Above everything else, Who Framed Roger Rabbit was a very savvy extension of the Disney brand, from a moment - the late 1980s, before the revival sparked by The Little Mermaid - when the corporation could have been forgiven for packing away its felt tips for good. The masterstroke of Robert Zemeckis's film was to retreat to the Hollywood of the 40s and 50s, the last time the studios had a first-rate roster of animated talent to populate their movies with; and so we find Dumbo as an on-loan contract player, Betty Boop doing the rounds as a cigarette girl, and those two rival ducks of animation, Daffy and Donald, sharing a squawking piano duet. Into this world stumbles boozy, washed-up studio detective Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins), put on the case of Maroon Pictures' second biggest star after the eponymous rabbit is accused of murdering the head of the rival ACME studio. The cited motive is jealousy, but - like a PG-rated Jake Gittes - Valiant grows convinced conspiracy is afoot; his investigation isn't helped by the fact his client, an unlikely sidekick and now Toontown's most wanted, is determined to make the sourpussed flatfoot laugh.
A Looney Tunes pastiche generates more entertainment in the first five minutes than most contemporary blockbusters offer in two-and-a-half hours, but also sets a high bar for the live-action business; you may wish a little more of the cartoon's wit had seeped into the subsequent feature. Who Framed Roger Rabbit also stands as one of the first examples of what became a movie commonplace: a mainstream entertainment where the villain embodies the same corporate interests that gave life (or at least money) to the film itself. Christopher Lloyd's Judge Doom is intent on reducing Toontown to "billboards, wonderful billboards", presumably of the kind Disney now routinely sling up to promote their school-holiday releases; as it seemed at the time, there's still an air of misjudgement about the finale of what's ostensibly a family film, requiring the bad guy to first fall under the wheels of a steamroller and then (as in the 18-rated Robocop) finished off in a chemical spill. (Such peculiarities of tone are rife in Zemeckis's biggest hits: the flirtation with incest in Back to the Future, the depiction of Jenny's sex life in Forrest Gump. You get the impression he'd have developed into a very different filmmaker had he not been landed at an early stage with the reputation of Hollywood's go-to guy for wholesome, PG-13 success stories.) The animation - overseen by Richard Williams - is strong, but what increasingly holds the attention nowadays is Hoskins's excellent work in one of the toughest acting assignments of the decade: remember this was back in the late 1980s, before performing in front of blue or green screens had become a standard feature of the film actor's day. A few scenes with flesh-and-blood love interest Joanna Cassidy aside, Hoskins ventures into uncharted territory here, and never betrays the fact - even when handcuffed to a hyperactive bunny, being tossed around by a gorilla, or having to act out the hots for a female cartoon.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit is available on multi-format DVD through Disney.