The Unknown Roger Rabbit Story

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

With Easter just around the corner, 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.

One Disney film I always enjoy re-watching is 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) that was released more than 30 years ago in June 1988.

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.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit broke theater records around the world.

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 United States alone) and one of the top money-making features of all time,

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."

In the summer 2019 issue of Empire magazine, director Robert Zemeckis talked about Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988): "Every single moment of that movie was heartbreaking. You know that expression 'Ignorance is bliss'? If anybody had told me how difficult that movie was going to be, I never would have gone near it. Usually in animation, they take shortcuts and animate every four frames per second. Because [every animated element in Roger Rabbit] had to be matched to live action, everything had to be animated at 24 frames. Then, every shadow element, lighting element and everything else to make them look dimensional. It was insane."

Disney President Ron Miller, against the advice of CEO Card Walker, purchased the rights to Gary Wolf's 1981 book Who Censored Roger Rabbit for $25,000, even before it was published and put it into development. He felt it would be a good project to interest and utilize the talents of the newest animators hired from CalArts including Brad Bird and Glen Keane.

Wolf's book was meant to be a surreal spoof of the hard-boiled detective novel, a mixture of Raymond Chandler, Lewis Carroll and Warner Brothers. Roger Rabbit was a 6-foot tall rabbit (a height which included his 18-inch tall ears) who worked for the DeGreasy Brothers.

He wore a baggy pair of shorts held up by brightly colored suspenders. His white stomach, nose, toes and palms on a light brown body made him resemble someone who had just walked face first into a freshly painted wall of white paint.

Within the first fourth of the book, he is killed. However, earlier that evening he mentally created a duplicate to go out and buy some red suspenders. Toons could create these temporary doppelgangers to perform the dangerous stunts in cartoons. Roger put a large jolt of mental energy into his duplicate so that it will last awhile before it falls apart.

The book then becomes a race against time as detective Eddie Valiant and the Roger duplicate try to find out who shot Roger and why, clear Roger of charges in Rocco DeGreasy's murder, and figure out how Jessica fits in to the scheme.

Roger was more a comic strip character than an animated star, although he was still a foil to Baby Herman. When Toons talked, dialog balloons physically appeared over their head with the words spelled out, and these balloons eventually disintegrated, leaving fine dust.

The motivations and personalities of the major characters like Roger, Jessica and Baby Herman are significantly different than the final feature film versions.

In 1981, the talent behind the first attempt to bring Roger Rabbit to the big screen was Tom Wilhite, then currently 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 character designer Mike Giaimo. Joe Ranft, Chris Buck and Randy Cartwright joined the development unit that operated from roughly 1981-1983.

It was mentioned as an "upcoming" feature for several years in the Disney company stock holders report with even an image included. It was allegedly reported that Disney management felt the word "censored" in the original title was too strong a word and held negative connotations.

So the word "framed" was suggested not only because of its connotations of an innocent person being falsely accused but because it related to showcasing art.

Buck and Cartwright produced some pencil tests and a short segment of colored animation that was only shown once on a 1983 Disney Channel show called Disney Studio Showcase where animation historian John Culhane was discussing new projects at the studio.

Portraying Eddie Valiant in the clip was longtime Disney performer Peter Renaday who remembers spending "one unremarkable day" filming the footage. He was made to look like a rougher character with a scuffy beard. A clean cut Eddie Valiant was portrayed by animator Michael Gabriel in some publicity photos.

Paul Reubens (aka Peewee Herman) voiced Roger and Russi Taylor (the official voice of Minnie Mouse) provided the husky voice for Jessica Rabbit who at that time was more of a Lauren Bacall/Katharine Hepburn slender femme fatale and possible villainess.

As Darrel Van Citters remembered, "Roger was to be voiced by the then barely known Paul Reubens. Paul had both an excitability and a naïve quality to his voice that we felt was essential to the character's personality. Despite his firmly established role as Pee Wee Herman, Paul is an excellent voice actor, and gave us exceptional readings. We patterned Roger's appearance after both Tex Avery and Bob Clampett design sensibilities. For some reason, big noses figure prominently in many of their character designs. This was for us the archetypal cartoon look. We had no interest in a more complex style—the purpose of this simple comic design was to belie Roger's interior, for our aim was to imbue an outwardly zany character with emotional depth and heart.

"We chose to play against Baby Herman's appearance with a rather haughty Ronald Colman-esque voice," he said. "To make him an elitist actor who resented his typecasting in films and lived, instead, for 'the theater'."

