Touchstone and Beyond: A History of Disney’s “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”

Touchstone Pictures and the Walt Disney Company released a cultural phenomenon on June 22, 1988. Who Framed Roger Rabbit was an instant classic that traded on the framework of past animated Disney films and noir detective thrillers. Directed by Robert Zemeckis, this hybrid live-action and animated film would be like nothing else in the Disney library at the time or in the future.

The Movie

The film begins with a jazzy opening on a cartoon world where we meet Roger Rabbit who is looking after Baby Herman. Herman gets into all kinds of trouble, and Roger desperately tries to protect the baby. The scene ends with a cut being called by a director who is angry at Roger for not seeing stars when the fridge falls on him. This is not a regular world that the audience has joined.

We are in Hollywood and the year is 1947. In this reality, animated toons walk and talk in the real world with humans. Observing the mess that Roger Rabbit has caused on the set is Private Eye, Eddie Valiant, played by Bob Hoskins. Valiant is there to take a job from studio head R.K. Maroon who wants Valiant to take some surveillance photos of Roger’s wife Jessica.

As the film unveils before the audience, we see all kinds of familiar characters from Dumbo flying to Maroon’s office window, to the Ink and Paint Club where Eddie uses the password “Walt Sent Me” to access the exclusive club. Who Framed Roger Rabbit isn’t a collection of only Disney characters, on stage we see Daffy Duck and Donald Duck in a dueling pianos contest that results in both mallards being dragged off the stage.

Valiant gets his compromising pictures of Jessica Rabbit with Marvin Acme, the owner of Toontown, home of all the toons, and reports back to Maroon to show Roger the truth. Roger is livid and crashes through the office window disappearing into the night. Valiant returns to his office, a beatdown shell of himself, and we quickly learn that he is a drunk with a past.

Eddie used to work with his brother Teddy. The cantankerous Eddie wasn’t always this way. At one point he and his brother were LAPD officers who went into business for themselves. A short montage over the dusted abandoned desk of the deceased Teddy shows the audience that these two private investigators were friends to all toons. The Valiant brothers foiled the kidnapping of Huey, Dewy, and Louie, and helped clear Goofy of espionage charges. But that was a long time ago.

A toon killed his brother, and Eddie has never been the same. The ace investigator is a drunk, who may get redeemed by this case. He awakes to find that Marvin Acme has been killed and the police believe Roger did it. To Eddie he doesn’t care, he hates toons, but quickly he is drawn into the narrative, and unable to vacate his role.

Roger comes to him for help, and sooner then Eddie would like, he is protecting the fugitive hare, and battling with the detestable Judge Doom played by Christopher Lloyd. This man is the jurist for Toontown, and he has found a way to kill a toon. With a combination of turpentine and other chemicals, Doom displays his ‘Dip’ and the magnitude of his cruelty by murdering a sweet little animated shoe in front of Valiant. Judge Doom is a formidable foe.

After returning to Toontown, Eddie learns the truth, and works to save Roger and Jessica from Judge Doom. The movie ends with a fitting, “That’s all folks” from Porky Pig, and the movie goer is left to think about this amazing combination of animated properties from Disney and Warner Bros, and how this came together in 1988.


The Best

Who Framed Roger Rabbit is so many films wrapped up in one. From the animated wonder of seeing so many characters together on screen, to the crime thriller that this film is, and the way that prejudice and seclusion is played out in the film is truly remarkable. The movie has a lot happening on every single frame. The idea of meshing this toon world and the real world together as one could only come out of the 1980’s and the fact that this thirty-one-year-old film still manages to hold up is just one of the many reasons that Who Framed Roger Rabbit is a classic.

Bob Hoskins would not be the likely choice of Eddie Valiant. He wasn’t a big-name star for the North American box office, but he is perfect as the drunken depressed Valiant. Not only does Hoskins convey the cantankerous misery that Eddie feels at the start of the film, but he is the perfect actor to bring emotion to the soured man. Hoskins is the perfect partner for the real star of the show, Charles Fleischer’s Roger Rabbit.

Charles Fleisher is the most valuable player of the film. His voiceover as Roger Rabbit is what makes the animated portion of the film work in so many ways. Fleisher can convey laughter, love, humility, outrage, and joy in his voice through the drawn Roger. Fleischer also manages to make the audience love Roger, even though he is annoying and constantly causes problems for everyone around. How could anyone stay mad at Roger when he often talks about how all that he wants to do is make people laugh. To Roger, if he can make someone laugh than he has accomplished something great.

It’s hard to laugh when you are as depressed as Eddie Valiant. Thanks to Roger, Eddie comes out of the gloom that has enveloped him for too long. He has a chance to live again with his girlfriend Delores. His brother may have died that day in Toontown, but Eddie didn’t, and thanks to Roger Eddie finally realized it.

