The Roger Rabbit Shorts and Sequels - Part 2by Kristen Szymonik, contributing writer
Last week, I explored the Roger Rabbit shorts that were made. This week, I'm looking at the Roger Rabbit shorts and features that never were, and share some information about the current state of a sequel. Author Gary K. Wolf, who wrote the novel Who Censored Roger Rabbit (1981), on which the Disney/Amblin film was based has continually suggested possible Roger Rabbit film projects. Wolf wrote two sequels to the original book, Who P-P-P-Plugged Roger Rabbit (1991) and Who Wacked Roger Rabbit (2014) that never achieved the same recognition of the original, but created a bunch of new characters.
These sequels have more in common with the film than the original book that focused on comic strip characters who talked in speech balloons that quickly disintegrated and could create doppelgangers of themselves for the more dangerous stunts.
In 2013, working with producer Erik Von Wodtke, Wolf pitched three Roger Rabbit shorts and a Roger Rabbit feature.
The shorts included Rear Window Rabbit (written by Wolf and Von Wodtke as a parody of the Alfred Hitchcock film Rear Window), Roger Rabbit Returns (written by Wolf with a poster by Douglas A. Sirois featuring a black top-hatted Roger and Jessica dancing down a red carpet with gold stanchions on each side) and The Birds (written by Wolf and Von Wodtke and another parody of a famous Alfred Hitchcock film but featuring Disney birds).
"I don't believe you have to be an Alfred Hitchcock buff or even have to have seen the movie Rear Window to think the cartoon is funny," Wolf said. "But if you have seen Rear Window then you will understand the deeper humor in that cartoon. Alfred Hitchcock's been really big lately and getting a lot of attention."
Wolf also pitched an all-animated feature film for Roger Rabbit that he claimed would not conflict with any sequel to the original film that Disney intended to make. The feature film would be called The Stooge and would be inspired by the 1952 Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis movie but not a direct remake.
"It stars Mickey Mouse and Roger and is set to take place throughout five specific locations in Disneyland park and will also bring both Walt Disney and Orson Welles back to life via motion-capture," Wolf said.
Of course, Disney has long attempted to come up with a sequel to the original film on its own.
The first idea written by Nat Mauldin (son of famous Pulitzer-award-winning World War II cartoonist Bill Mauldin) was to do a prequel titled Roger Rabbit: The Toon Platoon. It was set during World War II and would have shown how Roger met Jessica when she was working at a radio station in Hollywood. Roger had come to Hollywood in search of his birth mother.
Mauldin had some impressive television comedy credits, including Barney Miller and Night Court, and would later write screenplays including Eddie Murphy's Dr. Dolittle (1998) and the computer animated feature Open Season (2006). Obviously, his father's experiences in World War II influenced the screenplay.
Jessica works at a radio studio doing sound effects and is kidnapped by the station manager, who is a Nazi spy. She is taken to Nazi Germany to do propaganda broadcasts like Tokyo Rose and Axis Sally did during the conflict. Roger recruits his fellow toons who are serving in Europe, including Swifty Turtle and Blackie Cat, to go and rescue her. The major revelation at the end would be that Bugs Bunny was Roger's father.
Since Roger hadn't met Eddie Valiant yet, a new live-action human companion was created in Richie Davenport, an aspiring young actor going to Hollywood who later enlists and is assigned to a supply base run by toons, because his fear of heights endangered his original troop. Jessica's roommate is a live-action human named Wendy and she is also kidnapped. Richie falls in love with Wendy, and he overcomes his fears to help rescue her.
However, Spielberg had gone through a personal revelation after directing 1993's Schindler's List and felt that comedic portrayals of Nazis were disrespectful to the victims of the Holocaust, so he rejected the premise. He stated he wanted to avoid using Nazis as villains in his future films, yet ended up doing so in 1998's Saving Private Ryan.
New scriptwriters Sherri Stoner and Deanna Oliver, who had worked on other Spielberg animation projects, including Tiny Toons and Animaniacs were brought in and changed the setting from Hollywood to New York City during the Great Depression. The film was now re-titled Who Discovered Roger Rabbit?
It was still a prequel to the original film, but this time Roger, who was raised by a human couple in the Midwest, discovers he is actually a toon and goes on a journey to find his real mother, he takes the journey to New York and Broadway.
