Who Disappeared Roger Rabbit From the Disney Parks?by Jim Korkis, staff writer
This is a year filled with many Disney anniversaries, including the 25th birthday of the acclaimed film Who Framed Roger Rabbit (no question mark at the end because of a Hollywood superstition that films with questions marks at the end do not succeed at the box office), released in June 1988.
The film has often been credited as the spark for the birth of an animation renaissance in the 1990s. Although, today, the Walt Disney Company claims that resurgence in interest in animation was all started by a mermaid the following year.
The peak of Roger Rabbit's Disney career was roughly 1988 to 1992, after which he all but disappeared from the films and the parks. Here is what happened to a character that many thought would be entertaining audiences for many years.
Disney President Ron Miller, against the advice of CEO Card Walker, purchased the rights to the 1981 book Who Censored Roger Rabbit for $25,000, even before it was published and put it into development.
However, this was a time of turmoil in the Disney Company and, when the dust finally settled, Michael Eisner and Frank Wells were in charge in 1984, and many previous projects approved by the Miller era were abandoned. However, Jeffrey Katzenberg discovered the work that had been done on Roger Rabbit and shared it with Eisner who put the project back into development.
In 1981, award-winning director Steven Spielberg had founded (along with producers Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall) Amblin Entertainment.
When Eisner was head of production at Paramount, he had given Spielberg support to direct a film, after the director's previous cinematic flop had almost made him unemployable in Hollywood. That Paramount film turned out to be Raiders of the Lost Ark and generated a great amount of goodwill between Eisner and Spielberg, who was re-established in the industry as a result.
Eisner knew that a Roger Rabbit film would be expensive and difficult, and to minimize the financial impact to the Disney Company, he made arrangements for Spielberg to help with the production.
Spielberg negotiated a contract that resulted in Amblin getting not only major creative control but also 50 percent rights to box-office receipts, licensing, merchandise, theme park attractions and just about everything else. A joint copyright would appear on everything (just as Pixar had a similar copyright arrangement later).
Anything involving the original characters for the film including Roger Rabbit, Jessica, Baby Herman and more would require mutual approval from both Amblin and Disney.
Eisner anticipated no problems. He and Spielberg had a friendly relationship, and while Spielberg had an interest in animation (just completing the successful Don Bluth production An American Tail in 1986) Eisner figured he would never be so deeply involved as to become an animation or theme park competitor and, most importantly, this was an opportunity to establish a business relationship, as well, so that Amblin might supply future live-action films for Disney.
Basically, Eisner felt that Spielberg after the initial feature film would "rubber stamp" anything Disney wanted to do involving Roger and friends, because Spielberg would be more concerned with live-action productions.
Of course, those false assumptions by Eisner would eventually result in the disappearance of Roger Rabbit at the peak of his popularity.
Spielberg's contributions to the success of the film were significant, including convincing Robert Zemeckis (hot off the success of his latest film Back to the Future in 1985) to direct; negotiating with individual cartoon studios to loan out their famous characters for an appearance for the paltry price of $5,000 per character; arranging for Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) to do special effects; setting up an independent temporary animation studio in the United Kingdom under the supervision of legendary Richard Williams (because the feeling was that Disney could not handle the demands of the necessary animation); and more.
Eisner felt he had wisely hedged his bets and, according to his autobiography, "we had hoped to distance it [the film] from the Disney brand by releasing it under the Touchstone label" because there was the real fear that it might turn out to be another Howard the Duck (1986) box office disaster (a comic book character in a human environment) or even a public relations nightmare because of some of the controversial elements in the film that Eisner considered too "sophisticated and sexy".
All of those fears were alleviated when the film premiered to critical (especially for the technological innovations in the pre-CGI era) and financial success (it was the second-highest grossing film of the year behind "Rain Man" and brought in more than $300 million dollars on its $50 million investment), earning three Oscars, and a special Academy Award for Richard Williams, as well as recognition at a wide variety of other award ceremonies.
"By the time it [the film] premiered, we had licensing agreements for over 500 products, ranging from Jessica Rabbit jewelry to Roger Rabbit talking dolls to computer games. Both McDonald's and Coca-Cola created massive promotional tie-ins," Eisner wrote.
