Alan Smithee Podcast 67: Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988, Robert Zemeckis) / Cool World (1992, Ralph Bakshi)

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Will cartoons ever live in peace with man? Animation is the most degraded art form in history, a miracle of filmmaking which has lived in the entertainment ghetto so long that the Japanese surpassed America’s product output years ago. On native soil, cartoons either shuck and jive for the kiddies in movie theaters or prattle listlessly for jaded ironic young adults on late night TV. The stigma of cartoon characters as harmless subhumans who can only entertain is an old one, while the alluring stench of danger that wafts around “cartoons for adults” was more recently spewed by the resurgence of animation at the dawn of the 90s, embodied by The Simpsons and The Ren and Stimpy Show. This episode of An Alan Smithee Podcast dives headfirst into the silent cold war of animation’s struggle for legitimacy with two films that straddled the line between animated and live-action entertainment, with varying results.

The use of cartoons as a metaphor for black entertainers marginalized within mainstream entertainment was extrapolated upon by author Gary K. Wolf in his 1981 novel Who Censored Roger Rabbit? Although cartoons and humans had been matched onscreen before, the movie rights to Wolf’s novel represented the bold possibility of a feature length collusion between the two. Robert Zemeckis, in his first of many obsessions with technological animated feats to come, seized upon the opportunity and released the (apparently minimally faithful) film version Who Framed Roger Rabbit in 1988. Roger Rabbit was a bonafide cultural phenomenon at the time, although later films inspired by its technological feats were a lot less artistically compelling.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit was produced by Disney, and as such, although it contains a few cameos from cartoon characters of other studios it rather treats the medium of animation the way the Oscars treats the medium of film – that every contributor to the form has been part of one big happy tapestry and the very idea of itself deserves celebration for all the laughs and tears and tears of laughter we’ve enjoyed. That, and a horrifically malformed “sexy” cartoon woman named Jessica Rabbit who was probably the biggest factor in Disney taking their name off the opening credits and making it a “Touchstone Pictures” film.

The first and most infamous of Roger Rabbit inspired movies was, ironically, directed by an animator whose name was synonymous with “adult animation” – Ralph Bakshi, director of the first X-rated animated movie Fritz the Cat and other transgressive animated features in the 1970s. Just before Roger Rabbit he had given future Ren & Stimpy creator John Kricfalusi (“John K”) his big break on the animated TV series The New Adventures of Mighty Mouse and with the recent renewal of mainstream interest in animation, the opportunity to return to feature filmmaking seemed like a great idea. Bakshi pitched Cool World to Paramount Pictures as the story of a cartoonist who enters a cartoon world and has sex with a cartoon girl, resulting in a half-cartoon half-human daughter who vengefully seeks him out in the real world to kill him – a horror film.

That was what was meant to be, until the Bakshi showed up on the first day of shooting to be handed a completely rewritten script in which there were now two human leads in the cartoon world, and rather than any horrific half-breed cartoon/human child, the plot now concerned the cartoon girl’s efforts to become human by sleeping with her cartoonist creator.

The resulting film is a giant disaster in which the convoluted metaphysical logistics are seemingly being written by the screenwriters minutes before the scenes are filmed, with hacky genre dialogue being peppered atop everything to explain the randomness – like the cartoon girl Holli Would referring to her human cartoonist’s visitation as “just a mindslip.” There’s also head-slappingly cheesy lines which contradict whatever internal logic the writers were pretending to create, like when a cartoon person says “I don’t give a doodle” despite the fact that the cartoon denizens of “Cool World” refer to themselves as “Doodles” and nobody goes around saying we don’t “give a human.” And that’s even before you can begin analyzing the wretchedness of a Kim Basinger performance.

The concept of a movie revolving entirely around having sex with cartoons is tailor made for 13 year olds (the oldest children who could see Cool World unaccompanied by parents) but the concept was much better delivered in the Fred Olen Ray joint from the same year, Evil Toons.

All this, plus digs at Steven Spielberg, TV cartoon writers and a rare kind word for Roger Ebert in this episode of An Alan Smithee Podcast!

NEXT EPISODE: MUPPETS SPECIAL! THE MUPPET MOVIE (1979, JAMES FRAWLEY) & MUPPETS FROM SPACE (1999, TIM HILL)