The Roger Rabbit That Never Wasby Wade Sampson, staff writer
Today’s column is the tale of a tail. A rabbit’s tail and tale, that is.
Who Censored Roger Rabbit written by Gary Wolf, was published in 1981. It was meant to be a surreal spoof of the traditional hard-boiled detective novel, a mixture of Raymond Chandler, Lewis Carroll and Warner Bros. Roger Rabbit was a 6-foot-tall rabbit (a height which included his 18-inch 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.
Within the first fourth of the book, Roger is killed. However, earlier that evening he mentally created a duplicate to go out and buy some red suspenders. Toons could create doppelgangers to perform the dangerous stunts in cartoons. Roger put a large jolt of mental energy into his duplicate so that it will be awhile before it falls apart.
During the book, the doppelganger teams with Eddie Valiant to find Roger’s killer and clear his name. Unfortunately, he starts to fall apart piece by piece as the story progresses so it is a race against time to find the true murderer of Rocco DeGreasy before the doppelganger disintegrates. Jessica Rabbit is a human-looking toon with a shady, pornographic past who really has little affection for her husband.
In the book, Roger and his toon friends are not animated stars but comic strip characters who pose for the live-action photos which actually make up newspaper strips. When Toons talked, dialog balloons physically appeared over their heads with the words spelled out, and these balloons eventually disintegrated, leaving a fine dust.
For me, one of the amusing bits in the book was where the character of Dick Tracy is given the same respect and affection by the Los Angeles Police Department that Jack Webb received during his lifetime.
Personally, I liked the book up until the very last page when it turned out that a character that I had grown to care for was actually a bad guy.
Before the book was even published, Ron Miller got a hold of the galley proofs and thought this might be a good project for the Walt Disney Company. Miller was looking for new and unique projects to revitalize the studio. He was the one who created a separate film unit, Touchstone, to create more competitive adult-oriented films and greenlit its first production, Splash.
However, when Miller pitched the Roger Rabbit project Disney to CEO Card Walker, Walker who had been with the studio for decades disliked the novel, feeling it was too dark and out of the ordinary. Against Walker’s objections, Miller paid $25,000 for an option to the project and handed it off to Tom Wilhite to develop.
Wilhite who was head of production gave it to producer Mark Sturdivant who brought on Darrell Van Citers as the animation director. Mike Giaimo was brought in as a character designer and storyman in addition to animator Chris Buck who along with Van Citers and Giaimo had just worked on Fun With Mr. Future (an animated project intended for Epcot but never completed except as a patched together short for internal amusement).
Sturdivant hired two former advertising copywriters, Jeffrey Price and Peter Seaman, to work up a screenplay and they went through 10 drafts. They got rid of the newspaper strip idea and converted the time period to the 1940s, not only a classic time for noir private eye stories but also the Golden Age of animation so that there would be guest appearances by characters from other studios.
This caused a major challenge in getting clearances from other studios that either immediately said “no” to the request or asked for ridiculously high fees. However, Miller kept going forward and okayed some pencil test animation to see how a live-action Eddie Valiant might interact with animated characters in hopes of sparking greater interest from others.
This test animation was even broadcast for subscribers of the new Disney Channel go gauge audience reaction.
The Backstage at Disney that aired in April 1983 was part of the Disney Studio Showcase series exclusive to the Disney Channel. This episode was hosted by Disney historian John Culhane and covered some of the Disney projects that were in preparation including Something Wicked This Way Comes, Baby and Tim Burton’s Vincent that also included a glimpse into his Hansel and Gretel.
It also included a brief look at “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” with Van Citers, Giamo and Sturdivant in a room filled with sketches (such as Roger in a trenchcoat and hat like Dick Tracy and several sketches of Jessica in a variety of expressions and wardrobe) on the storyboards and some rough animation. On the door to the room was even a rough poster for the film with silhouettes of Eddie and Roger in a pool of light.
