Who Framed Roger Rabbit: 25th Anniversary Edition (US - BD)
Gabe revisits his favourite Zemeckis film including comparison screen-caps...
I hold some unpopular opinions when it comes to movies, but few are less popular than my complete apathy towards the vast majority of Robert Zemeckis’ movies. I simply cannot muster enthusiasm for such a vanilla collection of films. I’ve ruminated on what unifies the monotony of his filmography and arrived on a few consistencies. First, Zemeckis tends to make movies based around concepts, rather than actual stories or themes. I won’t say he isn’t good with actors, nor will I downplay some of the strong characters he helped create, but, when I look over his Wikipedia page, I see a list of intriguing ideas that never really come together as anything other than an intriguing idea. Forrest Gump is an attempt at tracking the big events of the Baby Boomer generation through the eyes of a character too simple to understand the impact, thus avoiding any possibility of real thematic content. Contact is a rather extreme example, because it is brimming with conceptual possibilities that Zemeckis has no idea what to do with when the third act comes around. I’ll admit that Back to the Future follows through on its basic concept with a structured storyline (one many people seem to find intriguing), but the two sequels (especially Part III) seem to exist only because the first was popular. What Lies Beneath is another exception, since it doesn’t really have content or concept – it was made because Zemeckis was bored waiting for Tom Hanks to lose weight between the first and second parts of Cast Away.
Despite its more obvious charms, this lack of empty execution is what makes Who Framed Roger Rabbit such a special film. It’s absolutely a practice in high concept – what if classic cartoon characters were real and living in post-war Hollywood – but it’s also full of thematic content and runs on a strongly-structured plot that also happens to work as a compelling murder mystery. Based on the director’s track record and the sheer quantity of production/studio influences, Who Framed Roger Rabbit could be excused for being a bit thin in the substance department. An entire committee of vested studio/franchise interests – including personalities as big as Steven Spielberg, Michael Eisner, and Jeffrey Katzenberg – held the film in development hell for something like seven years. Of all the movies ever released, this one had every excuse to be a typically empty Robert Zemeckis production.
Zemeckis and his credited screenwriters, Jeffrey Price & Peter S. Seaman (working from Gary K. Wolf’s novel, Who Censored Roger Rabbit and with God knows how many script doctors) don’t sugar-coat the period-appropriate detective story tropes or the sexually-charged state of era animation. Disney has since censored some of the more ‘offensive’ moments (yes, all the censorship applies to this new release, so collectors should hang on to those VHS and LaserDisc copies), but it doesn’t change the fact that the film was released to wild praise and huge box-office as political correctness approached its popular apex. Zemeckis didn’t approach the material as family entertainment – he approached it as a truthful celebration of American period filmmaking, both live-action and animated. He took more of his cues from Howard Hawks, John Huston, and even Roman Polanski than Steven Spielberg or other ‘80s Disney animated products. The plotting is complex and not a lot of screen time is wasted explaining the context of the period setting for the children watching (as one of those children, I never had trouble accepting these conventions and wouldn’t consider myself a particularly bright kid). Zemeckis’ tonal choices are heavy, even mean spirited at times, giving a palpable sense of danger to otherwise winsome subject matter.
The second unifying element of Robert Zemeckis’ mediocre film resume is technical achievement for the sake of technical achievement. Like a junior George Lucas, Zemeckis is constantly guilty of building films around special effects processes (the only difference being that Lucas is even more obsessed with the idea of recreating classic tropes and universe-building). On an artistic level, experimentation with new technology is actually admirable (though more so in Lucas’ case, since he’s experimenting with his own money), but there’s rarely a good reason to leave an audience bored and cold. The worst offenders are his three motion-capture movies – The Polar Express, Beowulf, and A Christmas Carol. None of these movies have any valid reason to exist outside of experimentation with new digital toys. The lack of content is actually sort of charming in the case of Beowulf, which plays off like a state-of-the-art Heavy Metal reboot, including all of the adolescent obsessions with sex and violence, but the two Christmas movies are brutal samples of the flashy soullessness of motion-capture done wrong.
