Alright, this series of reviews that was supposed to last for one month has been going on since August so it might be a good time to pull the car over and try to figure out how we got here before the cannibal hillbillies come back. We started with animation in the silent era before moving to the dawn of integrated sound. We then had animated shorts as visual accompaniement and advertising for music and then as wartime proganda. Moving into the fifties we had the Golden Age of Warner Brothers shorts, the ignoble end of the Looney Tunes/Merrie Melodies in the sixties, the advent of more adult themed animation in the seventies and the first glimmer of the Pixar era in the eighties. So that brings us up to the nineties, a decade I am old enough for it to still feel like it was ten years ago. Refresh my memory, what was happening in animation in the nineties? Oh that’s right! The renaissance!
No, no, no. The ACTUAL renaissance.
So, exciting times. Great time to be an animation fan. Disney’s back, kicking ass and taking names, animé is more readily available in the west than ever before and even Western TV animation has stopped eating paste and is becoming increasingly not-awful. What changed? Well, the generation of kids who had grown up watching classic Disney movies and Warner Bros shorts were now adults and working in the film industry and wanted to bring the medium back to its former glory. Foremost amongst those kids was a guy called Steven Spielberg. Now, I say the word “Spielberg” and, depending on your age the first image that pops into your head is:
But you probably don’t immediately think of animation. Nonetheless, Steven Spielberg is like the Forrest Gump of American animation post-1980. Practically every pivotal moment involved him somehow. Don Bluth? Spielberg produced his earliest films. The Disney Renaissance? Wouldn’t have happened without Who Framed Roger Rabbit. The drastic improvement in TV animation? Would have looked very different without Tiny Toons, Animanaics and Pinky and the Brain. Dreamworks? Whaddya think the “S” in “Dreamworks SKG” stands for, hombre?
So in the wake of Roger Rabbit’s incredible success, Spielberg’s production company Amblin and Disney partnered to bring the long defunct animated theatrical short roaring back to life with a series of high budget, high quality Roger Rabbit shorts. And my God, you just need to look at the calibre of talent attached to these things to see how serious they were. Rob Minkoff, who would later go on to direct the single greatest canon Disney movie of all time I said it it’s official no one can disagree it’s over I won, super producers Don Hahn, Rob Marshall and Spielberg himself of course, Charles Fleischer and Lou Hirsch as Roger and Baby Herman and they even got Kathleen Frickin’ Goddamned Turner back to voice Jessica Rabbit even though she only averages three lines a short. So, before we go any further there’s two things you need to know about these shorts.
1) As animation, they are absolutely jaw-droppingly gorgeous.
2) As cartoons, they don’t really work.
That’s not to say that they’re complete failures. Anything this beautifully animated fully justifies its existence. But they are a fascinating example of the whole being less than the sum of the parts, and why sometimes fans of something are not always the most qualified people to make a new version of that thing. I’ll get back to that in a second. Only three shorts were made, with a fourth cancelled in pre-production and they very closely follow the formula established in Somethin’ Cookin’, the opening short in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. The formula is as follows:
1) Mommie Dearest leaves Baby Herman in the care of Roger Rabbit, warning him that there will be dire consequences if anything happens to him.
2) Baby Herman wanders off into danger.
3) Roger loses his goddamn shit and screams like a Bedlam inmate.
4) Roger has to protect Baby Herman while suffering violence upon his body normally reserved for the Christ.
5) Gratuitous Jessica Rabbit cameo.
6) Gratuitous Droopy cameo.
7) Roger ruins the take and bursts through the fourth wall into the real world and everybody hates him for being a screw up.
So let’s see how that plays out in practice with Roller Coaster Rabbit, the second short and by far the strongest.
And yes. Frank Welker voiced the bull. I don’t know if you’ve heard, but he’s a fairly prolific voice actor.