The success of the film inspired Eisner to immediately increase the promotion of the character who the public perceived as a Disney character, not connected with Amblin.
The original film was released in the summer of 1988 and, by the fall of 1988, a costumed Roger Rabbit character was appearing at Disneyland, Roger had been included as a major character in an NBC television special saluting Mickey Mouse's 60th birthday, a theatrical short called Tummy Trouble (the first new Disney theatrical short in more than 30 years) had been put into production, a possible film sequel was being discussed, and Roger was planned to become an important presence for the Disney MGM Studios that celebrated the Hollywood of the 1940s since theoriginal film was set in 1947.
Disney fans often forget how prominent Roger Rabbit was at the Disney parks for several years.
Roger Rabbit was one of the six gigantic 45-foot-tall inflatable balloon figures that were in Disneyland's "Party Gras" parade from January to November 1990 to celebrate Disneyland's 35th birthday. Walt Disney World brought the parade to the Magic Kingdom for WDW's 20th Anniversary Surprise Celebration in 1991 and Roger was given a new jester's hat. The parade ran for approximately three years.
He was a featured in several scenes of the Disneyland Fun Singalong Songs video, as well as Disneyland's 35th Anniversary special on NBC.
Roger was the original conductor in the SpectroMagic night time parade that debuted at WDW in 1991 but he was later replaced by the Genie from Aladdin.
In fact, Roger was the official toon representative of WDW's birthday celebration. He toured the United States, accompanied by perky male and female Disney performers dressed in Roger outfits to publicize the event.
Roger was spotlighted in the Kids of the Kingdom show in front of Cinderella's Castle and was also prominently featured in the Mickey Starland stage show.
At this time, The Disney Company realized that Disney MGM Studios was so hugely popular that it needed to be physically expanded. As part of the plans for the Disney Decade, one idea that had been discussed for Disneyland was to convert the area behind Main Street U.S.A. into a Hollywood Land with a section devoted to Roger Rabbit featuring some attractions.
In May 1991, Disney officially cancelled the project claiming in a statement to the Los Angeles Times that the primary reason was that "proposed construction would come at the same time as development of the proposed Westcot theme park nearby."
These same Roger Rabbit elements were suggested for an expansion at the Disney MGM Studios at the same time, located approximately where Sunset Boulevard is today.
Known as Roger Rabbit's Hollywood (and sometimes as Maroon Studios, the fictitious animation studio where Roger works), it would have been an entire street that looked as if it belonged in Toontown with its wacky architecture. (Later versions of the concept had it located at the end of Sunset Boulevard near where the Rock'n'Roller Coaster is today.)
An often quoted New York Times article described it as "This will be a kind of Toontown, where—as in the movie—only cartoon characters may live." The street would be littered with all sorts of surprises like boxes of TNT, a grand piano dangling precariously over the street, and Roger-shaped holes in the walls.
Red Cars would take guests up and down the street, stopping at the Terminal Bar from the movie that would serve as the restaurant for the new area.
The Toontown Trolley attraction would have been a motion control simulator like Star Tours with some differences, including not only a screen in front but on each side. There would be in-cabin effects like Roger shaped dents when the character crashed into the roof.
Baby Herman's Runaway Baby Buggy would have been a traditional Fantasyland-like dark ride. Based on the incidents in the first Roger Rabbit short, "Tummy Trouble," where Roger and Baby Herman have a series of misadventures in a hospital, would have guests board oversized baby buggy ride vehicles and they would careen down stairs, through hospital rooms, around beds and patients and more.
When the attraction was described in the newspapers, some readers angrily complained that there was nothing funny about a hospital and that the Disney Company was being insensitive to both patients (especially scared children) and doctors, especially since the short featured frightening sharp objects and scary mechanical devices.
Benny the Cab was an attraction planned for the area that did get tweaked and built as Roger Rabbit's Car Toon Spin at Disneyland Park. Benny was transformed into his "twin cousin" Lenny. Imagineers tried to explain the missing Benny by saying that Roger was out driving him at the time so he was unavailable.
On opening day at the Disney-MGM Studios, a costumed Roger Rabbit put his hands and footprints into a square of concrete that was placed almost directly in front of the entrance of The Great Movie Ride. It reads "PL-L-L-LEESE. Roger Rabbit. May 1, 1989."
