In these sequel happy times, why are we not seeing more of Roger Rabbit? What has befallen this could be star? Martin Dr. Toon Goodman investigates.
In this era of sequels virtually every film to hit the $100 million mark is lined up for a II, and in some cases a III...but not always. One of the most popular, profitable and revolutionary animated films ever produced sits forlornly on the sidelines awaiting its progeny. In 1988 the Disney and Spielberg empires joined forces to produce a bizarre and wonderful piece of work called Who Framed Roger Rabbit. This well-known film brought its producers four Academy Awards, $154 million and the satisfaction of triggering a nationwide revival of interest in animation. Part animated feature, part live-action film noir, all entertainment, Who Framed Roger Rabbit made animated stars out of a sputtering rabbit named Roger and his mammiferous mate Jessica as they led live-action detective Eddie Valiant through sunny Los Angeles and the insane asylum known as Toontown in a desperate chase. The goal: clearing the rabbit of a spurious murder charge. Critics were wowed, both Disney and Spielbergs Amblin Productions were enriched, and audiences were left p-p-p-pleading for more. Yet, to this day they continue to plead in vain, innocent victims of corporate politics, personal pettiness and doom-laden decision-making. As far as yours truly has been able to piece the sorry tale together, it goes something like this:
The Birth of a Star
Disney CEO Michael Eisner, you see, had become enamored of an old project once pushed by former exec Ron Miller; the adaptation of Gary Wolfs novel Who Censored Roger Rabbit. Eisner was looking to put his stamp on a major animation project and believed that the novel would translate into a blockbuster film. Before coming to Disney, Michael Eisner had been head of production at Paramount. While there he had once helped out Steven Spielberg and George Lucas on a little project of theirs back in 1982, a faux 40s swashbuckler called Raiders of the Lost Ark. This film helped cement Spielbergs position as one of the most popular directors in America. Since Raiders also turned a buck or two, Spielberg was happy to return the favor a few years later after Eisner had gone on to the House of Mouse and realized he needed help to make Roger Rabbit a reality.
Spielberg was by now one of Hollywoods major players and he contributed more than mere moolah; he was instrumental in having other studios agree to lend their animated characters to the effort. Lucas, for his part, lent Disney the might of his SFX arsenal (Industrial Light & Magic). With the back-scratching now complete, the inevitable army of lawyers convened to work out agreements regarding the profit-sharing. When the last briefcase clicked shut, Disney and Amblin held 50/50 rights to box-office take, licensing, merchandise, theme-park attractions and everything on down to Rogers fleas. The Big Deal included the making of any sequel, although no one foresaw how contentious this would become.
As production continued on the film now known as Who Framed Roger Rabbit, director Robert Zemeckis and animation supervisor Richard Williams emerged as a secondary tier of stars flourishing within the vision of Eisner and Spielberg. Roger, Jessica, Baby Herman and the venerable denizens of ToonTown were the third wave, the one that engulfed the nation and made toons cool again. People clamored to know how the SFX were achieved, and more importantly, started learning about the classic characters whose cameos made Roger Rabbit such a treat. People who did not know Tex Avery from Tex Ritter began to watch Averys films after articles described the late, great directors influence on the movies original characters. It is probably no exaggeration to say that this film was the seminal trigger for the Disney revival and the emergence of entities like the Cartoon Network, to cite two examples. Oh, lest we forget, the movie finished second in box-office take that year only to the Tom Cruise/Dustin Hoffman vehicle Rain Man.
Money To Be Made
Never ones to waste an opportunity, Eisner and Spielberg hopped on their manic bunnys newfound stardom. In what would become their last full act of cooperation, Disney/Amblin turned out a 1989 theatrical short called Tummy Trouble featuring Roger, Jessica, Baby Herman, and (in what would become a running gag in future shorts) Tex Averys Droopy. Eisner presented this hyperkinetic short as the opening act for Honey, I Shrunk The Kids, and when both movie and short drew enthusiastic reviews it couldnt be denied that profits were boosted by Rogers return to the big screen. A second short was announced and it appeared that fans would have their fill of Roger and his toonmates for years if not decades to come. They were to be disappointed. It was, in fact, that next short that apparently began the ruin of Roger Rabbit.
Eisner and Spielbergs Amblin outfit were both busy in Disneys behalf in 1990; Disneys Dick Tracy was being touted as one of the years blockbusters, and Spielberg was producing a creepy farce called Arachnophobia for Disneys Hollywood Pictures. Roger Rabbit was busy too, starring in Roller Coaster Rabbit, the aforementioned second short. He was soon pulled into a raucous tug-of war that Avery himself would have been thrilled to animate: Eisner and Spielberg each wanted the short to open for (and hopefully boost) their respective films. Since both films were under the Disney aegis, Eisner won the battle. Dick Tracy and Arachnophobia lost the war in any case. These unmemorable movies faded from sight but Eisner and Spielberg would never entirely repair the breach caused by their dispute. Still, the legal agreements concerning Roger held in place.
It seemed that angering Steven Spielberg was a losing proposition; the once-and-future wunderkind allowed Disney to practically complete a third (and as-yet unseen) Roger Rabbit short called Hare In My Soup before objecting vehemently to the cartoon and issuing a veto. Spielberg also proved contemptuous in regard to the script for the long-proposed sequel or, more accurately prequel. Scriptwriter Nat Mauldin had fashioned a screenplay called Toon Platoon, later renamed Who Discovered Roger Rabbit. This work-in-progress featured Rogers search for his mother, Jessicas unwitting employment by Nazi spies, and Rogers entry into show biz. Spielberg was not impressed and vetoed the script but did send out a peace feeler; Disney was allowed to script and complete a third Roger Rabbit short entitled Trail Mix-Up in 1993.
