Animation Cel-ebration
June 23, 2023 posted by Michael Lyons

The 35th Anniversary of “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”

When Who Framed Roger Rabbit opened on June 22, 1988, film critic Roger Ebert began his review like this:

“I stopped off at a hot dog stand before the screening of Who Framed Roger Rabbit and ran into some other movie critics. They said they were going to the same screening. I asked them what they’d heard about the film. They said they were going to see it for the second time in two days. That’s the kind of word of mouth that money can’t buy.”

That perfectly sums up the excitement and amazement so many had for this groundbreaking film when it debuted 35 summers ago.

Director Robert Zemeckis’ tale of “…a man, a woman and a rabbit in a triangle of trouble” (as the movie poster said) is still a wonder. In a 1947 world where cartoon characters and humans live side by side, Hollywood detective Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins) has to help clear the name of a “‘Toon” (the slang name for cartoon characters in the film) named Roger Rabbit (the voice of Charles Fleischer), who finds himself framed for the murder of Marvin Acme (owner of a popular joke and gag company).

Who Framed Roger Rabbit broke the shackles and changed everything when combining live-action and animation. The legendary and brilliant Richard Williams, who directed the animation for the film, discussed this with author Charles Solomon in his book, Enchanted Drawings: The History of Animation:

“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.” He added, “We agreed that the key to making the combination effective would be the interaction. We thought the cartoon characters should always be affecting their environment or getting tangled up with the live actors.”

No longer existing in a static, horizontal line with live actors, in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, the “‘Toons” seemingly exist alongside the actors.  This movie is still astonishing even in our current age, where computer-generated imagery makes anything possible.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit came to Disney as a project in 1981 when the Studio acquired the rights to the source material, the book Who Censored Roger Rabbit by author Gary K. Wolf. In 1985, with then-new CEO Michael Eisner behind it, Steven Spielberg and his Amblin Entertainment production company came aboard to co-produce, and production accelerated.

Changes were made from Wolf’s original novel, where the characters were from comic strips instead of cartoons, but many of the same characters were featured in the film.

This includes Detective Eddie Valiant. After considering almost every actor in Hollywood, including Harrison Ford and Bill Murray, the role went to Bob Hoskins, who was brilliant in the film. Having to act alongside nothing before animation was added, Hoskins delivers a believable, matter-of-fact performance worthy of an Oscar nomination (that he unfortunately never received).

Charles Fleischer crafted an original voice for Roger Rabbit, and the comedian was on set in a rabbit costume, feeding lines to the other actors.

The title character’s appearance was a tribute to classic cartoons of Hollywood’s golden age of animation. Williams told author Norman Kagan, for his book, The Cinema of Robert Zemeckis, that Roger was a mixture of “Tex Avery’s cashew nut-shaped head, the swatch of red hair…like Droopy’s, Goofy’s overalls, Porky Pig’s bow tie, Mickey Mouse’s gloves, and Bugs Bunny’s like cheeks and ears.”

The other supporting animated characters are also similar tributes to animation at the time, such as the gruff, bawdy Baby Herman, the tough, New York Benny the Cab, and the slick henchmen, the weasels.

There’s Jessica Rabbit (voiced by Kathleen Turner, with the singing voice of Amy Irving), claiming that she’s “not bad, she’s just drawn that way.” Looking like a not-so-distant relative of Avery’s Red Hot Riding Hood, Jessica Rabbit has gained notoriety and iconic status through the years as one of animation’s most famous femme fatales.

Then, there are the cameos in Who Framed Roger Rabbit: Donald and Daffy Ducks playing dueling pianos in the Ink and Paint Club, Betty Boop working as a cigarette girl, Droopy as an elevator operator, and Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse parachuting together, just to name a few.

Others, including Mighty Mouse, Popeye, and Bluto, sadly never made it into the finished film. But the once-in-a-lifetime significance of characters from competing studios together in Who Framed Roger Rabbit is still astonishing.

As Judge Doom, who wants to eradicate Toontown to build a freeway, Christopher Lloyd crafted a most menacing villain, underscoring the film’s messages of everything from the dangers of prejudice to how much we need the power of laughter in our lives.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit was a hit with audiences and critics alike, becoming the second highest-grossing film of 1988 (behind Rain Man).