Okay, so for something that looks so amazing there is actually a lot here that doesn’t work. Firstly, the basic premise is just weird. With Tom and Jerry, you never need to ask “Why is the cat chasing the mouse?” Cats chase mice because they’re bastards and when the revolution comes they will be destroyed without mercy. That’s what they do. But…leaving your toddler to be baby sat by your…pet(?) rabbit? It doesn’t make sense. I mean, if Mommie Dearest was a rabbit, and Roger was married to her and Baby Herman was his kid, that makes sense. But why is a human in a human world leaving her child to be looked after by a rabbit? That’s…that’s not a thing. A dog, maybe. I always felt that the Buttons and Mindy segments of Animaniacs were some of the weaker sketches but it was a much more successful version of this basic premise. But the real problem is Roger himself. This kind of character is fundamentally wrong for this kind of comedic mechanism. The shorts are desperately missing a crucial element: Bob Hoskins
In Who Framed Roger Rabbit the character of Roger works perfectly because he’s supposed to be insufferably annoying. That’s the joke. The humour comes from Eddie Valiant, the audience surrogate, getting increasingly frustrated with Roger’s antics. Here though? Roger’s the focus. He’s the audience surrogate and there’s no one for him to bounce off of. There’s no real antagonist, Roger’s enemy is a universe that wants him to suffer horribly. Now, some of the greatest cartoons of all time largely consist of a character suffering horribly. But we don’t mind seeing Wile E Coyote break and mangle every bone in his furry body because, while we may feel some sympathy for him, we don’t actually want to see him catch and eat the Road Runner. Ditto Tom or Sylvester. There’s an element of karmic satisfaction in watching someone try to do something bad and failing horribly. But Roger is just trying to protect an innocent child from a violent death so, even though Roger is incredibly annoying, it’s not really that satisfying to watch him suffer. The Looney Tunes shorts had a strict hierarchy of winners and losers. Bugs Bunny always wins, Elmer Fudd always loses. Tweety Pie? Winner. Yosemite Sam? Loser. Roger is being given a loser role here when he’s more suited to a winner role, that of the well-meaning, unstoppable irritant. Or, to pick a more period appropriate reference, he’s Buttons when he should be Wakko Warner.
And that feeds into another problem, namely that this was made by people who obviously have a deep love for Golden Age shorts but missed what made those shorts work. Imagine a ten year old boy watching Star Wars for the first time and it instantly becoming the only thing he ever wants to watch, or talk about, or think about for the rest of his life. And you give that boy the money and crew he needs to make his own Star Wars. That movie would just be wall to wall spaceship battles and lightsabre duals and it would last ten hours and be absolutely unwatchable. Because the boy knows that those are the parts of the movie that he enjoyed the most but doesn’t understand that the talky bits were what gave narrative and emotional context to those battle scenes which is what makes them satisfying on more than a surface visual level. The makers of the Roger Rabbit shorts remember that they loved the wild bug eyed takes, the bodily contortions and extreme violence of those shorts while forgetting how sparingly those were often used. These shorts are almost nothing but the wild bug eyed takes, the bodily contortions and extreme violence. There’s no buildup, it’s no foreplay, all money shot. Roger Rabbit freaking out and his eyes expanding to the size of the Hindenberg isn’t funny because that’s what he always does. To put it another way, as one of the great comedic masters of the last century once put it:
In drama class, there’s a technique where you have to imagine the energy of your performance on a scale of one to ten, (with one being practically comatose and ten being Nicholas Cage) and learn to raise it and lower it as the scene requires. In the Roger Rabbit shorts, Roger starts at fifteen and once Baby Herman wanders off he kicks it up to twenty five and it is EXHAUSTING.
And, as a final criticism, the Jessica Rabbit cameos, divorced from the deconstruction and layering the character got in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, just feel kinda skeezy.
Again, not to say that these shorts are not worth your time, they very much are. They’re packed to bursting with jaw-dropping animation (hands down this is the best animated short I’ve reviewed thus far), sumptuous detail and great visual gags. But ultimately, the Roger Rabbit cartoon failed in their goal of bringing back the animated theatrical short as a commercially viable venture although not for the flaws that I’ve mentioned. The fact is, you can get the most talented people in the world behind a project but you can’t change the fundamental market that you’re creating that project for. And the reasons why the animated theatrical short had died hadn’t changed. Cinemas weren’t going to start buying shorts again anymore than they were going to bring back newsreel footage of Our Boys at The Front. TV was still there with an ever larger appetite for inexpensive animation. No. The future of the animated short would not be in the movie theatres that birthed it, but somewhere very, very different.
Hint. How did you watch the cartoon you just saw?