Peter Seaman and Jeffrey Price had completed a screenplay, Malta Wants Me Dead, which was eventually produced by Disney as Trenchcoat (1983). They were assigned to the Roger Rabbit development unit and provided several screenplay versions. Later, Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel were contracted to provide another screenplay for a Roger Rabbit feature film.

When the dust settled in 1984, Michael Eisner and Frank Wells were now in the driver's seat. Work on Roger had continued for awhile under Van Citters who was now working on the special project Sport Goofy which would never see its intended theatrical release but was shown instead on NBC in 1987. It featured a brief cameo of Roger in the stands.

The Roger Rabbit film was no longer considered an active project as new administrations usually abandon things developed by their predecessors. However, Jeffrey Katzenberg did dig around in the files and discovered the work that had been done on Roger Rabbit and shared it with Eisner who put the project back into development.

At the time, to save on Disney's upfront costs and hedge any potential financial losses on such a risky film, Eisner tried to interest outside talent in various co-productions. One such talent was Steven Spielberg. Looking over a list of potential properties, Spielberg eyed Roger and requested the film.

Disney had still planned to do the animation, but Spielberg's Amblin Productions would be handling the majority of work. This marriage of studios also makes Roger one of the few Cartoon Superstars to be "joint" property, a situation that greatly influences where and how Roger is allowed to be used.

For a director, Spielberg chose Robert Zemeckis, who had just finished work on Back to the Future (1985). Zemeckis had been offered the director's job on the film in 1982 by Wilhite. At the time he turned it down feeling the Disney studio wasn't willing to put the necessary money behind the project.

Another one of Spielberg's decisions was that he didn't think the Disney staff of animators could meet the needs of doing the film. He looked at any animation director who had done live action and animation including such diverse talents as Don Bluth and Phil Roman.

There was even some discussion of setting up an entirely new animation studio in Northern California under the direction of Lucasfilm, which was already set to do the special effects work. Finally, all parties agreed upon the award-winning director Richard Williams and work began — and the rest is history.

Many sequences were storyboarded and some even animated for Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) but were then left out of the final feature film for a variety of reasons, including cost and time issues, pacing and the fact that while they might have been clever or fun but were not really necessary to tell the story.

Perhaps one of the saddest casualties was the funeral of Marvin Acme. Marvin Acme (played by the adorable, irrepressible and talented Stubby Kaye) is the head of the Acme Corporation and owner of Toontown. He genuinely cares about all Toons and has promised that in the event of his death, they will inherit Toontown, as stated in his will.

After Roger Rabbit discovers that Marvin is playing Patty Cake with his wife Jessica, Acme is found murdered the following morning in his factory warehouse. A large safe was dropped on his head and, fortunately, that action occurs offscreen. Roger is made the prime suspect and hires human detective Eddie Valiant to clear him of the charges.

In the original screenplay, an entire day went by between the time Eddie exited the Terminal Bar & Grill and the moment that Valiant encountered Jessica Rabbit as he stepped out of his office bathroom.

While amusing, some in the audience were puzzled why Valiant was taking a shower while Judge Doom and the weasels were in hot pursuit and time was running out for Roger.

The short answer was that Valiant had to wash off a toon pig head that the weasels had painted on him (in a scene animated but cut from the film) after a confrontation with Doom in Jessica's dressing room and that earlier Valiant had put in a very busy and sweaty day, including attending the funeral of Marvin Acme.

The original production schedule was for three days of live-action shooting for Marvin Acme's funeral. However, when some of the photography for other composite scenes came back with a scratch on the negative and needed to be re-shot, it would put the production in jeopardy of missing its Christmas deadline.

All the characters were supposed to come together for Marvin Acme's funeral.

Disney executive Jeffrey Katzenberg decided the funeral scene which would require complicated animation and physical gags to be included with the live action and negotiations unsure for the use of some characters in the scene, that it should be cut even though it was known that it was producer Steven Spielberg's favorite scene in the script.

After Valiant leaves Roger and Dolores at the bar, he hops a red car to the Inglewood cemetery (that was originally going to be filmed at a real cemetery somewhere in the San Francisco area) where the Marvin Acme funeral is taking place.