Again, Who Framed Roger Rabbit stands apart. There’s no question that it was largely made for the sake of technical achievement (along with the gimmick of getting classic animation characters from different studios onscreen together). It’s interesting to note that the integration of animation and live-action was so successful that it was treated as a unique accomplishment by audiences – as if Disney hadn’t been praised for pushing the boundaries of animation/live-action hybrids since the 1920s. It’s understandable, though – the blending of animation and live-action in Who Framed Roger Rabbit is likely the height of the art, at least before computers became a major part of the equation with movies like Space Jam and Looney Tunes: Back in Action (both prime examples of the technology over-taking substance, especially Space Jam). For however dynamic the medium combination was in films like Mary Poppins, Zemeckis changed the curve by refusing to lock his camera down onto a 2D plane. The camera movement isn’t so excessive that it draws attention to itself, but moves in a manner that accounts for the three dimensions of space. We take this for granted in normal live-action movies and it helps a lot with the subconscious suspension of disbelief. The animation staff, headed by animation director Richard Williams, took on huge challenges to keep the animated characters moving in this 3D space while still drawing the least amount of attention to their technique. At the same time, the animation maintains the charming impurities of the hand-drawn technique. Within minutes, it’s very easy to ignore the mechanics of the film and embrace the animated and real world actors as equals.
The final unifying fact in Zemeckis’ films are his lead characters, which are often simply defined by outstanding characteristics and unified in their lack of arc. As stated, Forrest Gump’s homogenized personality is more or less the point of the film, but what about Marty McFly, the women of Death Becomes Her, or the kid from The Polar Express? Not a lot defines these people outside the core facts that fit into a 30 second TV spot. Once again, Who Framed Roger Rabbit is a notable exception. Eddie Valiant’s arc is, admittedly, pretty simple and obvious – he’s a depressed drunk and a shadow of his old self, but finds salvation when he decides to defend Roger. Eddie’s character is contrasted with most of Zemeckis’ other characters through the distinction of choosing to help Roger. It goes against his character to help a toon and, more importantly, he isn’t exactly forced into it. He isn’t stranded for years on a desert island with Roger, Roger’s death won’t erase his existence, and Roger isn’t holding a coveted treasure map. Zemeckis’ work with actors is always solid in both dramatic and comedic capacities, so it’s not surprising that his Who Framed Roger Rabbit cast is so strong, but their capacity to work within a stylistically strange place that requires them to act period appropriate and interact with invisible actors is still very impressive. Bob Hoskins had been coming off an Academy Award nomination for his performance in Neil Jordon’s Mona Lisa, but was still largely unknown to American audiences and earned his stardom here with a performance that is both beloved and entirely underrated.
Disney has definitely dumped some of their Touchstone and Buena Vista content on the Blu-ray format without so much as a spit-polish, leading to some low expectations of unmolested and natural, but largely disappointing transfers. Who Framed Roger Rabbit is so popular and beloved that it required some kind of restoration (the box art says it has been ‘Digitally Restored’). The older Vista Series DVD release was already a welcome upgrade over the original non-anamorphic release and this 1.85:1, 1080p Blu-ray is another step beyond. First of all, I’m pretty sure most viewers are going to notice some grain. This is good news, because it means Disney hasn’t DNR’d the hell out of the VistaVision image, which I imagine was a temptation, based on the fact that Who Framed Roger Rabbit is half cartoon. The grain is also pretty consistent, even between the varying animated and live-action elements. Viewers still questioning the frequency of grain should note that Who Framed Roger Rabbit was shot on VistaVision, an film stock that was already pretty outdated in 1988. The choice of stock was part of giving the film an older overall look (though VistaVision is also often used for special effects sequences to this day and there’s certainly no lack of special effects in Who Framed Roger Rabbit).
Details are definitely, though not mind-blowingly sharper than the Vista Series DVD without any of the edge enhancement or tiny blocking effects (the animation set against live action does lead to some haloes, but these are unrelated to the haloes caused by compression). For the most part the detail increase isn’t problematic for the animated effects either. The sharper element separation reveals some of the flicker/shimmer of the hand drawn elements, but the blends are still pretty convincing. A lot of the film’s surprisingly dark mood is due to the efforts of cinematographer Dean Cundy’s dark and moody photography. Cundy, who had proven he could deal in icy, expressionistic horror (John Carpenter’s Halloween and The Thing) and poppy comedy fair ( Back to the Future, Big Trouble in Little China), hadn’t really dealt in something particularly Noir-ish at the time (the one possible exception being Psycho II, which is more naturally treated) which makes Who Framed Roger Rabbit a nice piece of artistic texture in his overall filmography. Cundy’s colour choices (captured on outdated Metrocolor) are a delightful contrast to what one would assume animation would entail. Besides his long, dark shadows, which look great here, he does cool stuff with a slightly more inviting version of Gordon Willis’ Godfather palette. These browns are often and obviously contrasted with the more vibrant colours of the toons, though, even here, the film holds back in an effort to make an even bigger contrast between the city and Toon Town. Toon Town is meant to be a Technicolor rainbow and it very much is. Black levels are a bit iffy – for the most part, these are pure without sacrificing finer detail, but there are some sequences where they’re either crushed or particularly weak and grayish. The overall contrast is keyed a little high throughout the film as well and this blows out some of the whites beyond what they looked like on the DVD release.