The film brought Williams a special achievement Oscar and inspired three short subjects: Tummy Trouble (1989), Roller Coaster Rabbit (1990), and Trail Mix-Up (1993).

Who Framed Roger Rabbit also laid the groundwork for the animation renaissance at Disney and other studios in the 1990s and allowed audiences to fall back in love with animation’s unique art and rich history.

Oft-discussed sequels have never panned out, which may be just as well. As it celebrates its 35th anniversary, Who Framed Roger Rabbit deserves to stand alone as a celebration of the magic of moviemaking and moviegoing.


  • I well remember seeing “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” in the summer of 1988. Of course I loved it. What animation fan wouldn’t? The opening cartoon short alone was worth the price of admission. But I have to be honest here. Unlike the film critics Roger Ebert spoke with, I never went back for a second viewing. I never watched it when it was broadcast on network TV, and I’ve never been tempted to buy or rent it on home video. That single screening 35 years ago remains the one and only time I’ve ever seen the movie.

    Even then I was a little put off by how obvious it was that so many of the creative decisions were made, not on the drawing board, but in the boardroom. Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny had to appear on screen for exactly the same number of frames of film, and with exactly the same number of words of dialogue. While it was good to see them, their cameo didn’t contribute to the story but merely resurrected a tired old gag whose payoff I could see coming a mile away.

    Still, a lot of those corporate decisions bore fruit in the long run. The contract negotiations behind “Roger Rabbit” opened the door for future collaborations between Spielberg and Warner Bros. Animation, which gave rise to some of the greatest cartoons of the 1990s. For that alone I am everlastingly grateful.

    Speaking of productions combining animation and live action, this year also marks the 55th anniversary of Hanna-Barbera’s “The New Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”. I’ve recently reacquainted myself with it and find that it holds up remarkably well. Made just before Hanna-Barbera had to contend with diminishing budgets and parental activism, the series represents the studio’s creative zenith. Also, Becky was really cute.

  • It blew me away. Never had live action and animation been blended so seamlessly. And never had characters from competing studios appeared together in the same film. In one scene we see Betty Boop, the penguins from Mary Poppins, Donald Duck and Daffy Duck performing a duet (of sorts), the first appearance of Jessica–and so much more. And that is only the Ink and Paint Club scene! Then for it to build up to a grand finish in which Disney characters cavort with non-Disney characters–there simply had not been anything like it before. To say I loved it would be an extreme understatement.

    For several years, Roger Rabbit had a prominent place in the pantheon of Disney characters. I notice that in recent years he has all but vanished from the scene. This is unfortunate in a way, but in another way as was stated above, the stand-alone achievement that is “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” could never be duplicated.

    And I agree with Paul that HB’s “New Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” is well worth a look. I loved the series when it first aired and with the re-release on DVD I found my appreciation for it had not diminished. A great showcase for the live action actors and actress, the skills of the HB studios animators, and the memorable voice work of Ted Cassidy. Among much else.

    Long live live action + animation!

    • “For several years, Roger Rabbit had a prominent place in the pantheon of Disney characters. I notice that in recent years he has all but vanished from the scene.”

      Roger did have a cameo in that godawful Rescue Rangers movie.

    • The film took some liberties with chronology, but the filmmakers wouldn’ have committed a blatant anachronism like using characters from a 1964 movie (Mary Poppins) in 1947. Penguin waiters are a common trope in cartoons, so the ones at the Ink and Paint Club might as well be from Tex Avery’s Penguin Parade, or a dozen other cartoons.

      • I think you are missing the point with the Penguins. They were waiters in Poppins. Why wouldn’t they have worked as waiters prior to that and even more, I remember when they came on the screen in the club I nearly jumped up and down in my seat, as I recognize them with glee, I thought it was beyond clever, and like the whole film wildly, entertaining and creative .

      • or, it could’ve been the ‘Mary Poppins’ penguins — but in their early days, back when they were simply waiting/bussing tables for the Ink & Paint Club — well before they got their big break, in that film.

  • I agree with Paul Groh, although I have seen it on TV once in these past 35 years. Mickey and Bugs were tamed, being the corporate logos, but second bananas Daffy and Donald, although I’m sure under the same restrictions, were a lot better. They also didn’t advance the story, but what musical number in a crime film ever did?

    I did drag my movie friend to two of the shorts. He said we should have left the theater before “Dick Tracy” started, but was glad I made him stay through “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” opening credits!

