Suspended Animation #206
Last year marked the 30th anniversary of the acclaimed film Who Framed Roger Rabbit (no question mark at the end because of a Hollywood superstition that films with questions marks at the end do not succeed at the box office), released in June 1988.
Disney President Ron Miller, against the advice of CEO Card Walker, purchased the rights to Gary Wolf’s 1981 book Who Censored Roger Rabbit for $25,000, even before it was published and put it into development. He felt it would be a good project to interest and utilize the talents of the newest animators hired from CalArts including Brad Bird and Glen Keane.
Gary Wolf’s book was meant to be a surreal spoof of the hard-boiled detective novel, a mixture of Raymond Chandler, Lewis Carroll and Warner Brothers. Roger Rabbit was a six-foot tall rabbit (a height which included his 18-inch tall ears) who worked for the DeGreasy Brothers.
He wore a baggy pair of shorts held up by brightly colored suspenders. His white stomach, nose, toes and palms on a light brown body made him resemble someone who had just walked face first into a freshly painted wall of white paint.
Within the first fourth of the book, he is killed. However, earlier that evening he mentally created a duplicate to go out and buy some red suspenders. Toons could create these temporary doppelgangers to perform the dangerous stunts in cartoons. Roger put a large jolt of mental energy into his duplicate so that it will last awhile before it falls apart.
The book then becomes a race against time as detective Eddie Valiant and the Roger duplicate try to find out who shot Roger and why, clear Roger of charges in Rocco DeGreasy’s murder, and figure out how Jessica fits in to the scheme.
Roger was more a comic strip character than an animated star, although he was still a foil to Baby Herman. When Toons talked, dialog balloons physically appeared over their head with the words spelled out, and these balloons eventually disintegrated, leaving fine dust.
The motivations and personalities of the major characters like Roger, Jessica and Baby Herman are significantly different than the final feature film versions.
In 1981, the talent behind the first attempt to bring Roger Rabbit to the big screen was Tom Wilhite, then currently head of production; Marc Stirdivant, a studio producer; and Darrell Van Citters, one of Disney’s top animation directors.
All three were key in developing much of the early Roger material along with character designer Mike Giaimo. Joe Ranft, Chris Buck and Randy Cartwright joined the development unit that operated from roughly 1981-1983.It was mentioned as an “upcoming” feature for several years in the Disney company stock holders report with even an image included. It was allegedly reported that Disney management felt the word “censored” in the original title was too strong a word and held negative connotations. So the word “framed” was suggested not only because of its connotations of an innocent person being falsely accused but because it related to showcasing art.
Buck and Cartwright produced some pencils tests and a short segment of colored animation that was only shown once on a 1983 Disney Channel show called Disney Studio Showcase where animation historian John Culhane was discussing new projects at the studio.
Portraying Eddie Valiant in the clip was longtime Disney performer Peter Renaday who remembers spending “one unremarkable day” filming the footage. He was made to look like a rougher character with a scuffy beard. A clean cut Eddie Valiant was portrayed by animator Michael Gabriel in some publicity photos.
Paul Reubens voiced Roger and Russi Taylor provided the voice for Jessica Rabbit who at that time was more of a Lauren Bacall/Katharine Hepburn slender femme fatale and possible villainess.
As Darrel Van Citters remembered, “Roger was to be voiced by the then barely known Paul Reubens. Paul had both an excitability and a naïve quality to his voice that we felt was essential to the character’s personality. Despite his firmly established role as Pee Wee Herman, Paul is an excellent voice actor, and gave us exceptional readings.
“We patterned Roger’s appearance after both Tex Avery and Bob Clampett design sensibilities. For some reason, big noses figure prominently in many of their character designs. This was for us the archetypal cartoon look. We had no interest in a more complex style—the purpose of this simple comic design was to belie Roger’s interior, for our aim was to imbue an outwardly zany character with emotional depth and heart.
“We chose to play against Baby Herman’s appearance with a rather haughty Ronald Colmanesque voice. To make him an elitist actor who resented his typecasting in films and lived, instead, for ‘the theater.’”
Peter Seaman and Jeffrey Price had completed a screenplay, Malta Wants Me Dead, which was eventually produced by Disney as Trenchcoat (1983). They were assigned to the Roger Rabbit development unit and provided several screenplay versions. Later, Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel were contracted to provide another screenplay for a Roger Rabbit feature film.
When the dust settled in 1984, Michael Eisner and Frank Wells were now in the driver’s seat. Work on Roger had continued for awhile under Van Citters who was now working on the special project Sport Goofy which would never see its intended theatrical release but was shown instead on NBC in 1987. It featured a brief cameo of Roger in the stands.
The Roger Rabbit film was no longer considered an active project as new administrations usually abandon things developed by their predecessors. However, Jeffrey Katzenberg did dig around in the files and discovered the work that had been done on Roger Rabbit and shared it with Eisner who put the project back into development.
At the time, to save on Disney’s upfront costs, Eisner tried to interest outside talent in various co- productions. One such talent was Steven Spielberg. Looking over a list of potential properties, Spielberg eyed Roger and requested the film.
Disney had still planned to do the animation, but Spielberg’s Amblin Productions would be handling the majority of work. This marriage of studios also makes Roger one of the few Cartoon Superstars to be “joint” property, a situation that greatly influences where and how Roger is allowed to be used.
For a director, Spielberg chose Robert Zemeckis, who had just finished work on Back to the Future (1985). Zemeckis had been offered the director’s job on the film in 1982 by Wilhite. At the time he turned it down feeling the Disney studio wasn’t willing to put the necessary money behind the project.
Another one of Spielberg’s decisions was that he didn’t think the Disney staff of animators could meet the needs of doing the film. He looked at any animation director who had done live action and animation including such diverse talents as Don Bluth and Phil Roman.
There was even some discussion of setting up an entirely new animation studio in Northern California under the direction of Lucasfilms, which was already set to do the special effects work. Finally, all parties agreed upon the award winning director Richard Williams and work began — and the rest is history.