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DVD Review: Who Framed Roger Rabbit Vista Series

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By Glenn Abel

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Rabbit art TOONTOWN -- Sadly, most people remember Roger Rabbit as the proper noun in a tawdry tabloid headline -- or from reruns of his "Hollywood Story" on E! The messy breakup with Jessica. The love triangle with Drew and Tom. Wild nights on the Strip with Robert Downey Jr. and Jar Jar Binks.

It's the same old story of a one-hit wonder: a rocket ride to stardom followed by a punishing downward spiral. One Oscar-winning film, a handful of shorts, then ... pffffft. For Roger, the past decade has been mostly Orange County dinner theater and grip-and-grins at his little theme park.

Sad stuff. But hey! This is Toontown, where happy endings come by the barrel. The kid's big comeback starts March 24, as Touchstone Home Entertainment revives "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" in a double-disc set that's packed with extra features. The Vista Series release retails for $29.99.

"Roger" looks terrific after 15 years, sporting THX-certified audio and video that tops all previous versions of the film. Disney split the new set into discs titled "Family Friendly" and "Enthusiast."

Segregating the extras makes sense -- it worked great on "Shrek" -- but here the kids get the short end of the shtick. Aside from a fun game and a trio of "Roger" shorts, there's little worth revisiting in this part of Toontown. Kids are rarely puzzled by widescreen anymore, so for most folks it's an extra $10 or so for a disc they'll rarely play. Here's a pie in the face for that decision. The "Family" version comes full-screen (1.33:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 surround. The adults' DVD unspools "Roger" in widescreen (1.85:1) enhanced for 16x9 screens, with the welcome addition of DTS sound. Live-action images look a bit flat at times, but the vivid cartoon colors jump off the screen. Audio in either format is front-biased, with the rear speakers used mostly for music accents, not the many sound effects.

DVD menus star Bennie the Cab, mixing animation and live action, like the film. They're fun at first, but repeat viewers won't appreciate waiting for the menu gimmicks to play out.

All in all, though, the "Roger" DVD set is a class act, from the quality of the movie and the extras down to the package art. Director Robert Zemeckis enjoyed similar first-class treatment with his "Back to the Future" collection a few months back. As in that set, a lot of material on "Roger" gets repeated between the (new) documentary and the (recycled) commentary. Fans won't mind; they're getting a detail-rich look at the making of this groundbreaking film.

Zemeckis, producer Frank Marshall and four other "Roger" veterans provide the feature-length commentary, which is loaded with good vibes, great stories and a fair amount of tech talk. (It's nearly impossible to keep track of who's talking most of the time.) The filmmakers clearly love their film and delight in their co-workers' craft ("Look at those shadows!"). They remain astonished at the performance of then-unknown Bob Hoskins, who conjures up the spirit of Buster Keaton.

The fast-moving 36-minute documentary "Behind the Ears" tells how executive producer Steven Spielberg vowed to create "something that no one had ever seen before." Zemeckis envisioned an improbable mix of a period film noir, a cartoon and a special-effects movie.

Spielberg used Town Car diplomacy to acquire rights to cartoon characters from longtime rivals Warner Bros. and the Walt Disney Co. "You'll probably never see this again," Zemeckis says of the all-star animated cast, which gathers for a "Sgt. Pepper"-style finale.

Roger Rabbit, a new cartoon character, was festooned with red, white and blue colors in an attempt to stir subliminal affection from the audience. His body shape deliberately evoked a dunce hat. The more interesting body shape came with his wife, Jessica Rabbit, basically a human character modeled on the great movie sirens of the 1940s.

"She had to be full of dangerous curves," associate producer Don Hahn says. Jessica's over-the-top sex appeal was tempered by a scheme in which her body often worked in reverse of normal anatomy. "She moves very impossibly," Zemeckis points out.

As for those famous frames that revealed a bit too much of the leading lady, they're long gone, along with the sneak peek up Betty Boop's skirt. Zemeckis points out that animators found their single-frame in-jokes became riskier with digital home video. "Body Heat" star Kathleen Turner did Jessica's breathy voice (uncredited, except for on the shorts). Roger's jumble of a voice came from Charles Fleischer, who showed up for filming every day dressed in a cheap bunny costume -- even though he was never on camera. Cartoon great Mel Blanc, who died only a year later, did five voices, blessing the new-school project.

Looking back, Zemeckis and Co. still seem amazed they were able to pull off the uncanny mix of live action and animation. Short on time and money, the filmmakers repeatedly saw their project in danger of being killed. Disney OK'd no more than 12 minutes of animation but ended up footing the bill for 48 minutes. More than 1,200 effects shots were required to merge the real and cartoon worlds.

"All of us were loony toons by the end of it," says Ed Jones, optical photo supervisor.

Disney's film chief at the time, Jeffrey Katzenberg, was "extremely supportive," Zemeckis says. But after a disastrous test screening in which the animated characters were rendered in pencil, the executive's enthusiasm turned to despair. "I just saw my life pass before my eyes," Katzenberg told Zemeckis.

The director had final cut and refused demands for changes. The real--life happy ending came as "Roger" became a boxoffice sensation, raking in a quartet of Academy Awards. Animation boss Richard Williams, a Tex Avery disciple, took home a special Oscar.

Bob Hoskins didn't win an Oscar, but voters may have felt differently if they'd seen the DVD's bonus footage of him at work, diving like a madman into blue screens and delivering most of his dialogue to invisible "toons" who were drawn in only after filming wrapped.

The DVD set includes a surreal deleted scene in which Hoskins' character is forced to wear a giant pig's head. The clip would pass for a Pink Floyd video.

Glenn Abel is Executive Editor, Electronic, at The Hollywood Reporter

Reprinted, with permission, from The Hollywood Reporter

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