Sturdivant explained the premise:
“Roger Rabbit is a live-action picture in which half the cast is made up of animated characters. It is based on the premise that cartoon characters really live. They are not drawn but they exist in this world just like human beings do. Our hero, that’s Roger Rabbit, your basic 6-foot animated rabbit. He’s a second banana on a cartoon series known as the Baby Herman Cartoons. Roger is a lovable, naïve, sincere and goofy type of guy who is always trying to do the right thing but always manages to mess things up. In our story which takes place in Hollywood in the 1940s,
“Roger is framed for the murder of a Hollywood producer and he hires a live=action private detective, a sort of seedy, cynical Humphrey Bogart kind of guy to clear his name. In the course of the story, they come across a number of possible suspects. Among them is Jessica Rabbit, Roger’s wife.
“Jessica is a rabbit by marriage only. She’s actually an ambitious young starlet who married Roger to further her career and now that’s she’s been given a part in a film that she’s wanted, she’s cast Roger aside. She doesn’t care for him any more. Roger can’t see that. He’s blindly in love with her. He just doesn’t see Jessica for the cunning and seductive person that she really is.
“Then there is Captain Cleaver. Cleaver is the tough cop from downtown. He’s head of the homicide division.”
There were two rough scenes shown that combined live action and animation and were shown in black and white.
One featured an animated Cleaver, a big 7-foot barrel-chested policeman confronting a live-action Eddie Valiant played by Pete Renoudet, who had done a variety of voices for the Disney Company including the voice of Captain Nemo in the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea attraction at Walt Disney World and Henry the Bear in Country Bear Jamboree as well as some live-action roles including the pilot in Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N. In the scene Renoudet wears a battered trenchcoat and has a trimmed black mustache and beard. On the hardcover of the original edition of Who Censored Roger Rabbit, there is a picture of author Gary Wolf in a trimmed black beard and mustache as Eddie Valiant.
Valiant: “Oh, Cleaver. Sorry I didn’t see you. What’s on your mind?”
Cleaver: (pulling out his gun and poking Valiant) “Get off the Roger Rabbit case. I got the wife pegged as the killer, and I’m an inch away from proving it. You keep poking around you’re liable to screw up my play and that would make me very unhappy.”
The second scene showed Jessica Rabbit, looking like a young Lauren Bacall with a tight sweater and flowing hair, trying to seduce Valiant while he is seated at a bar.
Jessica: (in a breathy, seductive almost girlish voice) “Mr. Valiant, you have beautiful features. So strong and well defined.”
Valiant: “Chipped out of granite. That’s me.”
Jessica: (her hair brushing across his face) “You will take my case, won’t you?”
Valiant: “Not a chance.”
Jessica: (very angry and shouting) “What do you mean ‘not a chance’?”
Van Citers comments on the animation as he sketches Jessica: “She moves in and around him, interacting with Eddie. That’s difficult. Most films stayed away from that. We are going to try to put together a lot of contact between the live and animated characters.”
There was also a short clip of completed color animation of Roger walking across the hallway from one doorway to another and then popping out his head from around the corner of a doorway and wiggling it.
Miller sent the test footage and the script to Steven Spielberg, Robert Zemeckis and Joe Dante.
“When I read Roger Rabbit, I knew it had great potential. I couldn’t get it out of my mind. But in those days, the Disney Studios weren’t in gear. I went off to do Romancing the Stone,” remembered Zemeckis who felt that Disney wasn’t willing to commit the necessary money and time needed to do the project right.
At the time, the film was budgeted at $12 million. At one point, Miller said he might consider doubling the budget to $25 million.
The final film released in 1988 cost more than $50 million, although it earned more than $150 million in the United States alone and $325 million worldwide on its initial release.
A picture of Roger was placed in the 1983 Walt Disney Productions' Annual Report with a caption stating: "Work continues on the live action - animated Roger Rabbit."
Miller kept championing the project until he was removed from the Disney Company in September 1984.
In 1986, Disney Studio head Jeffrey Katzenberg uncovered the Roger Rabbit project while reading through some old scripts Disney had previously put into development. Bringing Spielberg on board meant that negotiating for the rights to animated characters from other studios would be much, much easier. Spielberg persuaded the other Hollywood studios to lease their toons to the Mouse for a ridiculously low fee of $5000 per character.