At one time, the Dip Machine model and the bullet case used by Eddie were on display in the queue for the attraction.
On opening day, guests could see a huge Maroon Studios billboard in the Echo Lake area. Today, it is faded but originally it had a bright maroon color and the faces of Roger, Jessica and Baby Herman were striking, just like the title card at the beginning of a cartoon.
Over the Hollywood and Vine Restaurant, according to the backstory, the rooms were rented to individuals or businesses. One window features a small sign stating "No Actors" because at the time, actors were considered immoral, likely to have wild parties and probably skip out on paying the rent.
A little farther down is a window that originally stated (unfortunately recently, some of the lettering has chipped off) "Eddie Valiant. Private Investigations. All Crime. Surveillance. Missing Person." There is also a symbol of a magnifying glass with an eye in it, a reference to "private eyes."
Valiant, of course, was the detective in the film played by Bob Hoskins when the producers could not find comedian Bill Murray to offer him the role.
Next to Valiant's window is another window with the silhouette outline of Roger Rabbit bursting through the blinds and the window, just like in a famous scene in the original movie.
Originally, at the lower-left corner, was a sign that read "No Toons" to parody the previous "No Actors" sign, as well as an insider joke since, during this time period, Valiant disliked toons because one had killed his brother.
That "No Toons" sign was removed by a Disney executive who didn't understand the joke and insisted that Disney loved toons and that the location should be tested as a character breakfast area.
However, the sign by itself is not the real punchline to the joke. If a guest can extrapolate the angle and the direction of Roger's outline, it goes in a direct line to the backstage building that once housed Disney Feature Animation Florida, which made two Roger Rabbit theatrical shorts, Roller Coaster Rabbit and Trail Mix-Up, and were preparing for more when trouble arose.
On the side of the Disney Feature Animation Florida building was a painted black silhouette of Roger, the same size and the same pose as the one from the window.
Bridgitte Hartley, who worked as an animator on Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Roller Coaster Rabbit at the Disney MGM Studios, died from cancer in the early 1990s. Around the corner from the silhouette of Roger on the Feature Animation building was a small garden in her memory simply called "Bridgitte's Garden," created by Max Howard, who was in charge of the animation department. I don't know if it survived Feature Animation being closed.
In the outdoor paint area of the Backlot Express restaurant was the actual Toon Patrol black paddy wagon vehicle that the weasels drove to do the evil bidding of Judge Doom. It is a real 1937 Dodge Humpback panel truck. Today, the round official City of Los Angeles Toon Patrol decals on the front doors identifying it have been removed. (Inside the restaurant in the indoor office of the Paint Supervisor, on the bulletin board, are some color photos of the vehicle with the decals and some standee weasels.)
Shoehorned into a little corner of the Stunt Men's area of the Backlot Express restaurant was the original working skeletal frame of Benny the Cab from the movie. In the film, actor Bob Hoskins sat in the driver's seat, holding a rubber steering wheel. Behind him, and lower, was stunt driver Charlie Croughwell completely covered in a black jumpsuit and wearing a black hood (thin enough to see through) who actually drove the vehicle. When the live-action filming was complete, a colored cel of Benny would be placed over the vehicle obscuring any live action reference. On the nearby walls are faded photos of how this magic was accomplished.
At the end of the Backlot Tram Tour, where guests could view Jessica's blue car as well as a Red Car from the film in the Boneyard, a pathway of Roger Rabbit large footprints on the ground would lead guests into the Acme Warehouse, more specifically the section known as the "Loony Bin" or the Acme Gagworks.
There were some interactive props (later incorporated into Mickey's Toontown at Disneyland) like boxes that would make noises when you tried to open them. Things hung from the ceiling like a net filled with Acme's Ton of Bricks (that still hangs there today).
There was also a standee of Jessica Rabbit for photo opportunities. Behind her, the wall had an open air silhouette outline of Roger Rabbit who had apparently run through the wall. Across from this location was a photo shop where guests could don Eddie Valiant's trenchcoat and be superimposed into a scene with a more realistic 3-D version of Jessica or Benny the Cab.
Judge Doom's Dip Mobile from the movie had also crashed through the wall and guests could take photos posing beneath its huge front roller. The Dip Mobile moved around to different locations over the years, including the front of the Backlot Tram Tour (where a red tram now resides) as well as in the Boneyard on the tour but is now gone from the park.
