This is certainly one of the most imaginative pictures in a while, and it hits the structure steps of a detective story quite well. It has an incredible connection between the real characters, or real actors, and cartoon characters.
And yet, if you were like me, it doesn’t seem to grow beyond technical excellence. And the question that I want to look at as we work through the structure of this film is why. What is missing?
Let’s first go to the end point, the self-revelation. The main character is Eddie, played by Bob Hoskins. Does he have a self-revelation? He is somehow able to pour out the liquor and give up drink. Do we know why? Does he learn something about himself that can allow him to do that?
He used to blame toons for his troubles. And he certainly realizes at the end that toons were not the cause of his troubles. But what, if anything, does he realize about himself? You may recall that he’s supposed to be a sourpuss. Then does this little song and dance number. Roger Rabbit asks him at the end, have you finally learned not to be a sourpuss, to have a little fun? And he says yes and gives Roger a big kiss. So apparently Eddie learns to laugh at the end of this picture.
This is certainly a change, but it’s not really a self-revelation. It’s also a fairly mild change. And the arc of Eddie becoming this barrel of laughs kind of guy didn’t work for me.
Context: But let’s go back to the beginning and look at the context step. What is the world of this story? Hollywood, 1947. The city world, the third social stage. The city world is the classic place for the detective story, the classic place of deceit, intrigue and hiding out.
It’s also Hollywood, which is the classic place of entertainment and fantasy. And deceit in a different sort of way.
There’s also a third element of the overall world, and that is a unique mix between humans and toons. One of the strengths of this picture is that they don’t explain the mix. It’s just normal. Eddie doesn’t like them, he thinks they’re weird and a little chaotic, but that’s just the way life is. It’s part of Hollywood. I believe a great deal of the success of this picture comes from taking the mundane city and creating fantasy elements within it. That’s a tremendously powerful technique for an audience.
But there’s one big problem with this unique mix in the overall world. There’s no sense that the human world is affected in some fundamental way by the toons, because the toons live in their own little town. There’s no real mix. There’s no infusion. And that is going to make this movie limited in how it can develop.
There is also an interesting racist quality there. Eddie says, “I don’t work with toons, I don’t work for toons, or I don’t go to Toontown.” But that isn’t developed either.
Structurally the power of this concept is: how can fantasy infuse a regular, mundane human world and allow us to learn to live, laugh, and love. Very much like the traveling angel story in theme.
But let’s look at the other steps. Eddie has a strong ghost. Toon killed his brother. It’s haunting him. His entire office is a mausoleum for his brother.
Problem/Need: After the cartoon opening, we shift into the real world and find out there’s lots of trouble on the set because Roger Rabbit cannot see stars, can’t work properly, because he’s so worried about his wife. His wife’s fooling around on him.
The detective hero also has personal problems. He’s broke. And his romance is going down the tubes.
What need does this character have? He’s got a definite drinking problem. We’re supposed to think that he’s a sourpuss. After all, his brother did get a piano dropped on his head, so I can understand that. But Eddie doesn’t seem to be a sourpuss to me. And it doesn’t seem like much of a character weakness that has to be overcome. Unfortunately, it is the basic need line that drives this story.
There is a moral element involved here. Remember I was talking about how the detective is typically a sleazy character? Eddie has taken some pictures, and because of those pictures somebody is dead. So he has a moral responsibility for the original death.
Desire: Eddie wouldn’t mind finding his brother’s killer, but that’s not what he’s hired to do. He’s hired first of all to find out about Roger’s wife, and he completes that desire when he gets the pictures. That leads to the main desire, which is to find out who framed Roger Rabbit. That line carries all the way through the story.
So we do have a strong desire line. If there’s any problem with it, it’s the fact that it’s not a personal desire line. And this is typical of the basic detective story. The detective’s job is to help somebody else solve their problem. Notice uncovering the case will help Eddie solve his personal problem at the end because he’ll find out who killed his brother. But the personal element isn’t present throughout the story, which makes the desire line flat.
Opponent: The main opponent is the judge. He’s certainly dangerous. We know that right up front. The problem is, he’s a bit obvious. And for a detective story that’s a big weakness. We’re supposed to find out who committed the crime at the end after checking out many suspects. There’s not much guessing when you’ve got an opponent this heavy.
Another big problem is that the judge doesn’t represent any contrasting world or any contrasting values. He is just a heavy. As a toon and an opponent, if he represented something of toon-ness that was in direct contrast to humanness, that would be interesting, because we could get a contrast in values. Most of the toons that we see are these fabulous characters, and they’re the people that the humans should be learning from.