    • Honestly, I though Bugs and Mickey scene was good enough. I mean, I don’t see much rivalry between the two in the first place as opposed to the two ducks (especially since one duck has an Academy Award while the other didn’t even appear in a nominated cartoon).

  • I remember seeing it in a movie theater in the summer when it opened in Argentina. I always loved this film and was quite impressed how well it was produced. The pairings of the Warner characters along with a Disney counterpart may have been handled in a corporate way in superflous scenes, but those scenes are still terrific.

    After I saw it in the theater, I later rented its VHS edition and saw it with my dad, on TV in Argentina I only caught it when it no longer run in primetime and it was airing on Sunday afternoons, with a Mexican dub to Spanish.

  • Hollywood detective Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins) has to help clear the name of a “‘Toon” (the slang name for cartoon characters in the film)…

    Have always found it amusing that this term has been widely adapted as a innocuous shorthand for cartoon characters, when in the film that it is derived from, it’s used contemptuously by the human characters in a derogatory fashion, similar to a racial slur.

    • It can be considered a stealth pun, since it rhymes with a certain racial slur, but this aspect is somewhat watered down by the fact that it’s widely used by the toons themselves as a neutral term, and also in Marvin Acme’s will. No other name for animated characters is ever mentioned, so the slur thing is more of a one-off joke, and it’s only natural that the term would come to be adapted for wider use.

  • When I first saw this in the theater, I was surprised that the biggest audience reaction to a “classic” character was when Droopy showed up as the elevator operator. Everybody just screamed through the whole scene. Apparently, there’s a whole nation of secret Droopy-fans out there.

  • Roger Rabbit has been the only film I ever went back to see 4 times in theaters. I was still struggling with trying to break into comics back then and that film inspired me to keep trying. Seeing all those incredible characters together was fantastic!

  • The last line in this article says it all: a sequel could only tarnish WFRR’s reputation. This is a perfect standalone accomplishment, akin to the overall Golden Age of animation in general. A crazy occurrence of time, place, talent, personalities, inspiration and imagination.

    Would you consider a sequel to Casablanca? I think not.

  • “I asked them what they’d heard about the film. They said they were going to see it for the second time in two days. That’s the kind of word of mouth that money can’t buy.”

    I saw WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT at 11 a.m. the morning it opened at the Ziegfeld in New York City; I came back for the 8:15 p.m. show that evening. I saw it again that weekend.

  • I saw it in the theater when it came out. I so much wanted to like this movie, and I still cherish the good parts and the good gags. But the heavy-handed sugarcoating spoiled it for me, beginning with Roger’s too-big, too-blue eyes, which foreshadowed Tiny Toons. Spielberg was the executive producer, and I blame him.

    • Honestly, that doesn’t bother me much. It’s like saying Woody had too big, too green eyes (which were of course shrunk and modified when the character was redesigned in the mid-40’s and became standard black eye a decade later due to studio budget cuts).

  • It was and is a classic, and while it never got an official sequel it did influence other films:
    — It attracted money for Richard Williams’s “Cobbler and the Thief”, but the movie was yanked away and finished by other hands. Wasn’t there talk of restoring and releasing Williams’s version?
    — It certainly inspired the commercial that became “Space Jam”, which was semi-impressive.
    — The later “Looney Tunes: Back in Action” was a way better movie in my view, if perhaps a little heavy on inside jokes.
    — Ralph Bakshi’s “Cool World” was promising, but the messy plotting helped do it in.
    — “Rocky and Bullwinkle” felt a bit padded, but was an honest effort and usually funny. Plus, Robert DeNiro as Fearless Leader as “Taxi Driver”.
    — One can argue that Roger Rabbit inspired the crossover-heavy Tiny Toons and Animaniac shows, plus House of Mouse.

