to the point of basing an extreme fantasy – cartoon characters and humans intermixing – in the real world. Yet, beneath or beyond this reality recognition, Spielmeckis either embrace the values of a simpler time or ignore the nihilistic guts that their movie realities deal with. Toontown must stay alive, to be the repository for our dreams of a simpler, better time and people. Toontown becomes the American Valhalla. All becomes smiles because the Toons live to make humans smile. The worst blight finds atonement.

Fantasy as escape and entertainment is one thing, but one wonders whether Who Framed Roger Rabbit? is just fantasy-as-denial. Spielberg’s enthusiasm to make the world remember the Holocaust seems related inversely to this denial, which I associate with a fundamentally antihistorical position. In other words, an earnestness to remember the past, or a specific atrocity, will tend to veer from historical truth before reaching the end of the line, where lies a more terrible truth: those who remember history will never learn or will always misapply those lessons.

* * *

At the end of this article, I wonder whether anyone will care about a critique of this innocuous movie. How can someone take Who Framed Roger Rabbit? that seriously or deny Americans their Toontown fantasy? Can one really criticize the intentions, as such, of Spielberg and Zemeckis? Aren’t they using History to make us aware of the past? Don’t they, like the Toons, labor to make us smile and feel better about ourselves? Why am I trying to make people feel bad?

In the movie of my life, knowing I have accomplished little by writing this or any other article, when I’m being escorted off the Red Car named Valhalla, Roger Rabbit will have his arm around me and say:

“Forget it, Bob, it’s … Toontown.”