amblin

Roller Coaster Rabbit (1990)

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!

 renaissance

No, no, no. The ACTUAL renaissance.

renaissance

 

Thank you.

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:

 jaws

Or…

close-encounters-of-the-third-kind-274

Or…

AP-SS-233 The Spy Who Shagged Me , February 4, 2004 Photo by Blake Little/newline.wireimage.com To license this image (3905509), contact NewLine: U.S. +1-212-686-8900 / U.K. +44-207-868-8940 / Australia +61-2-8262-9222 / Japan: +81-3-5464-7020 +1 212-686-8901 (fax) info@wireimage.com (e-mail) NewLine.wireimage.com (web site)

Or..

JURASSIC PARK, 1993. ©Universal/courtesy Everett Collection

Or…

Schindler's List

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?

Shaddup.

Shaddup.

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.

8)      FIN.

So let’s see how that plays out in practice with Roller Coaster Rabbit, the second short and by far the strongest.

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Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)

(DISCLAIMER: This blog is not for profit. All images and footage used below are property of their respective companies unless stated otherwise. I do not claim ownership of this material. New to the blog? Start at the start with Snow White.)

I hate to open a review with such a cranky, old man line as “They don’t make ‘em like this anymore”.
So I won’t.
Good to be back everyone! Missed you all and your sweet, ego-affirming pageviews.
Now then.
My hairy BOLLOCKS but they don’t make them like this any more, do they?
Fittingly,given its dual nature, Who Framed Roger Rabbit occupies a special place in both the history of mainstream Hollywood blockbusters and American animation. It’s a central text in what was something of a golden age of the big summer tentpole picture (Ghostbusters, Indiana Jones, Back to the Future). But it’s as an animated movies that Roger Rabbit has its real significance. Chances are, if not for this movie a whole load of the films I’ve reviewed here would never have happened. Firstly, let’s take a look at the state of American animation in the late eighties. Theatrical shorts have gone the way of the horse-drawn carriage and the wireless-polisher. Disney feature animation is in a creative rut, and only Ralph Bakshi and a few others, working furtively from a secret rebel base, keep the full length animated film alive as an artform. The vast bulk of animation is now on television, rushed, cheaply produced, schilling for the toy industry and stifled by increasingly conservative broadcast standards for whom anything harder than the Smurfs is pushing the envelope. Large packs of feral dogs roam the landscape, and cannabalism is rife.
Bad times, is what I'm sayin'.

Bad times, is what I’m sayin’.

Disney snapped up the rights to Gary K. Wolf’s novel Who Censored Roger Rabbit? in 1981 as soon as it hit the bookshelves. Apart from sharing a few character names and some very broad plot points, the book and film aren’t even on speaking terms. The book is set in the present (well, the eighties) and Roger and his fellow toons are newspaper cartoons (with Hagar the Horrible, Dick Tracy and other characters making cameos). I haven’t actually read the book but I’m going to go out on a limb and say the movie vastly improves on the source material. For one, having cartoon characters working in the old Hollywood studio system just feels much more organic and setting it in the forties makes it feel more like a film noir. I’m not the only one who thought so either, Wolf’s later novels in the series went out of their way to tie themselves more closely to the movie, even retconning the whole first novel as a dream of Jessica’s.
And if that scene did not involve her stepping out of the shower a lá Bobby Ewing then there is no God.

And if that scene did not involve her stepping out of the shower a lá Bobby Ewing then there is no God.

Robert Zemeckis was attached to direct as early as 1981 but was given the boot by Disney when two of his films tanked at the box office. The project then kicked around the studio for a few years until Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzanbur…Katzenbar…(dammit just once I am going to spell his name right) KATZENBERG stepped in and applied the paddles. Eisner and Herr Skull were united in their belief that Roger Rabbit was going to be the movie to relaunch Disney as the pre-eminent force in American animation. Initially, the idea was that the film’s animated sequences would be done by Disney’s own in-house animation team. Then Eisner took Katzenberg down to the basement where the debased remains of that once great cadre of animators was kept.
“What…what are they?” Katzenberg asked in a strangled whisper.
Eisner simply stared ahead and said: “They were once men.”
Clearly, some fresh talent was going to have to be brought in to pull off what was going to prove to be one of the most technically challenging feats in the history of animation. Canadian-British animator Richard Williams was brought in along with a crack-team of international animators (many who would later be brought in to work on the Disney movies of the renaissance). Williams didn’t want to go to Los Angeles, like any sane person, and insisted on working in London resulting in the entire production being moved to England to accommodate him, hence why most of the live action cast are British.
Zemeckis was also brought back on to direct since in the intervening years he’d gone from “failed director” to “man who can just stand in a room and cause money to rain down at will”.  The international shoot and pioneering special effects combined into the most expensive production for an animated movie that there had ever been, with costs so high that Katzenberg had to talk Eisner out of pulling the plug. When the movie finally rolled into theatres $40 Million dollars over budget there was a whole lot riding on it.

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