Roger Rabbit was the first movie to acknowledge the nostalgia element in cartoon fandom. What I mean by that is that cartoons had usually been thought of as “timeless”; the repackaging of Warner Brothers cartoons–for television and in compilation films–usually presented the cartoons as belonging to no particular time or place, endlessly recyclable entertainment aimed mostly at kids. Roger Rabbit, with its ’40s setting, presented classic cartoon characters as belonging specifically to that period, part of a genre that had vanished just like the film noir genre to which Bob Hoskins’ Eddie Valiant belongs. It acknowledged that cartoon fans weren’t necessarily kids, and that what made the old cartoons great were the elements that had been sucked out of them by TV broadcasting (the violence, the political incorrectness)….
I’ve never seen this put better, which is probably another way of saying that it tallies precisely with my own experience.
Prior to the release in 1988 of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, I no longer watched animated cartoons save on the rare occasions when I found myself in a hotel room on a Saturday morning with nothing to do. Seeing Roger Rabbit reminded me–forcibly, immediately–of how much I’d loved those old cartoons, and also got me thinking for the first time about why I loved them. Never before had it occurred to me that they might possibly be a serious form of cinematic art, stylistically continuous with the great live-action screen comedies of the classic period of American filmmaking. Until then I’d simply thought of them as charming commodities, even though my memories of One Froggy Evening or Bully for Bugs were at least as vivid and accessible as my memories of, say, His Girl Friday (more so, in fact, since they were a part of my youth in the way that live-action screwball comedy was not). What Roger Rabbit did was put a frame around those memories and make them available for critical reconsideration.
The next step was up to me, and I took it with a vengeance: I started reading such books about non-Disney animation as were then available, and seeking out the uncensored collections of Warner Bros. and MGM cartoons that had only just started to appear on videocassette. So did a lot of other people, which is one reason why the various all-animation cable networks now make a point of telecasting classic cartoons seven days a week. Sixteen years later, I know at least as much about animation as I do about any other branch of filmmaking, and take it every bit as seriously. I even own a cel set-up from The Cat Concerto, which hangs on my kitchen wall right around the corner from my Neil Welliver woodcut.
As for Who Framed Roger Rabbit, I recently watched it on DVD, and found it as smart and funny as I did when it was released. It’s more than just a staggeringly well-executed series of special-effects gimmicks driven by nostalgia: it’s aesthetically compelling in its own right. If it hadn’t been so good, I don’t think it would have rekindled my love of cartoons, or anyone else’s. And if you haven’t seen it recently, or at all, I suggest you do so. Of all the films released in 1988, I wouldn’t be surprised if it ends up being the one that’s best remembered in 2038.