On Broadway Jessica is appearing in a show where Roger gets a job backstage. His slapstick antics as a stagehand results in him ending up on stage and becoming a comedy star when the audience falls in love with his comedy. He is soon offered a job in Hollywood movies.
The character of Richie Davenport as an aspiring actor is retained from the first version, and it was rumored that actor Tom Cruise might play the role. He is Roger's vaudeville partner doing a "magician and his rabbit in the hat" routine and is considered the one with real talent until Roger's unexpected break.
The film was meant to be a loving tribute to RKO and MGM Hollywood musicals of that same period and composer Alan Menken was so enthused by the script that he wrote five songs for the project with lyrics by Glenn Slater. Menken even offered to executive produce the film. One of the songs was This Only Happens In the Movies.
Lyricist Slater told writer Jeremie Noyer of Animated Views in 2008:
"This Only Happens in the Movies was written for one of the early scenes in the film. Roger and his friend have just arrived in Hollywood, and have been hired as waiters at a grand party thrown by the town's biggest producer, to celebrate his new movie musical, starring a celebrated Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers-type dancing duo.
"After toasting the stars of the film, the producer asks them to perform one of their famous numbers, called This Only Happens in the Movies. The male half of the team, a nasty drunk, is too incapacitated to perform; but Roger's friend, who has had a longtime crush on the female star, steps forward and says that, having seen every one of the team's previous films dozens of times, he has memorized the entire routine and can step in for the star.
"The female half of the team is skeptical, but the crowd insists. They begin to perform the number, dutifully singing the words to the old song; but Roger's friend is truly good – better than the star himself – and as they sing the words, about the kind of moments that are so perfect they can only happen in movies, they begin to have one of those moments themselves.
"By the end of the song, they have begun to live the song, and have fallen in love 'at first sight', just like in a corny old Hollywood musical. And as the song ends, as they gaze into each other's eyes and the crowd holds its breath, of course Roger destroys the moment by accidentally causing a catastrophe of broken dishes, flying cutlery and general mayhem.
"The idea was to create a shimmeringly beautiful moment for Roger to utterly and completely ruin, so the song needed to be, in a sense, the very opposite of what you would associate with Roger Rabbit.
"We wrote a song for Jessica called Good Little Girl. In the script, Jessica is a former child star, with a stage mother who insists that she keep singing her old songs and wearing her old costumes. Needless to say, the old costumes fit rather differently now that Jessica has, uh, blossomed into womanhood. And the old songs, which would have sounded very innocent coming from a young girl, now have a very different effect with lyrics that are one double-entendre after another.
"There was another song, called Things Like Us Don't Happen Every Day, that we made a demo for, but I don't remember how it fit into the film. And then there were a few other half-finished numbers."
Jim Pentecost who produced Pocahontas would have produced, but Eisner was worried about the budget so a ten second animation "pitch test" was directed in Spring 1998 by animator Eric Goldberg in Florida.
Goldberg drew up a model sheet for a younger (and simpler to draw) Roger and did a 2-D version (characters were hand drawn, but all props they interacted with were CGI) and also a 3-D version utilizing all CGI including for the characters. Goldberg had been tapped to be the animation director for the proposed sequel, taking over the role that Richard Williams had in the feature.
As Goldberg explained, "Whether we would use the technique or not in the sequel, it was to prove that we could do Disney quality animation in CGI, which no one had ever attempted before. The Florida team proved me right, in spades, and major kudos to them all.
"The next logical step for the studio was to see if we could achieve that kind of animation without pre-animating it as 2-D first," he said. "The result was Magic Lamp Theater, now a popular 3-D stereo attraction at Tokyo DisneySea."
The first test had two hand-drawn animated weasels busting into the live-action office of a Hollywood agent and using their CGI tommy guns to threaten him to audition Roger. Roger, who was also hand drawn bursts in, jumps on a table to dance and causes havoc, including scattering the objects on the agent's desk.
The second test done completely in CGI was the one Eisner liked the best but he did not like the projected cost, an estimated one hundred million dollars, nor the fact that the studio had lost money on some recent sequels. In the summer of 1999, Eisner officially suspended all pre-production.