However, Warner Bros. set some restrictions on the use of Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck and some other studios still refused to lend out their characters, which is one of the reasons why such scenes as a crying Fleischer Studios Superman comforting a sobbing Mighty Mouse at Marvin Acme’s funeral only exists on storyboards.
The film was still a troubled production, almost missing its deadline which would have imperiled merchandising deals with McDonalds and Coca-Cola and going well over its budget.
However, this new version of Roger Rabbit was much different in approach to story and character than the Miller version.
“I was on ‘The Black Cauldron’ for only eight months," Giaimo recalled. "After that I worked with Darrell Van Citers on a little short called Fun With Mr. Future doing character and story design. After the short, a property was dropped off to Tom Wilhite’s office. It was the galley proofs of Who Censored Roger Rabbit and they put Darrell and I on it initially. Believe it or not, I was on that for two years doing initial production design and lots of character designs from 1981 to 1982. After Roger, which went nowhere during the Ron Miller period, I was put on various projects developing Mickey Mouse featurettes.”
“We designed Roger to look like a goon," Van Citers stated. "We patterned his 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.”
The final Roger who appeared on screen was a grab bag of characteristics with little original personality of his own. He featured traits of many great cartoon characters from Goofy to Screwy Squirrel.
Richard Williams, animation director on the final film, at the time said, “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.
“It’s a series of clichés pushed into new forms,” Williams added.
“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,” said Van Citers of the Miller version.
“I think what initially attracted us to Roger Rabbit was the potential for unique character relationships,” Van Citers added, “At the core, this was a buddy movie, but a buddy movie with a twist. We would be developing a friendship between a live human being and a drawing. To us, there was nothing more challenging or exhilarating than the possibility of successfully pulling this off. Once the live action was filmed, we would be creating the other half of the relationship out of thin air. We saw the picture as essentially a live-action film, some of our stars just happened to be animated. It was our feeling that, in this context, we would create the kind of interest in an animated character that would allow Roger Rabbit to cross over into the adult market, and perhaps allow the movie-going public to see animation as something more than babysitting fodder.”
“We steered clear of using ‘feature’ characters. They appeared in just one film and were integral to that story. They never had any other roles, and consequently didn’t seem to fit any definition of actor. Characters from short cartoons, on the other hand, usually appeared in many films and in many roles, just as live actors did,” stated Van Citers about his approach to using other characters in the film.
Van Citers felt that a baby like appearance with a tough guy, gruff voice had already been explored in several cartoons including Chuck Jones’s Baby Buggy Bunny so decided to go in a different direction with Baby Herman.
“We chose to play against Herman’s appearance with a rather haughty Ronald Colmanesque voice," Van Citers said. "To make him an elitist actor who resented his typecasting in films and lived, instead, for ‘the theater.’"
As mentioned previously, Jessica would not have been the extreme Tex Avery Red Hot Riding Hood character but more subtle as an almost Cruella De Vil type looking like Lauren Bacall from the Humphrey Bogart detective films of the period. How did these craftsmen feel about the final Amblin/Disney production?
“As I was involved at the beginning, it’s hard for me to be objective," Chris Buck said. "I envisioned something different, a character with more heart. Roger turned out so obnoxious that I couldn’t like him. They were going for a TexAvery/Warner Brothers look, but the best of the Warner animation is still controlled. Warners knew how to do the zany stuff, and when to pause to let that pay off. Again, that’s pacing and timing. Roger was very hard to watch. Trying to keep up with it literally gave me a headache.”
“I really admire the technical dexterity and the incredible visual style of it [the final film]," Mike Giaimo said. "Since I do come from a story background, though, I felt that from a character standpoint, just from a personality standpoint of character animation, it fell short, but it certainly had enough visual appeal to keep people amused.”
“The picture took on a life of its own," Darrell Van Citers said. "The rest, as they say, is history.”
However, the story of trying to produce the original Roger Rabbit film is less heart-breaking than the stories behind why there have been no sequels to this successful and popular film.
One thing I do know from all of this is that the final ending to the tale of Roger Rabbit is yet to be written, but at least Mouse Planet readers now know the true beginning.