The Return of Roger Rabbit

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

Around this time of year, rabbits seem to be hopping around much more prominently in the hearts and minds of children of all ages.

Disney has a long history of distinctive rabbit characters from Oswald the Lucky Rabbit to Max Hare to Thumper to Rabbit in "Winnie the Pooh" to… of course, the troubled Roger Rabbit.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit (without a question mark at the end) was released June 1988, which means that this year is the 25th anniversary. I am not sure how the Disney Company plans to celebrate this historic milestone beyond a commemorative Blu-ray edition judging by the lack of attention to other recent birthdays.

Originally budgeted at around $12 million in the early 1980s, the film finally came in with a cost estimated at over $40 million. Reviews were generally mixed but positive. Reviewers were astounded by the technology, but found story and character deficiencies. Audiences fell in love with the feature and it helped spark an animation renaissance assisted by the release of The Little Mermaid the following year.

The film toppled almost every Disney financial record. Roger broke theater records around the world. It became the top-grossing film that year (over $150 million in the U.S. alone) and one of the top money-making features of all time.

The feature received a number of prominent nominations.

The Golden Globes nominated it for Best Picture and Best Actor (Bob Hoskins). The script was nominated for best script based on material from another medium by the Writers Guild of America. The Directors Guild nominated Zemeckis for best director. Even Charles Fleischer, the voice of Roger, was nominated for best supporting male by the American Comedy Awards.

Though it didn't win any of these awards, this was a sign of how well-received the film was in the professional community. Other award recognition included a Hugo award and a Kids Choice award.

Roger did well at the Oscars. Nominated in a number of categories, it went on to win three Oscars for its technical work (Best Sound Editing, Best Visual Effects, and Best Film Editing). Additionally, an Honorary Oscar for special achievement went to Richard Williams "for animation direction and creation of the cartoon characters."

This makes Roger the second "Oscar-winning Rabbit," an honor he shares with Bugs Bunny (originally, Roger was scheduled to appear at the Oscar ceremony via animation but was unable to do so due to last-minute production problems).

Williams told the press, "The Rabbit is a Frankenstein job. A bit from this, a bit from that. The character had to look familiar enough so that audiences would think they'd seen him before. So it's a series of clichés pushed into new forms."

However, before there was the film, there was a book entitled Who Censored Roger Rabbit? written by Gary K. Wolf and released by St. Martin's Press in 1981, 32 years ago.

I was one of those folks who bought a hardcover edition that year at Vroman's bookstore (back in the day when there were multiple different bookstores everywhere, like Vroman's and Walden's) in Glendale, California, without ever realizing that Disney was interested in making a film based on the story.

I enjoyed the story, done in the style of a faux "film noir" detective tale, of how comic strip characters like Dick Tracy and Hagar the Horrible lived side by side with humans. The cartoon artists were actually "photographers" who took pictures of staged scenes with these toons.

When toons talked, speech balloons appeared over their heads, often in a shape that mirrored the toon's feelings at the time, and would crumble into dust.

In the book, toons had the power to concentrate and create duplicates (or dopplegangers) of themselves as stunt doubles, but these twins had a limited life span and shortly disintergrated into dust.

The motivations and personalities of the major characters like Roger, Jessica, and Baby Herman are significantly different than the final feature film versions. I will also admit that the final page of the book reveals that a character I had grown to like turned out to be a lying bad guy, so it left me feeling unsatisfied—especially since, except for Eddie Valiant, most of the characters were not very pleasant personalities.

In 1981, the Walt Disney studio optioned the book and put it into production. The talent behind this first attempt was Tom Wilhite, (then) current head of production; Marc Stirdivant, a studio producer; and Darrell Van Citters, one of Disney's top animation directors. All three were key in developing much of the early Roger material, along with a new member, character designer Mike Giaimo. The voice of Roger would have been provided by actor Paul Reubens. [I've written about Disney's first efforts to do the film.]

However, author Gary Wolf himself does intend to celebrate Roger Rabbit and friends' birthday this year with a second sequel to his original novel as well as a proposal for a Disney-Pixar movie that would team Mickey and Roger.

For years, talk of a sequel or a prequel to the popular film has been the topic of much discussion.

At the January 17, 2013, London premiere for the movie Flight (directed and co-produced by Robert Zemeckis), Steve Starkey, the producing partner of Zemeckis, told reporter Jan Gilbert on the red carpet: "That [Roger Rabbit] sequel is going to get made. Trust me. Yeah, we have a great script and we're just trying to pull it together and see if we can pull it off but we're ready to go. If somebody says 'Go,' we're there."