The money that would have gone to the sequel was invested in the film Pearl Harbor (2001). That film was budgeted at $208 million dollars and brought in $200 million domestically.
There were several reasons for the sequel never being made, besides Eisner's feeling that it would be much too expensive an investment. The concern was other studios would now want more money for the use of their characters and too much time had passed from the original film so there was no momentum, as well as the challenges of working with Spielberg. Eisner had assumed that Spielberg would just rubber stamp all decisions about the characters and, when that didn't happen, it raised a major red flag. In addition, Eisner saw half the money from Roger Rabbit leaving the Disney Company to go to Spielberg. It was something that personally irritated him.
"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.
Of course, Eisner had not had much faith in the original film while it was being made, which is why he made the deal with Spielberg in the first place.
Eisner felt he had wisely hedged his bets by doing it as a co-production that would minimize any Disney losses and, according to his autobiography, "we had hoped to distance it [the film] from the Disney brand by releasing it under the Touchstone label."
At Disney, there was the real fear that the film 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."
Eisner pulled Roger Rabbit from the Disney theme parks, ceased production on the massive amount of Roger Rabbit related merchandise and cancelled plans for a Roger Rabbit section for both Disneyland and Disney-MGM Studios theme parks.
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 and all projects that featured Roger. So, 1992 was the end of the massive promotion of Roger Rabbit and his friends by Disney although some projects that had been started were completed.
Disney tried unsuccessfully to create their own Roger doppelganger with an animated character called Bonkers D. Bobcat.
Bonkers was a hyperactive anthropomorphic bobcat who worked in the Toon Division of the Hollywood police department after his movie career at Wackytoons Studio. The character appeared in the Walt Disney Television syndicated animation series Disney's Raw Toonage (1992) and Bonkers (1993).
He failed to capture either the affection of the audience or the plaudits of the critics. He was seen as what he truly was: an attempt to create another Roger Rabbit character with no connections to Spielberg and going "on the cheap," without using the combination of live-action and animation. In the series, humans were animated drawings, as well.
Another reason for concern about the sequel was that former Disney Studio executive Jeffrey Katzenberg had left Disney on bad terms and was now partnered with Spielberg at Dreamworks SKG working on animated features.
Eisner felt that Katzenberg for revenge might sabotage any Roger Rabbit feature film sequel, so he made two former Amblin producers who Spielberg liked and respected, Frank Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy, producers of the proposed film. Spielberg quietly acceded to pre-production work continuing on the project in order to give his two friends and former co-workers their shot at producing.
In November 2016, director Zemeckis, after years of vacillating back and forth, said he was still interested in doing a sequel, but felt that Disney had no interest.
Zemeckis had another script for the sequel by writers Jeffrey Price and Peter Seaman that he felt was "magnificent" and would "follow up from the world of film noir in 1947 to the next few years of the 1950s. It is more a continuation than a sequel. Rather than recasting Bob Hoskins (who died in 2014), we would include a digital version."
Zemeckis alluded to the story point that the character of Eddie Valiant would be a ghost, and perhaps use motion capture to achieve the effect and perhaps on other characters, as well.
He stated, "the current corporate Disney culture has no interest in Roger, and they certainly don't like Jessica at all. Most sequels, you're behind the eight-ball on them. Audiences want it to be the same movie, but different. If it's too similar, they don't like it. And if it's too different, they really don't like it. There's nothing more difficult."
Zemeckis had submitted an early draft of the script to Disney in 2012 and got no response. At one point even producer and director J.J. Abrams worked on a possible sequel.
Would new Roger Rabbit shorts be redesigned in the current animation style reflected in the new Mickey Mouse cartoons? Would a Roger Rabbit feature sequel struggle against three decades worth of memories? Is there even an audience any longer who is familiar with and cares about the classic animation characters? Are Roger Rabbit and his friends timeless characters or were they just locked into that 1980s era? Is it time for Bob Iger and Don Hahn to revive this project?
Hahn has said the project should remain dead because the public's taste in animation has changed significantly since the original feature film was released and the market has been flooded with animation.
"There was something very special about that time when animation was not as much in the forefront as it is now," he replied when asked about reviving the idea of a sequel.
However, the topic continues to surface both at Disney and with Disney fans. What do you think?