My father has a unique sense of humor. Perhaps unique isn’t the right word, actually. Perhaps a better term would be “old-fashioned.” He tends to gravitate more toward slapstick, shying away from many of today’s more raunchy comedic fare. Something else he has always loved, and which he has ingrained in me as a result, is animation. I wonder, to this day, if the combination of these components contributes to his love for Robert Zemeckis’ Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988). I have many of my own reasons for loving this movie, the biggest of which is the simple fact that this is the film that my dad and I watched together most when I was growing up. I learned very recently that it was also the first film my parents saw together while dating, but it was still, in many ways, our film—mine and my father’s.
Even before I understood it, I always had an appreciation for this movie, even though at the time, it was difficult to explain the reasons why. Seeing him laugh at things that went over my head as a child was enjoyable enough for me then, and upon each subsequent viewing, I understood more and more about the film. And, the more I understood about the film, the more I was able to appreciate it. Initially, I was just mesmerized by the way cartoons interacted with human beings, and I wondered how that was even possible.
I always knew my dad loved these animated characters—many of whom were prominent parts of his own childhood. To me, the cartoons were still childish here, in the sense that they were the only thing that felt familiar to me. They felt like my way into an adult world—a world of real human beings, the world my parents occupied, and the world within the film that wasn’t Toontown and which, therefore, didn’t yet make sense to me. Before I knew enough to pick up on and untangle the film’s intricacies and mature if subtle themes, my dad was Eddie and I was Roger—we were able to connect through this film, despite our differences. After all, when you’re a kid, those differences feel a lot bigger than they truly are.
Since then, I’ve watched Who Framed Roger Rabbit quite a few more times—most of which were still with my dad, but some of which, more recently, have been with friends and peers who had never seen it. Interestingly, as I grow and change, the film reveals other aspects of itself to me, aspects which I don’t know if my father notices with quite the same gravity. For example, when I began to learn more about cinematic history, I started to look at the film with new academic eyes—eyes that could actually see the film’s stylistically Noir elements and its playful reformatting of detective movie tropes.
Now, it’s logical that as a child, I would have been drawn into the movie by the cartoons; it makes sense that I wouldn’t have known that patty-cake functioned as a euphemism, nor would I have known what a euphemism even was. The film’s plot, in its simplest formulation, made sense to me enough: Eddie Valiant, a toon-hating detective, must help prove Roger Rabbit’s innocence when he’s framed for murder. But the kinds of clues and conspiracies, questions and complications that emerge throughout the narrative, reminiscent of more typical crime capers, eluded me completely until later viewings. Christopher Lloyd’s Doom was one of the scariest villains I’d ever seen, but the plot details that made him so evil were secondary to his outward appearance and the mere image of that deadly, diabolical yellow dip. So, what is more noteworthy is the fact that I had an outlet into this film in the first place, so that it could one day become an all-time favorite— it has become a film that is never finished for its audience, at least not for me.
My dad seems to agree that it doesn’t get old. But, I wonder, as I mature and notice the adult aspects of the film more and more readily, noting its revolutionary technological feats or its referential nature or its witty script, if my father places an even firmer attentive emphasis on the cartoons, just like I had when I was younger– as if to recall the innocence, simplicity, and humor of his (or even of my) youth.
In saying this seemingly bleak statement, I merely mean to acknowledge how complex this film truly is, and how there is something in it for everyone. It is timeless precisely because of its complexity, I think. It is by no means a kid’s movie, and yet I value it as a fixture of my childhood, and I love it now that I am able to take what mesmerized me as a kid and to dig deeper and look beyond, bringing to bear what I know now about movies that I couldn’t possibly have known then. This film is a central point from which my love for cinema has branched outward, and upon which my film education has since been built.
But even more than that, it is a film that perfectly exemplifies my dad’s sense of humor, and it has therefore taught me just as much about my father as it has about film. I sometimes wonder if I watched my father’s reactions more as a child than I did the actual movie, and I sometimes wonder how much of my own sense of humor developed from observing both. Who Framed Roger Rabbit? is a time capsule in many ways, then. Created in the 1980’s, it reaches back into cinematic and American history and paints a partially animated and thus highly imaginative portrait of the 1940’s. Even more importantly for me though, this film will always encapsulate my childhood— specifically, this film is how I first learned what was funny, and by showing this film to (and watching it with) me, my dad became the first, and the best, teacher for the subject.
Originally published: June 11, 2014