Suspended Animation #363
Disneyland’s Car Toon Spin attraction that opened in 1994 recently underwent an overhaul of the character of Jessica Rabbit. In the ride, guests board Lenny the Cab (Benny’s cousin) in a race through Toontown to try to rescue Jessica who has been kidnapped by the weasels.
Actually, Jessica rescues herself by hitting the weasels on the head with a giant mallet. However, Disney was uncomfortable with portraying her as a victim so now she is a detective on the hunt for the bad weasels and dressed in a long trench coat that hides her cleavage and most of her bare legs.
CEO Michael Eisner considered Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) too risque, especially the scenes with Jessica, which is just one of the reasons why the movie was originally released under the Touchstone Pictures label rather than the Disney banner. It became so popular that like Touchstone’s The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), it is now officially considered a Disney film.
“I’m not bad. I’m just drawn that way,” affirmed Jessica Rabbit in her alluringly hoarse whisper of a voice. While Disney female characters from Tinker Bell to Ariel to Slue Foot Sue to some others have always embodied a sort of healthy but innocent sexiness, Jessica Rabbit was the first Disney cartoon character to be blatantly sexual in nature.
In the original 1981 novel Who Censored Roger Rabbit? written by Gary Wolf, Jessica is a much more devious and jaded character and not above using her sexual endowments to get what she wants. In fact, in her younger days she even appeared in a Tijuana Bible, a plot point in the novel.
The harsher character description from the book influenced director Darrell Van Citters and designer Mike Giaimo when they tackled the first animated attempt of the character to look more like a young Lauren Bacall in a film noir, very slender with high cheekbones and flowing hair.
“We started with a Jessica that was much more illustrative, but one day one of the writers came to me and said I should make her more ‘cartoony’. So I did,” recalled supervising animation director Richard Williams of the later attempt at the character.
“I used a combination of Veronica Lake, Rita Hayworth and Sophia Loren. It’s so funny that she’s become this pin-up. Of course, she’s absurd. Her waist is so tiny that she’d fall over if she was real.”
The famous peek-a-boo hair style of Veronica Lake, the distinctive, seductive red hair of Rita Hayworth and the voluptuous physique of Sophia Loren combined with their screen personas of being the most desirable women in the world were the physical foundation for Williams’ interpretation of Jessica.
Jessica’s waist was made incredibly tiny not just for cartoon exaggeration, but to convince audiences that the character was not simply rotoscoped (traced from live action) but drawn.
“When we were filming, nobody really knew what the final Jessica Rabbit looked like,” explained actor Bob Hoskins who played detective Eddie Valiant. “Zemeckis said, ‘Think of the sexiest woman you can imagine, Bob. Think of sex!’ I thought up this really sexy bird, thinking, ‘Ooooh, wonderful.’
“They did the work on Jessica up in Camden Town, and I used to live round there, so they’d call and say, ‘Come and see what we’re doing.’ When I saw it, she was just so sexy that I felt so boring. The bird I’d created was like some person’s old granny compared to this.”
“She had to be a testament to what a man could do with a pencil and a fertile imagination,” remarked supervising animator Russell Hall. “In a sense, she shares the two realities of the cartoon world and the real world. She would have to appeal to both the rabbit and Bob Hoskins.”
When Disney MGM Studios opened in May 1989, theme park guests who disembarked from the Backlot Tram Tour found themselves in a merchandise venue called “The Loony Bin” themed to Who Framed Roger Rabbit.
Guests had two opportunities to pose with Jessica. There was a glittery life-sized plywood cutout of the character for amateur photographers. In addition, the photo shop allowed guests to don Eddie Valiant’s overcoat and hat and be superimposed into an actual cartoon drawing with Jessica.
At the time, the Disney Company was uncomfortably unfamiliar with how to deal with such a flamboyantly sexual character. Jessica was a troubling anomaly who wasn’t able to be shoehorned into the familiar Disney brand. Storybooks and coloring books presented Jessica in a modified dress that was less revealing.
The cover of the November 1988 issue of Playboy featured an airbrushed photo of September Playmate Laura Richmond portraying Jessica Rabbit. Disney tried to ignore it but was less cavalier when the French edition of the July 1989 issue of Penthouse magazine was released.
Reportedly at that time, Disney had not yet secured the international copyright for the character. An oversight quickly corrected when the company saw the magazine issue featuring a cel-like drawing of a topless Jessica with long purple gloves, purple garter belt and purple bikini panties and the interior mixed with art from the film and naked poses of Jessica.
When the film was first released, no mention was made that the real voice of Jessica was supplied by the breathy delivery of actress Kathleen Turner with Steven Spielberg’s ex-wife Amy Irving doing the singing voice.
Turner recalled, “It was perfect for me at the time because I was pregnant. I could just waddle into the studio and off I’d go. We had a lot of fun in terms of Jessica’s breathing. I said, ‘She’s got such big boobs, so why don’t we add in lots of sighs, and then you guys can make them bounce?'”
Jessica’s “body performance model” was actress Betsy Brantley. Brantley was in her early 30s when she went through the movement for the character like walking down the stage in the Ink and Paint Club. The painted image of Jessica was superimposed over Brantley’s movement just like a painted image of Benny the Cab was superimposed over the mechanics of the vehicle that drove down the streets.
Brantley played the role of the mother of the boy who is listening to his grandfather tell him a story in The Princess Bride (1987) around the same time period.
Costume Designer Joanna Johnston in Entertainment Weekly magazine from February 15, 2013 who designed costumes for both live and animated characters in the film (1988) stated: “It was too expensive to animate Jessica Rabbit in sequins for the whole movie. The compromise was that she wear sequins on stage and satin the rest of the time. At my young age, I was really upset that she wasn’t going to be in sequins all the way through.”
The Disney Jessica later appeared briefly in three theatrical cartoon shorts: Tummy Trouble (1989), Roller Coaster Rabbit (1990) and Trail Mix Up (1993). A fourth cartoon short, Hare in My Soup, was planned but never made. For decades there have been several attempts to make a prequel to the original feature film.