At the same premiere, however, Gilbert talked with Zemeckis, who said without hesitation, "No, there won't be a sequel."

However, two months earlier, Zemeckis told the press, "I have a script at Disney, and we're just waiting for all the executive changes to settle down there." He was referring to Alan Horn taking over the role of being in charge of Disney films.

In 1991, at the height of Roger Rabbit's popularity, author Wolf wrote a sequel to his novel entitled, Who P-P-P-Plugged Roger Rabbit?

The plot line has Roger hiring Eddie Valiant to figure out if Jessica is cheating on him with actor Clark Gable, and whether Gable is going to get the part of Rhett Butler in Gone With The Wind that Roger desperately wants. There are other subplots, including a Toon Tonic that can turn a human into a toon and vice versa, and the introduction of new characters including Jessica's three-and-a-half-inch tall twin sister, Joellyn, who has a crush on Eddie.

Wolf abandons his clever conceits in his first book, except for the fact that toons still talk in speech balloons. Apparently, according to this book, all the adventures in the first book were just a bad nightmare that Jessica had, along the lines of the famous "it was all a dream" from the television series Dallas. Even Eddie comments at one point that Roger Rabbit "and his screwball buddies play fast and loose with historical accuracy."

The book redesigned the characters and their motivations to closely align with the well-known film and was not as successful as the original novel, either critically or financially. Wolf told an interviewer that it was his idea to make the changes because "probably a billion people saw the movie and maybe a half dozen read the book. So, most peoples' concept of my characters was what they had seen on the screen."

This year, 22 years after that sequel, Wolf has written another sequel, entitled Who Wacked Roger Rabbit?, to be released only in digital form by Musa Publishing this fall.

"This time, Eddie is hired to bodyguard for Gary Cooper and Roger Rabbit, the stars of a new movie that's been receiving dire threats—shut down the film or else," states the official press release.

At one time, Wolf had told interviewers, "I have another book already finished. It's called Roger Rabbit's Gossipy Guide to Toontown. It's like Hollywood Babylon with a plot." Apparently that book has no connection to this announced sequel.

However, Wolf is also working on a development proposal along with Erik von Wodtke (who came up with the original story and wrote the treatment) for a Disney-Pixar movie to be entitled The Stooge that would team Roger Rabbit with Mickey Mouse.

"It has the same title as the Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis film and some of the same plot elements, but it's not a remake," wrote Wolf. "I love the idea of a Mickey Mouse and Roger Rabbit musical buddy comedy. This is a co-star pairing made in cartoon heaven."

This project is not connected with the often-talked-about sequel to the original film. It is an entirely different film and would be all animation with no live action. Art director Doug A Sirois has been working on Stooge concept art.

This is not the first time that Wolf has been involved with working on a screenplay for a Disney film. I talked with him in February about two films I was eager to learn more about.

According to a 1989 Walt Disney World press release, Wolf was writing the screenplay for a film to be called Typhoon Lagoon, based on the elaborate water park in Walt Disney World that opened that spring. In fact, Wolf still lists that project on his official resumé.

The press release proclaimed that the project was an "unprecedented undertaking whereby a motion picture and a themed attraction… will perfectly complement each other in a unique demonstration of the capabilities of The Walt Disney Company." All of the locations and the Imagineering-created characters like Singapore Sal for the beautiful water park would have sprung to cinematic life.

"I worked on the Typhoon Lagoon project with Charlie Fink and later on an animated film I proposed entitled The Flying Tigerfish with Bruce Morris," Wolf told me. "I did write two screenplays, but they never got past the preliminary development stage. I honestly don't know what more I can tell you about them. I have only hazy memories of writing them.

"I did these projects 25 years ago. My only lingering memory is of Bruce Morris who became a good friend as a result. I honestly have nothing to say about these. Sorry."

However, Wolf was kind enough to answer some other questions for me concerning his current plans for Roger Rabbit.

Jim Korkis: Why did you decide to write another novel with Roger Rabbit?

Gary K. Wolf:

I started writing the third Roger Rabbit novel after the second one came out. My agent at the time suggested I hold off selling it until the sequel movie, which was going through the development process at the time, came out. He said I would get more exposure if I did it that way. I agreed.

I put the novel away, and basically forgot about it.

I went on to write three more novels, "Space Vulture" (with my boyhood friend John J. Myers, now the Catholic archbishop of Newark), "The Late Great Show!" and "Typical Day" both available as digital novels.