  • I’m so glad to hear that Russell H. saw the Droopy sequence with an appreciative audience. That was one of my scenes in the Roger Rabbit feature, along with Tweety and a long sequence of Benny the Cab walking on two wheels and then driving a real car with Roger as a passenger. The late Dale Baer was the supervisor of the Toontown sequence and I worked with him in Glendale. Dick Williams did such a great job in the opening cartoon, but started to fall behind in scheduling the animation, so Dale Baer pitched in to help complete the feature. I also worked on the three shorts, doing Droopy in them, and also getting to animate the close-up of Jessica in “Trail Mix-up”. The late Joe Ranft and I also storyboarded the Daffy/Donald duet sequence at Amblin’ Entertainment, along with many other sequences that didn’t get used, such as the “Dumb School-House” sequence with every idiot character, such as Dopey, Baby Huey and Baby Bear, among others, trying to learn things at school. Joe and I also boarded the Marvin Acme funeral sequence, with Foghorn Leghorn officiating, and Popeye, Bluto and Yosemite Sam as pallbearers, but it was cancelled the very morning that the live action plates were to be shot. Those were good times. I also boarded on an attempted sequel to the feature about Roger’s beginnings as a magician’s rabbit. This was done at Disney in the building with the sorcerer’s hat on it. Frank Marshall was the producer, and Eric Goldberg actually animated a little of it in experimental form, to see if digital props would work with traditionally animated characters. I even did a little outline writing on the project, but it too, was cancelled. I heard about several tries at doing Roger as an elaborate video/computer game, battling the weasels. They took a lot of time and spent a lot of money trying to develop it, but it too failed to jell. Did you know that at one time TWELVE different Roger shorts were in development at Disney? I worked on one called “Hare In My Soup”, which had Roger as a hapless waiter in a restaurant ala Larry Semon. The short got bogged down in “Putting Baby Herman in Peril”, in which Baby followed a little frog into a French stewpot. This short passed from crew to crew to crew, and never was greenlighted. Bill Kopp wrote a great short with Roger as a hapless invalid who was hit on the head once too many times as a side hazard of his cartoon career. Bill did a great sketch of an X-Ray view of Roger’s brain with nothing but a cracker with a big piece of cheese on it suspended over a vat of acid. One of the doctors explained, “It looks like his cheese is about to slip off his cracker”. Baby Herman is stuck with taking care of the completely knocked-out rabbit and saving him from perils, much to Herman’s disgust. It was hilarious, too bad they never made it. There are many more stories of Roger Rabbit in the Big City, and you have now heard some of them. Happy Anniversary, ya crazy you!

    • Very cool to read this! Another article mentioned that Chuck Jones did storyboard work on the Daffy/Donald scene. True or no?

  • LIke most boomers, I loved watching classic cartoons on TV when I was a kid. They were my prime source of television entertainment. As I grew up, I moved on to other things. Roger Rabbit re-kindled my love of classic cartoons. I read Of Mice and Magic, and I have never looked back.

  • To be precise, while Bob Hoskins didn’t get an Oscar nomination for “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” or anything he did afterwards, he already had received an Oscar nom for Best Actor for his role in “Mona Lisa.”

  • I remember this came out when I was in High School. I always loved animation but kinda kept it secret cause back then it wasn’t “cool” at all.

    But this movie made it cool to like cartoons again. Never had to hide my appreciation for it ever again. I liked the “Chip and Dale” movie that came out recently a lot more than I thought I would too.

  • WFRR in 1988 was a big jolt. I did not know that people who did full animation were still alive. Growing up with Saturday morning cartoons in the 60s and 70s I sensed that all the good ones had been made in the distant past and that the animation industrial complex that made them was dismantled and gone.

    So it was a jolt, from the Baby Herman cartoon to the final crowd scene at the end. It was as if old lost friends had come back to life, if only for a few minutes.

  • Great review Mike as always.Can’t go wrong with Spielberg! I’m not a fan of cartoons but I remember loving this as an adult when it came out. I love polar express but always wished they used real live people,the storyline was great,Iam probably the only person who says this! all the best to you!

  • Childhood is not knowing there could have been sequels, and thus living a blissfully unaware existence. Adulthood is being sad those sequels never materialized. Old age is realizing Roger Rabbit was lightning in a bottle, and a second movie with those wacky nazis in it would be in bad taste.

    Death and transcendence to a higher stage of x-istence is realizing Back in Action is almost as good, regardless of what production troubles the script went through.

  • I just rewatched Who Framed Roger Rabbit for the third (or fourth) time earlier this week. It never ceases to amaze me how they blended 2D animation and live action together so flawlessly. To me, it’s a genuine love letter to the golden age of animation.

  • One of my favourite films from my childhood, still need to introduce it to my own children. Enjoyed reading your review Michael, thank you.

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