The cameos from all the well-known cartoon figures, like Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig and Yosemite Sam are just the start of the walk on characters. We meet Dumbo early on, but also Brer Bear, the Reluctant Dragon, The Three Little Pigs, The Big Bad Wolf, Betty Boop, and even the flowers and trees from ‘Flowers and Trees’. Everywhere you look, fans will see a familiar face in this story.

The Worst:

Jessica Rabbit is not the worst part about the story. In fact, she is a great character who is only looking out for her husband and tries to protect him. She is courageous, and willing to do what is necessary to save her husband, including hitting him over the head with a frying pan to keep him safe in the trunk of her car.

The problem is that Jessica’s true characteristics are lost in the glamour of her character design. She is the femme fatale, with a bosomy chest, and sex appeal that catches the eyes of animated and human characters. The gags are played up, and in some cases off her body, and to this viewer, she is a pivotal character in making the narrative flow, but only gets viewed as window dressing. If this film was in production today, I doubt we would see the body type that was created for Jessica Rabbit.

Fun Facts

  • Producer Steven Spielberg originally wanted Harrison Ford to play Eddie Valiant. His price was too high for the budget
  • The film was greenlit when the production budget dropped to 30 million dollars. But due to delays, the final budget ended up being at 70 million dollars.
  • This is Touchstone’s only live-action/animated hybrid film
  • The movie is based on the 1981 Gary K. Wolf book Who Censored Roger Rabbit
  • Rumors of sequel are constantly popping up on the internet. Director Robert Zemeckis has said there is a script for a continuation in the story of Roger Rabbit, but Disney has little appetite for it. Perhaps it would be the enormous cost in modern dollars that holds back the greenlighting of the sequel.
  • Voice acting legends Mel Blanc and Clarence Nash, are credited with roles on the film
  • Roger Rabbit’s Car Toon Spin based on the characters from this film, is a popular attraction in Disneyland’s Toontown area
  • The film broke the record for having the longest end credits sequence
  • The movie has over 150 preexisting animated characters on screen
  • Charles Fleischer dressed up in a Roger Rabbit suit during shooting and delivered all his lines with Hoskins during filming
  • Christopher Lloyd did not blink on-screen when filmed as Judge Doom
  • The film won four academy awards at the 1989 Academy Awards
  • The film currently sits at a 97% rating on Rotten Tomatoes

See It/Skip It?

See It. The fact that Judge Doom is trying to destroy Toontown so that he can build freeways that will span gas stations and billboards is hilarious and a sad commentary on the state of the general expansion of cities when they grow. What beautiful wonderful things are lost, in the drive to force commuting on a freeway.

This film was put into production under the leadership of CEO Michael Eisner and President Frank Wells. The studio had made many hit films under the Touchstone Pictures label, and as Eisner says in his own autobiography Work in Progress, “Because Roger Rabbit was sophisticated and sexy, we had hoped to distance it from the Disney brand by releasing it under the Touchstone label.” Eisner’s intention fell flat, as just a week before the movie premiered Newsweek magazine ran a story about what a gamble the film was for Disney.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit was also one of the first big successes for the company in cross-promotion. They had retained all rights to the merchandise while giving Zemeckis and Spielberg a significant percentage of the profits from the film. It was the merchandising rights that Disney saw as lucrative. They could create a whole new character for the theme parks, and the public reaction of Toontown in the film is what helped inspire the creation of the Disneyland area called Toontown.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit is a cinema spectacle. It came about at a time in the 80’s when chances were taken that would never be allowed today. Sadly, we will probably never see the combination of Warner Bros and Disney characters on screen like this again. Unless Disney buys Time Warner Media.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit is available on Disney + with some incredible extra features. Included with the film you can also watch a deleted scene where Eddie has a pig head painted on to his body, a behind the scenes documentary called “Behind the Ears: The True Story of Roger Rabbit” as well as the three Roger Rabbit and Baby Herman cartoons “Roller Coaster Rabbit,” “Trail Mix Up,” and “Tummy Trouble.”

Director: Robert Zemeckis

Production Company: Amblin Entertainment/ Touchstone Pictures

Principal Cast:

  • Bob Hoskins as Eddie Valiant
  • Christopher Lloyd as Judge Doom
  • Joanna Cassidy as Delores
  • Charles Fleischer as Roger Rabbit/ Benny the Cab/ Greasy/ Psycho
  • Kathleen Turner as Jessica Rabbit

Release Date: June 22, 1988

Budget: $70 million  

Box Office Gross Domestic = $156, 542, 370

Cumulative Worldwide Gross = $329,803, 958

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Bill Gowsell
Bill Gowsell has loved all things Disney since his first family trip to Walt Disney World in 1984. Since he began writing for Laughing Place in 2014, Bill has specialized in covering the Rick Riordan literary universe, a retrospective of the Touchstone Pictures movie library, and a variety of other Disney related topics. When he is not spending time with his family, Bill can be found at the bottom of a lake . . . scuba diving