A plethora of merchandise, especially themed to Jessica, was available for sale in the area.
That same Jessica merchandise, along with so much more, was also available at a Jessica Rabbit-themed story on Pleasure Island from 1990 to 1992. Most memorable was the exterior with a giant 32-foot high two-sided neon sign of a full figure of Jessica in her sequined gown sitting down with legs crossed and lazily swinging her left foot back and forth.
Of course, because of the contract with Amblin, a new licensing operation had to be set up with all items copyrighted Touchstone/Amblin Entertainment and the accounting done separately from other character merchandise.
The theatrical short Tummy Trouble had been rushed into production and was released with the Disney live-action film, Honey I Shrunk the Kids in June 1989. It was credited in the industry as having significantly boosted the revenue for the film.
Almost immediately, a second short, titled Roller Coaster Rabbit was made. Spielberg assumed that this short would be attached to his Amblin film Arachnophobia (1990), especially since it was the first feature to be released by Disney's new Hollywood Studios.
However, Disney had invested heavily in the live action feature Dick Tracy (1990) and felt the film needed additional help to recover its costs. Eisner insisted that since Disney was releasing both films that the short be connected with Dick Tracy.
Spielberg fumed quietly, grumbling that as the co-owner of the characters, he should have a say in how they were being used and that a Roger Rabbit short should accompany one of his films. Work began on a third short, Hare in My Soup, to be released with the film The Rocketeer (1991),
The premise of the short was that Roger, Baby Herman and his mother went to a restaurant. While the mother left the table to powder her nose, Baby Herman followed the chef into the kitchen and violent chaos ensued.
Pre-production work was finished on the short when Spielberg announced he could not approve the cartoon and he had concerns about the script for the sequel as well, including the fact that the villain was a Nazi, so he wouldn't approve it either.
Eisner realized that there would be even more trouble getting Spielberg's agreement on any future co-productions.
Artist Peter Emsile remembered that he had just completed the image of Roger Rabbit for the WDW 20th Anniversary presskit cover when word came from Eisner to stop any projects that featured Roger. So, 1992 was the end of the career of Roger Rabbit.
Disney even tried to create its own version of Roger Rabbit named Bonkers D. Bobcat that it would own completely. First appearing in the Disney series, Disney's Raw Toonage (fall, 1992) and then later in his own television series from 1993-1995, Bonkers was an animated bobcat who became a special police officer teamed with a human partner.
The premise was similar to Roger in having a toon in a real world, but it was undercut because the humans and the city were also animated, although in a less extreme way than Bonkers and his friends.
There was even a costumed character Bonkers who made appearances at Disneyland and Walt Disney World. He also performed in the show at Mickey's Starland in 1993-1994.
However, audiences did not embrace the new character, despite his physical resemblance to Roger.
In an attempt to patch things up, Disney shifted focus to a different Roger theatrical short titled Trail Mix Up that did get Spielberg's approval and was released with the Disney/Amblin co-production A Far Off Place (1993), but it did not receive the same attention as the previous shorts.
It was clear that Roger was pretty much dead in animation and in the Disney parks by mid-1993.
The Disney Company philosophy became basically: Why fight with Spielberg and share the revenues when there were dozens of new Disney animated characters, from a mermaid to a beast to an upcoming lion?
In recent years, there has been some discussion about whether the chilly atmosphere around Roger Rabbit has been thawing somewhat.
A towering Roger Rabbit stands precariously on top of a barrel of turpentine that could instantly dissolve him in the 1980s section of Disney's Pop Century Resort, which opened in 2003 surrounded by other references to that decade including the Rubik's Cube, Walkman, and others.
A costumed Roger Rabbit made a brief return (March 25 through Easter Sunday March 31, 2013) on Main Street U.S.A. at Disneyland as part of the pre-parade festivities and to lead the guests in the Bunny Hop dance. He had previously made a one-night only appearance during the 20th anniversary performance of Fantasmic! in May 2012, waving from the Mark Twain.
Unfortunately, for those wanting the return of Roger Rabbit, it seems for the newest generation of guests, the question is often "Who Is Roger Rabbit?"