So as an opponent the judge is just a cardboard (drawing board?) heavy. Every time he shows up, he’s dangerous. You have to get out of his way. That’s all we know about him.
Without contrasting values, the conflict cannot build in the middle of the story. That’s true even in a parody of the detective story that just uses the form to hang technical flights of fancy on. We want something to build in the middle of the story, or it’s going to get boring. I loved seeing the visual brilliance of this movie, but the story itself wasn’t there.
Why not? Primarily because of the opposition. Jessica is an apparent opponent, but she has no relationship to the hero. She’s just this incredibly gorgeous woman. I’m not quite sure how she can actually move. But all she is is something to gawk at, so there’s no possibility of a building relationship or conflict there.
The weasels are an opponent, but they work for the bad guy, and they’re just little evil things that run around.
Plan: The plan is the fairly standard in a detective story: looking for clues and getting various revelations. One reason people like the detective form is because the plan is very clean and gives a strong line to the middle of the story.
In the middle there is a series of revelations which uncovers the larger criminality under the surface: this company is taking over various places in order to destroy Toontown. That’s a larger issue than the murder. And it’s a quality you find in better detective stories. This film does have some good revelations.
But the personal argument between Eddie and Roger is thin. Roger is the born entertainer, always trying to make people laugh, and Eddie is a sourpuss. That’s supposed to be the personal guts of the story. But it’s not really woven in. Eddie’s nowhere close to being a Scrooge character. So that whole element doesn’t really pop.
Also during the middle the hero is dealing with his ghost. Unfortunately, the ghost is a little too powerful in this story. You never want the event of the past to be stronger than what the hero is dealing with in the present.
But the big problem with the development of the middle, and why this story cannot expand beyond a fast-paced cartoon sequence, is the fact that the visual world doesn’t develop. There is a toon world over here, and the human setting over there. The human setting is not infused with fantasy, and the world as a whole cannot develop.
When the visual world doesn’t develop, and the main character doesn’t develop during the middle, the story starts to feel like a standard whodunnit, which is exactly what happens here.
The key to this script should be how does a human being learn and change by going through a cartoon world? Unfortunately, that happens only in one particular scene, the best part of the movie, which is the gate, gauntlet and visit to death. Practically a textbook example of one.
Eddie drives up in his car and there’s a tunnel, and on the other end is this scary world of Toontown. Starts off being very utopian. Everybody is singing and even the trees are dancing around. And then he crashes and undergoes a series of nightmarish experiences. Eddie has the elevator experience. And then he sees what he thinks is Jessica, and she turns out to be this terrible-looking woman who is out to devour him. Then he runs and finds himself outside of a skyscraper and falling down.
Now, this is great stuff. Imagine what would have happened had the entire story been structured in this way, with this onslaught of craziness of Toontown as it impinges on the human world and on this main character. I don’t want to argue with $80 million and counting, but boy would I have liked to have seen that.
The point is, this scene, as fun as it is, is too little and too late. And it doesn’t cause Eddie to change. Ideally, the uptight character should loosen up and learn to live by going through the chaos of Toontown. Structurally that’s how this story should have worked. But instead they tried to do it in one scene, and that’s not enough.
Battle: That leads us to a very flat and anti-climactic battle. Everybody ends up in a big room and the hero has to save the helpless people who are strung up. Eddie solves the problem by doing a cartoon dance. Structurally it makes a lot of sense. You’ve got to become a cartoon in order to succeed.
But it seems so contrived that I wondered if I was in the same picture, and I wondered, do they realize that this scene is not working? I suddenly wished Donald O’Connor was playing this role. Because imagine an uptight character who learns to become a Donald O’Connor by going through the toon experience, and does that dance the way Donald O’Connor does in “Singing In The Rain”, turning the physical world into a plastic, malleable, bendable place. In other words, a man who learns to dance. But Donald O’Connor’s not around anymore.
Which leads to the end point. There is a communion, everybody gets together at the end, and the toons get their little town. Apparently they are saved from the horrible vision of freeways, fast food places, car dealerships and so on. But to make that pay we need to see that utopian visual world in contrast to its bad alternative.
Roger Rabbit makes terrific use of cartoons as well as a blend of the cartoons and the real actors. But all I could think of was: imagine how good this movie could have been.
Two things that we can take from this particular film. One, anytime you’re going to do a detective story, even if you’re going to hang other things on it, don’t do the standard one. Do something different. Transcend the form. Make the story itself something different, something special.
Second, and even more important, make the visual world develop. In this particular case, the human world should have become a kind of cartoon world, should have been infused with the values of cartoon world, and become a better place, a more fun place, and a more loving place. The humans should learn how to live, and actually reorganize in a wacky, cartoonish way. Maybe in the sequel.