Is there some sort of a deep political hypothesis nibbling on a carrot and overseeing the action in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? I mean, the film’s plot concerns a nefarious developer, Judge Doom (Christopher Lloyd), who wants to dismantle Los Angeles’s electrified streetcar system and replace it with a freeway-centric suburban wasteland, and in so doing appropriate and pave over a charismatic minority neighborhood, Toontown. And could it be that the kind of meta-cinematic crossovers—from Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny going skydiving together to Donald and Daffy Duck on dueling pianos—that make this movie so entertaining and weird and such a product of the 1980s are also a utopian-type metaphor for the overcoming of the hostilities and rivalries and the competitiveness of the free market? Or am I going too far with this?
This much, at least, we know: Who Framed Roger Rabbit belongs to that category of slick and ironic and star-studded Hollywood film that takes as its subject Hollywood and moviemaking and life in Los Angeles, like A Star Is Born or Sunset Boulevard or Singin’ in the Rain, like Barton Fink or Boogie Nights or The Player. Which is to say, it’s self-conscious by default, and is always reminding you either blatantly or slightly less blatantly of other movies or shows or cartoons that you’ve seen. And yet, for me at least, the film manages to be its own thing, to be more than just a noirish, postmodern Super Friends/Justice League for anthropomorphic animal cartoon characters.
And that thing that Who Framed Roger Rabbit has comes in great part from its special effects and its overlaying of cartoon animation with live-action photography. Which is a miracle, storytelling-wise, that such elaborate FX weren’t used only in the service of pseudo-pornographic eye candy, but also as a way of expressing a sociological/philosophical metaphor almost identical to that of another ’80s FX-laden neo-noir: Blade Runner. And the metaphor is that society’s underclass, those who have to do the dirty work (be it the robot Replicants in Blade Runner or the animated Toons in Who Framed Roger Rabbit), exist as metaphysically secondary to those in the society who get to, as it were, keep their hands clean. The Replicants are designed and programmed and manufactured by human beings and, thus, secondary, lesser, derivative, and forced to live on the margins of the human community (the off-world colonies). The Toons are, one has to assume, written and illustrated and reproduced by human beings and, thus, secondary, lesser, derivative, and forced to live on the margins of the human community. (And notice too how most of the Toons are talking animals. Isn’t that a pretty blunt depiction of how a society’s slave class is generally regarded?)
And the crusty, down-and-out detective of these films, be it Deckard or Valiant (Bob Hoskins), is the hero who can somehow pass between the opposition of the human world and the robot/cartoon/talking-animal slave world, and in so doing temporarily unite them or make them equal or prove that their distinctions are an illusion. (Isn’t Deckard’s embrace of Rachael in some way equal to when Valiant makes up with and kisses Roger at the end of Who Framed Roger Rabbit?)
And what does all this have to do with streetcars and freeways and public transit based on electricity versus private transit based on gasoline? Well, is it that the various classes of an urban society could be more in touch with each other and less alienated and separated from each other if they were all moving about town slowly but steadily on clean and efficient and inexpensive trolleys? As opposed to say, being enclosed in and cut off from each other in pricey, private vehicles, either flying down the highway at dangerous speeds or being stuck, motionless, in rage-inducing traffic? (And is there anything analogous to this sort of civic philosophy in Blade Runner? There are all those flying cars, and that hypnotic, sedated Los Angeles wasteland is, perhaps, an accurate evocation of a world in which everybody’s isolated and disaffected and paranoid, and everyone thinks that everyone else is a robot and not real and not human…) Maybe. But obviously Who Framed Roger Rabbit is a bit more concerned with being funny and cute and razzle-dazzle in its animation than with probing studiously the paradoxes of our atomized urban existence. Oh well. I’ll still take it. Roger makes me smile.