This particular 5.1 remix of the film’s original Dolby Surround mix has been around for quite some time. Besides the fact that we’re able to hear it uncompressed, thanks to this disc’s DTS-HD Master Audio codec, there doesn’t appear to be any notable difference between this track and those original 5.1 remixes. There’s nothing immediately or irreparably wrong with this track, but it does show its age more than similar releases. The dialogue track remains well-centered, but is a bit tinny and inconsistent from scene to scene. On average, the vocal effects are sharp, but these off moments are few and far between. The ambient environment is pretty dry for the most part, likely in an effort to create a greater contrast between the real and animated worlds. Real world effects are mostly relegated to the center channel with a couple of echo effects that find their way into the stereo and surround channels. There’s plenty of layering within these effects, but I am a bit surprised they weren’t spread out a bit more. This isn’t really a complaint, since I’d prefer original tracks weren’t monkeyed with in at all, and because the aural palette opens up so wide when Eddie journeys into Toon Town, the differentiation is appreciated. Daffy and Donald’s piano duel is a surprisingly rich moment for the track, including a nice stereo spread between the two instruments, rich, realistic piano sounds, and strong movement effects as the two characters attack each other. Alan Silvestri’s score could perhaps do with a bit of a volume bounce, but it sits well in the stereo channels when it’s required to take control over dialogue or action.
The bad news is that Disney has not included any new, Blu-ray exclusive extras with this release. The good news is that they haven’t neglected the already perfectly acceptable, though not outstanding Vista Series DVD extras. These start with a group commentary from Zemeckis, producer Frank Marshal, associate producer Steve Sharkey, animation supervisor Ken Ralston, and writers Jeffery Price and Peter S. Seaman. The ‘full house’ aspect of the track causes very few problems with loss of focus as participants speak over each other; rather, the grouping helps keep the subject matter varied and lively. Any downtime is brief and anyone not already incredibly well-versed in the making of the film will love the wealth of information.
I suppose the HD re-mastery of the three Roger Rabbit animated shorts sort of counts as a Blu-ray exclusive. The shorts – Tummy Trouble (8:10, HD), Roller Coaster Rabbit (8:10, HD), and Trail Mix-Up (9:10, HD) – all look colourful and clean (without losing that valuable grain) and include 5.1 sound mixes (compressed with a Dolby Digital codec). The carry-over extras also include the Who Made Roger Rabbit behind the scenes featurette (11:00, SD), a completed deleted scene with introductions (5:30, SD), a before and after comparison reel (3:10, SD), Toon Stand-Ins featurette (3:10, SD), Behind the Ears featurette (36:40, SD), On Set! featurette (4:50, HD), a subtitle factoid mode ( Toontown Confidential), and trailers for other Disney releases.
Please note that the included DVD copy is presented in 1.33:1 pan and scan, not anamorphic 1.85:1, as listed on the back of the box. In addition, the Spanish and French subtitles do not work.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit still works and is still Robert Zemeckis’ best film by a relatively large margin, in my unpopular opinion. It’s a joy to revisit on this restored Blu-ray disc. There’s a bit of an issue with contrast levels (some crush, some minor blooming), but the overall presentation is definitely an upgrade over the already good-looking Vista Series DVD. The audio is also quite fine and the extras include all the stuff previously available on the Vista Series disc. New extras, like a retrospective documentary or maybe even one of those Pixar-style roundtable discussions, would be welcome, but aren’t required.
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and the Vista Series DVD and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Some material may not be suitable for children
Release Date: 12th March 2013
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English, Dolby Digital 5.1 French
Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish
Extras: Filmmakers' Commentary, Roger Rabbit Shorts, Who Made Roger Rabbit, Toontown Confidential Trivia Track, Deleted Scene, Before and After Comparison, Behind the Ears: The True Story of Roger Rabbit, Toon Stand-Ins, On Set, DVD Copy
Easter Egg: No
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Cast: Bob Hoskins, Christopher Lloyd, Charles Fleischer, Stubby Kaye, Joanna Cassidy
Genre: Adventure, Comedy, Crime, Film-Noir and Mystery
Length: 104 minutes
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