There were many variations in the actual funeral proceedings but here is probably the most likely version that I have patched together from voice artist Mel Blanc's vocal script, the storyboard done by Amblin artist Marty Kline offered for sale on eBay in 2014, talking with some of the people who worked on the film and other sources:

R.K. Maroon's Packard roars up amidst all the black limos and hearse parked along the roadway near the site of Acme's funeral. The ceremony is already in progress.

At this point, there was no confirmation as to what toons would be available to mourn so there are multiple "blue sky" drawings. A Terrytoons Mighty Mouse is crying while in the hand of a Fleischer Superman who is on his knees sobbing away.

Drawings were made of Tom and Jerry, Heckle and Jeckle, Tex Avery's MGM wolf character, Horace Horsecollar, Clarabelle Cow, Porky and Petunia Pig, Droopy, Andy Panda, Katnip the Cat, Tex Avery's George and Junior, Sylvester the Cat, Baby Huey, Tubby the Tuba and the Three Little Pigs among many others. They would be seen during a pan shot while the eulogy is given.

The eulogy is being given by Foghorn Leghorn who intones: "Today we commit the body of brother Acme to the cold, I say cold, cold ground. We shed no tears for we know that Marvin is going to a better place. That high, high, I say that high-larious place up in the sky. "We say goodbye to a man who was more generous than a homely widow with Sunday supper. Why when toonkind splattered forth upon this landscape, we wandered the hills without a home. That is until brother Acme painted up his backyard for us to live in. Thereby creating the old…I say old…neighborhood we know as Toontown."

This whole scene is being shown from the point of view of Valiant who is in the distance leaning against a palm tree. Maroon wends his way through the crowd and grabs Jessica Rabbit and pulls her to the side. He is angrily confronting her.

Valiant can't hear what is being said but by the pantomined actions can see it is on the verge of becoming violent. At one point Maroon points to his pocket. Toward the end, Jessica knees Maroon in the groin and he crumples to the ground as she storms off.

The pallbearers of the coffin kept shifting but generally included Yosemite Sam (who is struggling to carry the coffin from underneath it), Elmer Fudd, the silent screen version of Felix the Cat (with a "Sob" thought bubble above him), Popeye, Bluto, Herman the Mouse and, in at least one version, Goofy.

Goofy: Gawsh! Paul Bearin's shore hard work, ain't it? A-hyuck.

Popeye: We're bearing Paul? I thought we were bearing Acme. Arf Arf Arf.

Bluto thinks that Popeye's comment is disrespectful. So a fight between them ensues that evolves to include others. From that point on, there are several different variations of what happens to Acme's coffin so that there were multiple options depending upon what character rights could be obtained.

In one version, Yosemite Sam gets so angry that he yells, "Hold it, ya varmints! I'll plant him muhself!" He hoists the casket over his head and stomps toward the grave where he tosses it into the hole and turns to Foghorn Leghorn, "Awright, you big-mouth bantam…preach."

In another version, when the coffin was lowered down into the grave, it landed on a whoopee cushion and a little Tex Avery style sign popped up out of the coffin saying "Sad, ain't it?"

In yet another version, to the human funeral director's amazement as the coffin is being lowered, the crank starts plinking out the tune to Pop Goes the Weasel like a jack-in-the box and the Toon mourners sing the lyrics. When it reaches the bottom, there is a "boing" sound and the harlequin clown mascot from the Harvey cartoons' introductions pops out.

The final version and the one that is most often referenced seems to be that as the coffin touches the bottom of the grave, Casper the Friendly Ghost rises up and asks, "Will you be my friend?"

The appearance has all the mourners (both toon and human) screaming "A Ghost!!" and running off in terror, knocking down chairs, wreaths, loudspeakers and trampling Maroon, who has now recovered and is starting to stand up, in the process.

During this chaos, a convertible pulls up near Valiant. A live action look-alike for actor Humphrey Bogart is driving. An animated Bugs Bunny is sitting next to him. In the back seat is a live-action look-alike of actor Clark Gable sitting next to an animated Mickey Mouse. They are all dressed in golf attire and there are bags of golf clubs in the back.

Bugs, chomping on a carrot, leans out to ask Valiant, "Pardon me, Doc. I hate to interrupt your boid watchin' but is this the right boneyard for the Acme funeral?

The final shot for the scene would be Valiant saying, "When it comes to funerals, Toons are worse than the Irish!"

It would have been a fun scene with all those disparate Toons but Katzenberg was right that it wasn't necessary to tell the story. Over the decades, there have been many rumors of a sequel or a prequel but as the years go on, it becomes more and more doubtful.