Who Framed Roger Rabbit may be part cartoon, but the municipal history with which it attempts to engage has its roots very much in the real world. The basic narrative framework, a fairly transparent homage to the conspiratorial intrigue of Chinatown, seems deceptively simple: Judge Doom (Christopher Lloyd) is a wealthy developer who hopes to profit from the impending construction of a citywide freeway system by retiring the popular Red Car, a streetcar system described by cheap noir hero Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins) as “the best public transportation system in the world.” The ruin of downtown Los Angeles is directly located in the surreptitious machinations of bureaucrats and businessmen conspiring to make a quick buck in 1947, an endeavor whose eventual success, more than merely dismantling the trolley and the ease which came with it, effectively ushered in an age of robotically streamlined commutes and unmitigated mall-borne consumerism. Doom envisions the commercial paradise promised by his efforts thusly: “Eight lanes of shimmering cement running from here to Pasadena…There will be a string of gas stations, inexpensive motels, restaurants that serve rapidly prepared food, tire saloons, automobile dealerships, and wonderful, wonderful billboards reaching as far as the eye can see.”
The satirical dimension of this anachronistic pontificating isn’t exactly subtle, but it has a certain bite precisely because it’s true: Los Angeles did rapidly decentralize as a result of the nearly simultaneous erection of the highway and the shuttering of the Red Car, events connected by more than coincidence or circumstance. But much in the way that Chinatown offered a somewhat problematic simplification of the juicily sordid tale of the Owens Valley aqueduct, Who Framed Roger Rabbit is less interested in the objective standard of the truth than in the drama a historical basis can provide. Some of the action is simply and excusable reductive: The real death of the Red Car system began as early as the 1920s, when the lucrative real estate developments which drove the expansion of urban rail into outlying areas began to dry up and the operation became unsustainable in its current form, which wouldn’t likely have lasted through the post-war years even if had continued without the intrusion of the freeway. The particular myth at the heart of the film, in which a corporation with vested interests would purchase the trolleys strictly in order to dismantle them, is based on the real-life dealings of National City Lines, a company owned by General Motors, whose motivations were indeed duplicitous. It was in the interest of automotive companies like General Motors for a cheap, accessible, and far-reaching public transportation system like the Red Car to be replaced by a system that made it all but impossible for citizens of the city to get around without a car. Though the real-world plan wasn’t exactly evil, the only exaggeration in the fictional corollary is the villain’s cartoonishly maniacal demeanor.
A sense of ahistoricism is bound to pervade a movie about the foibles of a cartoon rabbit, but the government-sanctioned, corporate-controlled plot to transform the defining character of Los Angeles from an urban centrality to an unwieldy suburban sprawl resonates as all too true. It’s a somewhat crude articulation, to be sure (Eddie’s proud declarations of the transit system’s worth were a far cry from public sentiment in 1947, which tended more toward disgruntlement over congestion, pricing, and delays), but it nevertheless paints a picture of Los Angeles as a kind of paradise lost to greed and folly, a great city whose once-thriving and connected downtown was sacrificed in the aid of corporate interests. How closely it hews to the reality of the conspiratory is less important, ultimately, than the fact of its attempt to engage with the real world seriously, especially given the continuing consequences of the city’s forever-changed makeup. The bus system that replaced the trolley is the most crowded in the United States, perpetually plagued by high prices and improperly outlined schedules and routes, itself a form of tacit discrimination against the working classes with no access to the luxury of a car. The real tragedy of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, then, is in its refusal to go all the way, not in its oversimplification of history but in its fantastic remodeling of a happy ending: Doom is defeated, Eddie walks (or perhaps rides) away happy, and all talk of a freeway and the death of the Red Car is silenced. For a film so close to the truth, it’s a weirdly dishonest fiction. One wants instead that familiar sigh of resignation: “Forget it, Eddie—it’s Toontown.” If only.
Bringing a film like Who Framed Roger Rabbit to high definition is, frankly, an unenviable task: Its reliance on layered opticals and compositing are tricky to get right without making the cartoon characters stand out from the live-action material. An archival 35mm print touring rep houses recently looks great partly by virtue of its flaws, which hide the age of the effects and lend the whole film a certain warmth. This new Blu-ray, which appears to be a new scan, does its best to bring the somewhat dated aesthetic of this film into 1080p without losing much of its allure, and though it's a far cry from 35mm, its best quality is actually the richness of its film grain (I'd guess this was retained for the sake of easing the upgrade). The layering of cartoon images onto live-action ones isn't perfect, and how much one admires this transfer will likely depend on how much one prefers grain to clarity and resolution; don't go in expecting an ordinarily sterling Disney Blu-ray and you'll be fine. The opening number and journey to Toontown, however, are plainly jaw-dropping, not least because this is the grainiest-looking cartoon footage ever seen in HD. The new 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio, for its part, does the job just fine.
Quite the bounty: three substantial featurettes on the production, a feature-length commentary track by Robert Zemeckis and a small army of collaborators, a deleted scene, and a handful of interactive game-like whatsits. Much like the film, however, these features often seem tonally confused, and it's never quite clear whether the content is meant to appeal to children or adults. The major behind-the-scenes documentary included here, "Who Made Roger Rabbit," is a prime example: Voice actor Charles Fleischer hosts the proceedings with such self-consciously "zany" enthusiasm that it's hard to imagine anyone over the age of 11 finding him entertaining, but the particulars he covers—from a look behind the film's special effects to the creative input of Steven Spielberg—are likely too technical to be of interest to kids. (Youngsters don't usually get much out of commentary tracks by old dudes, either.) The crown jewel of this set is the inclusion of several archival Roger Rabbit shorts, over which fans of the character will no doubt be salivating, though non-fans should be warned that the material itself is almost unbearably inane. In any case, in terms of sheer volume, there's not much more one could ask for.
It may be a cartoon, but Who Framed Roger Rabbit's deep engagement with municipal history is very much real.