Who Framed Roger Rabbit is one of the most beloved family films of the 1980s. We take a look at the sequel that came so close to becoming a reality.
Even now, in 2022, where we take astonishing special effects for granted, Who Framed Roger Rabbit still looks as impressive as ever.
Robert Zemeckis’ seminal 1988 film, co-written by screenwriting team Jeffrey Price and Peter S. Seaman – and produced by Steven Spielberg, Frank Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy through Ambin Entertainment – the film of course followed private investigator Eddie Valiant, played by Bob Hoskins. He becomes involved with the fight to exonerate cartoon character Roger Rabbit, who has been framed for the murder of the ACME CEO. Along the way, he becomes embroiled with femme fatale Jessica Rabbit, voiced by Kathleen Turner and the evil Judge Doom, played by Christopher Lloyd. Tim Curry was up for the role, before being deemed too terrifying, while John Cleese was not considered to be terrifying enough.
Roger Rabbit himself was voiced by stand up comic Charles Fleischer, who was known on the comedy circuit for his weird and wonderful routines with sound effects he made with his voice.
The film included many iconic voice actors of the era, including one of the final appearances of the iconic Mel Blanc voicing various Looney Tunes characters, including Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Sylvester the Cat and Tweety Pie. Others included Rocky and Bullwinkle’s June Foray, Fred Newman, Joe Alaskey as Yosemite Sam, Jim Cummings, future Simpsons star Nancy Cartwright, Scooby Doo himself, Frank Welker, Lou Hirsch and April Winchell.
Upon release, it received a slew of awards, including the Oscar and BAFTA for Best Visual Effects. It also received near unanimous critical praise, with the box office to match – it took over $350 million on a budget of $50 million. It didn’t take long to start hatching plans for a possible sequel.
Around this period, future Star Trek and Star Wars director JJ Abrams also worked on the story. He recalled in an interview that “I went into a meeting for a Roger Rabbit sequel, I actually have some storyboards for a Roger Rabbit short. Honestly, we never really got to the scripting phase, we were writing an outline, but it honestly went away before it was anything. This was a long time ago. Zemeckis probably would’ve been a producer on it. This was 1989”.
The lack of progress of the sequel did not dampen the enthusiasm of all involved, and a series of short films were produced though Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment from 1989 to 1993., with Fleischer, Turner, Hirsch and Winchell all reprising their roles. Three were produced – Tummy Trouble, Roller Coaster Rabbit and Trail Mix-U – with the original plan being to attach them to various Disney feature films (which happened with a couple of them in the UK). Plans for further short films were cancelled during pre-production.
Unsurprisingly, the studio leapt at the chance of a sequel though.
Initially, Nat Maudlin was hired to write Toon Platoon, later retitled Who Discovered Roger Rabbit?. It would have been a prequel that would have once again have seen characters from the Golden Age of animation appear in a story about Roger Rabbit’s younger years living on a farm in the American Midwest. With human sidekick Ritchie, Roger sets out to seek his mother, in the process meeting future wife Jessica Krupnick, a struggling Hollywood actress.
Things would have continued: while Roger and Ritchie are enlisting in the Army, Jessica is kidnapped and forced to make pro-Nazi broadcasts. Roger and Ritchie must save her by going into Nazi-occupied Europe accompanied by several other Toons in their Army platoon. After their triumph, Roger and Ritchie are given a Hollywood Boulevard parade, and Roger is finally reunited with his mother and father, Bugs Bunny.
But the story wasn’t winning everybody over. Steven Spielberg was the first to leave, fearing that he could not in good conscience satirize the Nazis given his work on Schindler’s List. After he left, the project came crumbling down. It was back to the drawing board.
Sherri Stoner and Deanna Oliver were the next screenwriting duo to have a crack at penning a new screenplay. Both had written for the much-loved TV show Animaniacs, and while they kept the basic storyline about Roger’s search for his mother, they incorporated musical elements, with Roger finding himself an inadvertent Hollywood star. Disney was so impressed with this concept it hired noted composer Alan Menken, who composed scores and songs for the likes of Beauty & The Beast, Aladdin and Enchanted. He penned five songs for the prospective film, one of which, This Only Happens In The Movies, was eventually recorded by Broadway star Kerry Butler for her 2008 album Faith, Trust and Pixie Dust.
Franchise creator Gary K Wolf wrote a follow-up novel of his own in 1991, Who P-P-P-Plugged Roger Rabbit?, which further complicated matters. Wolf would go on to sue Disney very successfully, winning over $180,000 in underpaid royalties, before penning one further novel in 2013, Who Wacked Roger Rabbit?.
Spielberg eventually dropped out of any involvement with Roger Rabbit completely in the 1990s, overseeing other animations when he co-created Dreamworks with senior Disney executive Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen.
By the early 2000s, the project was essentially dead.
Zemeckis went on to explore animation in further features like 2004’s The Polar Express and 2009’s A Christmas Carol. The latest update was in 2018, although there was briefly talk of him coming back to Roger Rabbit from time to time. Zemeckis certainly happily answered questions about it as he set about promoting his films, but nothing was moving forward. Still, come the 30th anniversary of the film, Zemeckis was asked by Yahoo about the probability of a sequel, to which he answered “I don’t know where it fits in in Disney’s universe. There’s no princess in it, so I don’t know where that would be. There’s a wonderful script sitting at Disney that is really good, but I don’t think it’s on their radar”.
There is no doubt that Who Framed Roger Rabbit was a pioneering film for its time. While we’d seen Jerry the Mouse dancing with Gene Kelly in Anchors Aweigh in the 1940s, and the fantastical Pete’s Dragon in the 1970s, this was one of the first films to fully exploit the potential of mixing live action with animation, which in turn led to films as diverse as Space Jam and Looney Tunes: Back In Action to almost completely forgotten box office failure Cool World.
In the words of Roger Rabbit himself, “That’s right! A laugh can be a very powerful thing. Why, sometimes in life, it’s the only weapon we have”. Who Framed Roger Rabbit will be making people laugh for generations to come. But for the time being, there remains only one film…
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