The faux-film noir Who Framed Roger Rabbit is one of my top five movies of all time, and easily my favorite animated film. I have so much to say about it, and so much admiration for its artists and animators, that I don’t think I could really express it properly here. Instead, I’ll talk about the first four minutes of it, which are impressive enough to stand on their own.
Roger Rabbit opens with a cartoon meant to channel the theater shorts of the Golden Age of American Animation (1930s-1960s). The difference is in the technology and filmmaking technique, two things that, when combined with the spirit of the 1940s, make real magic happen. Even as an eight-year-old seeing it for the first time, I knew it was something…incredible. None of the other cartoons I watched at the time looked anywhere close to Somethin’s Cookin’. In fact, I still can’t think of any cartoon that is so well-directed, so well-produced, so gorgeously animated. Every shot is a showcase of immense talent and skill. It is the pinnacle, the ultimate goal, the shining example of what I want my cartoons to be.
It’s a pretty simple plot, if you can call it that. Roger Rabbit is tasked with babysitting the sweet Baby Herman while Mommy hits the beauty parlor. Right after Mommy closes the front door, Herman escapes his crib to grab a cookie from the kitchen (which is high up on top of the fridge). Roger attempts to catch the kid before he burns, poisons, or impales himself on any of the horrifying things we keep in our kitchens, and the rest is chaos. Roger catapults from one misfortune to another like a pinball, and although the cartoon is cut off before it can finish, what’s there still leaves me reeling and gobsmacked.
Richard Williams, who directed the animation of the movie, has a talent for capturing insanity (“reigning it in”, as it were), and he applies it to this cartoon with ease. Alan Silvestri provides the score, which has just the right mix of kooky joy and madcap tension. Together they create a wild rhythm that keeps the action moving from one dazzling image to another. From the beginning, there’s a confidence and daring in the direction. The viewpoint swings and swooshes. Objects roll, tilt, and slide towards the camera. Roger moves with rapid, rubbery desperation, and voice actor Charles Fleischer throws absolutely everything he has into the role, and he fills Roger with sympathy and intensity.
The shot that starts the chain reaction is amazing: to an ominous string trill, Herman pushes a rolling pin off of a counter. We don’t just see it from a standard side angle, though. No, we start by looking up at Herman from a worm’s eye view, and then we tilt WITH THE PIN as it falls past us and bounces along the floor. Three perfectly timed, perfectly foleyed bounces. The angle has turned to show Roger running toward us, and stepping on the pin. He slips and slides on it, but can’t get off of it. And then the shot JUST KEEPS GOING, following him as he tries to get his balance. The delirious sense of disorientation is fantastic. When Roger Rabbit was finally shown on television, I recorded it and watched this shot over and over, just studying it and trying to understand why it gave me chills. Then I realized that the effect was so good because the FLOOR ISN’T STATIC: it’s animated to warp and curve and pulse like the waves of an ocean. The time that must have taken…it’s astonishing.
Herman’s frightening quest for the cookie jar continues while Roger is baked, electrocuted, pummeled, and inflated. Every second another hazard is launching him about, never allowing him to regain control. Even the camera has trouble keeping up with him. The angles are brilliantly exaggerated, and the kitchen occasionally appears to be several acres wide and dozens of miles high. It’s not supposed to make sense; in animation, realism can (and, I believe, it must) be sacrificed for the sake of effect.
When I saw Roger Rabbit in the theater for the first time in 1988, everyone around me cheered and laughed and whooped while this cartoon played. I mean, people loved it. It was joyous and crackling and confident, and it got everyone in the mood for the loony brilliance to follow. The work itself is astounding, but seeing how it affected everyone around me, how it bedazzled them all with its wizardry, was one of the most powerful and intense experiences of my life. I think that in those four little minutes, I knew what I wanted to be.
Disney/Touchstone tried to revive the pre-feature cartoon short after this, with three other Roger Rabbit cartoons Tummy Trouble, Trail Mix-Up, and Roller Coaster Rabbit. They were all good, though not quite as good as Cookin’, and Roger and pals disappeared into the ether after that. Perhaps that’s for the best: Roger Rabbit fit right into its time. It was lightning in a bottle, a cultural event, a triumph of technical skill, never to be repeated. To milk the property would only dilute its flavor. It is a classic, and out of the smorgasbord of mankind’s cartoons, Somethin’s Cookin’ remains, for me, the main course.