A Second Chance?
Eisner may possibly have responded by authorizing a rewrite of the script in 1997 by two writers who had a history of working on Spielberg-backed animation productions. Sherri Stoner and Deanna Oliver had been on the team that produced Tiny Toons and Animaniacs (they later collaborated on an animated Casper the Ghost revival). Stoner and Oliver jettisoned the Third Reichian subplot in the original script and turned it into the story of Rogers inadvertent rise to stardom on Broadway and the silver screen. The subplot about the search for Rogers mother was retained. The script was a big hit in the corridors of Disney; Alan Menken wrote five songs for the film and offered his services as executive producer. Hot animator Eric Goldberg was the front-runner for animation supervisor and in accordance, he redesigned Roger as an eager young rabbit headed for stardom.
Eisner sweetened the pot by offering two of Spielbergs old Amblin associates, Frank Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy, a chance to co-produce the prequel. Spielberg was by now one-third of the Spielberg-Katzenberg-Geffen triumvirate that represented Disneys most dangerous threat to animated hegemony, but the dean of DreamWorks finally relented and gave the go-ahead. (Although colleague Jeffrey Katzenberg had been fired by Eisner and held no great love for his ex-employer at the Mouse, the Roger Rabbit agreements did not include Katzenberg and were thus beyond his influence.) Test footage for Who Discovered Roger Rabbit was shot sometime during 1998 at the Disney animation unit in Florida; the results were an unwieldy mix of CGI, traditional animation and live-action that pleased no one. A second test run had the toons wholly converted to CGI; everything clicked and it appeared that nothing could stand in Rogers way except the budget.
The Last Sunset
The Mouses bean counters, receiving the news that perhaps 80% of the film would require CGI, put the projected budget for the film well over $100 million. Eisners feet grew colder than Chilly Willys at this prospect and he may have been wondering whether a prequel twelve years after the fact was worth it. Eisner did not ponder this for very long; the money earmarked for Rogers redux was apparently channeled into the production of a film that became Pearl Harbor. Interestingly enough, the budget for this film was reportedly $135-$140 million. This was in no way Disneys last production with a budget that could have put the Roger Rabbit sequel across. Disney directors Ron Clements and John Musker had long wanted to make a sci-fi update of Robert Louis Stevensons Treasure Island; after a decade of frustration the duo appealed to Roy Disney himself, and Treasure Planet was given a green light. Despite an eventual cost of close to $180 million the space-faring saga sailed into a black hole of public indifference; Barren Asteroid might have been a more fitting title given the $38 million that straggled back to Disney.
And Roger Rabbit? At last traceable report the prequel has been taken off the production schedule and is nowhere to be seen on the radar. At the time of this writing, a special anniversary two-disc DVD set with a plethora of extras is about to go on sale, and this appears to be as good as it will get. There was a time when Roger Rabbit and his cohorts were a hop away from toon immortality, poised at that indefinably magical moment when the audiences of America and the world clamor for more and in doing so transform an animated character from an ink-and-paint whimsy to a beloved icon. Rogers tragedy is analogous to the radiant child stricken with leukemia, or the frisky young moppet who skips out into the street unmindful of the drunk driver careening around the corner; an unfair death just as life was beginning to reveal its promise. One of the premises underlying Who Framed Roger Rabbit was that toons entertained the populace but were second-class life forms subject to discrimination at the hands of the very humans who enjoyed them. Given the fate of Roger Rabbit, in this case perhaps fiction is closer to truth.
So, who indeed screwed Roger Rabbit? Was it Michael Eisner, monopolizing the star during the early days of the agreement with Spielberg and later pulling the financial plug on the project amidst fears that a sequel at such a late date would not fly? Was it Steven Spielberg, picking up his rabbit and going home after his flap with Eisner, relenting only when it may have been far too late? Was it the legal agreement, which may have been well-intentioned but turned out to be far too detailed and rigid in a realm where The Art of The Deal is everything? Was it the corporate decision-making structure at Disney, which turned out films that made modest (or no) profits at a budget that might have floated a Roger Rabbit sequel? A combination of the above? No matter, the bottom line remains the same; Who Framed Roger Rabbit may well be one of the only films to gross $328 million (in 1988 dollars) worldwide and still be denied a sequel.
Perhaps someday Disney may muster their second and third-string personnel to toss out a direct-to-video quickie, but to many fans the sequel actually exists. In this version, which Mauldin, Stoner and Oliver had nothing to do with, there are two Judge Dooms; between them they have washed all of ToonTown in a deadly rain of dip. Jessica has abandoned showbiz for the life of a high-priced courtesan catering to multimillionaire executives, and Baby Herman has grown up to be an embittered Hollywood accountant forever pulling the plug on projects that threaten to go above cost except when overruled by higher powers. Roger? Living proof that no man (or rabbit) can serve two masters, he took the last red trolley car out of L.A. To this day he has not returned. Cut. Fade to black.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit is now available in a feature-packed, deluxe 2-disc DVD set and also a VHS bonus edition from Walt Disney Video; running time approximately 104 minutes. DVD US$29.99; VHS US$19.99. UPC 786936073386.
Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.