I was working on my next novel when in passing I mentioned to my editor and publisher, Celina Summers at MUSA, that I had a third unpublished Roger Rabbit novel. She became quite excited. She encouraged me to bring it out, finish it up, and publish it now. Judging from the response I've gotten from Roger Rabbit fans, I should have done it years earlier.

In the novel, set in 1947, movie producer Stanley Kramer is planning on filming a Toon/human 'buddy' movie in Toontown. It will co-star Gary Cooper and Roger Rabbit. The movie will be titled 'Hi, Toon!' There are people who don't want this movie made. Kramer has gotten threats including death threats against Cooper. Kramer hires Eddie Valiant to bodyguard Cooper while they're in Toontown. Hilarity ensues!

JK: In what ways would you say the Roger of your novels is different from the film version?


Obviously, there are differences. There have to be. My novel is a book which appeals to a reader's imagination. The movie is a visual medium which puts it all on screen for an audience to view. I used word balloons in the book. Characters talked with them and I had fun playing with how those balloons acted. You can't do that in a movie. You wind up with a silent film.

The movie producers took my concepts and my characters and did to them what had to be done to turn literary concepts into film concepts. They did a wonderful job. I can't imagine how it could have been done better.

When the sequel novel came out, I had to adjust the concept slightly. Millions of people have seen the movie. Far fewer have read the book. So I changed a few things to make it easier for readers to make the transition. I still used the word balloons although the characters also talked verbally as well.

JK: How do you "hear" Roger in your mind that is different than the way voice artist Charles Fleischer portrayed him?

GKW: In the first novel, Roger didn't speak at all. He used word balloons. After I first heard Charlie do Roger's voice, I can't hear Roger speak any other way.

JK: What is it about Roger that makes him so loved by audiences?

GKW: Roger is the essence of the Disney spirit. He's cute, loveable, funny, and moral. He always does what he says he will do. He keeps his promises. That resonates with audiences. It's the same thing that made Mickey Mouse an iconic character.

JK: What plans do you have, other than the new novel, to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the film?

GKW: The Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences is having a big event to commemorate the anniversary. I'll go to that. The movie is coming out on Blu-ray. I'll watch that. I'm working on a new Roger all-animated movie called 'The Stooge' in which Roger co-stars with Mickey Mouse.

JK: Do you have plans to do more Roger Rabbit novels or even a collection of short stories?

GKW: I'll finish 'Who Wacked Roger Rabbit?' and then see what happens.

JK: Do you collect Roger Rabbit memorabilia?

GKW: I don't. I have a few very special personal pieces, but that's it.

JK: Knowing your love of comic strips shown in the first novel, did you ever want to write a Roger Rabbit comic strip?

GKW: No.

JK: You've written many things on a variety of subjects, but how do you feel that most people identify you primarily with Roger Rabbit?

GKW: In Disney circles I'm known as the creator of Roger Rabbit and the concept of Toontown. In science fiction circles, I'm the guy who wrote 'Killerbowl', an ultra-violent novel about football of the future played as a blood sport. I've just adapted it into a movie entitled 'Street Lethal'. Quite different from my Rabbit work!

JK: What is something about Roger Rabbit that you might never have shared before or has been forgotten?


I was in the first or second grade. My teacher gave my class a picture to color. It showed a farm house, a barn and a single cow. The whole purpose was to stay inside the lines.

I left the farmhouse white, I colored the barn red. When I came to the cow, I thought to myself, "What a sad, lonely cow, standing alone out there in the middle of that big field."

My mother had always told me that when people were sad and lonely, they were blue. If it's true for people, it must be true for cows. I colored that cow blue.

Next day, the teacher handed them back. All, but mine. She called me up in front of class. She held up my picture for everyone to see. I figured I must have stayed inside the lines better than anybody, but no.

"Look at this silly picture," she said. "Cows are brown, cows are black, cows are white. Never, never are cows blue."

My mother had to come to school for a meeting with my teacher. My teacher told her that her son had a real problem and probably required counseling. After that meeting, my mother and my father sat me down. They asked me why I'd done it. I told them. They sent me out of the room, discussed it, and called me back in.

"From now on," they told me, "whenever you want to color a cow blue, you go ahead and color a cow blue." What a great thing from two people who never made it past the eighth grade.

I've since gone on to color a lot of cows blue, and one Rabbit white. I owe it all to my parents.

Wolf has a website with more of these insights.

A Kindle edition of Who Censored Roger Rabbit? is available, but a physical copy is a bit pricey.