The world of children’s entertainment is one of almost obscene abundance. If your child falls in love with the world of Star Wars, for example, they can spend years, decades, even lives exploring all of the nooks and crannies of this immense universe through movies, of course, but also television shows and comic books and video games and role-playing games and countless other iterations of George Lucas’ brainchild. The same is true of Marvel. If your kid digs Iron Man and the rest of the Avengers they too can pursue that passion for the rest of their lives and never run out of comic books or blockbuster movies or direct-to-video animated films related to their area of obsession.
If your child falls instantly in love with Roger Rabbit, as my six-year-old did recently when I introduced the character to him via the short films available for streaming on Disney+ you are out of luck, however, because Roger Rabbit’s journey through pop culture ended not long after it began, with a stone-cold instant masterpiece that has only gotten better with time and a few similarly masterful shorts. 1988’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit wasn’t just a towering masterpiece of technology and storytelling; it was a pop culture phenomenon. Robert Zemeckis’ groundbreaking, miraculous, never to be matched, let alone topped fusion of live-action and animation rocked my world as a twelve-year-old and introduced a plethora of unforgettable characters who could stand alongside the greatest creations of Warner Brothers and Disney and not suffer by comparison. There’s Roger Rabbit, of course, a lovably inept, stuttering vaudevillian with an impossibly elastic body and a heart of gold as well as his wife Jessica, a bombshell who played a central role in the sexual awakening of multiple generations of young people and has a solid (and dubious) claim to being perhaps the sexiest character in the history of film, animated or otherwise.
If Jessica Rabbit made kids like me feel things we’d never experienced before, or quite so intensely, then Christopher Lloyd’s portrayal of Judge Doom inspired a level of terror in the young me that was similarly unprecedented, scary, and genuinely exhilarating. Then there’s Bob Hoskins’ Oscar-worthy performance as Eddie Valiant, an alcoholic detective with a tragic past and supporting players like raspy-voiced, cigar-smoking Baby Huey, a cranky, horny old man in the body of an adorable infant and scene-stealers like Benny the Cab and Judge Doom’s hyena henchmen.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit did everything a kid’s movie is supposed to do, although it seems reductive and unfair to think of it as a children’s film and not a movie for all ages with particular appeal to children.
The rapturously received blockbuster and instant classic created a galaxy of new and beloved stars in Roger, Jessica, Judge Doom, and the rest. It was unparalleled in its world-building in the way it created a thrilling new universe realized down to a cellular level built upon some of the most beloved characters and relationships in all of American pop culture.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit was a massive hit. It had to be in order to make back its huge budget. It was universally and rightfully acclaimed. Everyone seemed to love it and when the public loves something it invariably wants more. So while a sequel has languished in development hell for decades Steven Spielberg, his Amblin production company and Disney gave audiences more of the sweet, sweet Roger Rabbit content they craved in the form of a series of animated shorts that accompanied some of Disney’s biggest movies.
It made perfect sense to bring back the pre-film animated short with Roger Rabbit since that’s the role he played within the universe of Who Framed Roger Rabbit. These cartoons were such a big deal that audiences would go see a movie just for the Roger Rabbit cartoon.
Honey, I Shrunk the Kids probably would have been a hit even if it were not accompanied by the new Roger Rabbit cartoon “Tummy Trouble” and Dick Tracy was so ridiculously hyped that it would have done well without the Roger Rabbit cartoon “Roller Coaster Rabbit,”
The slick, expensive, high-quality, high profile Roger Rabbit cartoons that accompanied Honey, I Shrunk the Kids and Dick Tracy couldn’t hurt box-office but could certainly help.
Disney released one more new Roger Rabbit short, “Trail Mix-Up” (thankfully on Disney+) before 1993’s Far Off Place. Then came nothing. It’s not hard to figure out why. Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg started Dreamworks and Dreamworks Animation in direct competition with Disney/Touchstone, which put an all too abrupt end to the partnership that made the miracle of Who Framed Roger Rabbit possible.
That’s a damn shame because every animated/live-action movie that followed Who Framed Roger Rabbit has paled by comparison. Robert Zemeckis’ Spielberg-produced masterpiece will forever be the gold standard for integrating animation and live-action.
The only live-action/animated movie that can even approach it in terms of popularity and merchandising standpoint is 1996’s Space Jam, which was a huge blockbuster that grossed a fortune at the box office and made even more money via tee shirts and basketball shirts and dolls and other related consumer goods but is as soulless and mercenary as Who Framed Roger Rabbit is uncompromising and pure.
Space Jam isn’t in the same league as Roger Rabbit yet it was so successful and continues to be such a big part of American pop culture and American childhoods that a quarter-century after its release Warner Brothers ponied up one sixty million dollars for an exceedingly tardy, internet-themed sequel starring LeBron James will be hitting theaters in July. Space Jam is one of the sadder and sorrier if most commercially successful offsprings of Who Framed Roger Rabbit but it’s a timeless masterpiece compared to an even more pathetic progeny in 2018’s Ready Player One.
From a marketing and rights perspective, Ready Player One is as auspicious and impressive an accomplishment as Who Framed Roger Rabbit in that director Steven Spielberg was able to use his clout and power as the most successful and powerful filmmaker in American history to secure the appearances of a staggering array of pop icons from across the spectrum, the same way he did as a producer on Who Framed Roger Rabbit. But as with Space Jam, there was a vast and tragic gulf in quality and integrity between Who Framed Roger Rabbit and the over-stuffed, under-realized, and under-whelming Ernest Kline adaptation it inspired.
Just about every pop-culture staple appeared in Ready Player One with the very notable exception of Roger Rabbit and his Disney pals but considering what a mess the film made of beloved heroes like The Iron Giant, that’s no great loss.
As a dad as well as a movie lover I wished that I had more Roger Rabbit to show my son after Who Framed Roger Rabbit and its three stellar shorts, which are whip-smart, exceedingly fast, and as dark and over the top in their violence as Itchy and Scratchy cartoons.
Then again, Roger Rabbit’s early, unexpected retirement also ensures that everything associated with the lovable cartoon bungler is of the highest quality. When it came to Roger and his seemingly limitless world, Disney and the Amblin gang quit while they were ahead. In a world where seemingly every halfway well-liked bit of intellectual property is exploited relentlessly there’s definitely something to be said for going out on top