Bob Hoskins in Who Framed Roger Rabbit

There is a man squatting at the lowest point of his personal and professional life. He’s a classic film-noir detective living from job to job in Hollywood in the late 1940s, the dark hero of an ’80s neo-noir. The man used to be on the LAPD, but now he’s just a hacky private investigator who’s drowned his former glory by guzzling scotch day and night. But the job he’s on now is tough, the toughest one he’s had yet: it started small, with him taking sleazy pictures of a gorgeous woman fooling around on her husband, but it’s turned into a case full of greed, murder, and a city-wide conspiracy.

The worst cut of all: to save his reputation and his life, this gumshoe has to go to the one place he’s feared for years, the place where his cop brother was killed. As he stares into the abyss of a tunnel where doom waits on the other side, the camera zooms in on his sweaty, terrified face. He bucks up the last shreds of courage he has, gets back into his car, drives through the tunnel, and is confronted with…

Bright colors, hand-drawn animation, literal songbirds, and half of the most beloved animated characters of all time. The man is Eddie Valiant, the place is Toontown, and the film is Who Framed Roger Rabbit, which turns 30 today.

Roger Rabbit’s Secret Weapon

On its face, Who Framed Roger Rabbit has an inherently ridiculous premise, one that should absolutely not work considering how wildly it veers from tonal extreme to tonal extreme. In one scene, the hapless Eddie Valiant falls out of an impossibly tall building, greeted by a parachuting pair: Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny, who give the man a “spare.” (Tire, not parachute, of course.) Soon after, the despondent and desperate Eddie learns that his brother wasn’t just killed by some insane Toon from the magical, Hollywood-adjacent land of Toontown. He was killed by the current scourge of Los Angeles, Judge Doom, a Toon in human clothing. Moreover, he learns that Judge Doom is trying to buy up LA’s public transportation system along with Toontown so he can make some newfangled thing called…a “freeway.”

There are myriad ways in which Who Framed Roger Rabbit should have failed. Director Robert Zemeckis was no neophyte, but the ambition with which he mounted a production in which live actors and animated characters co-existed could have turned into a screw-up of massive proportions. The balance of wild, manic humor and a surprisingly serious depiction of the drastic shift in transportation in one of the biggest cities of the country could be especially goofy, considering that the conspiracy elements of the story are a clear homage to Roman Polanski’s Chinatown of all things.

But the key to why this film works so well, 30 years later, is perhaps its most underrated element. No doubt, the film’s humor remains on-point, and the effects are largely quite believable. Yet it’s Bob Hoskins, the actor playing Eddie Valiant so marvelously, so understatedly, who makes this film sing. Hyperbolic as it may be, consider that Hoskins’ performance in Who Framed Roger Rabbit is both one of the most important and most dynamic pieces of acting in modern cinema.

In 2018, it is second nature for an actor starring in a major studio feature to film scenes against a green or a blue screen on which any number of computer-generated effects can be projected in the final product. Actors sometimes interact with another performer in motion-capture suits, or a tennis ball, or nothing at all, to reflect some kind of special effect that will be added in post-production. In 1988, such productions weren’t entirely unheard of, but it was much closer to rare for actors to have to prepare to act against a blank wall, as it were.

What Bob Hoskins did when filming Who Framed Roger Rabbit is commonplace now, in part because his performance established the language of acting opposite nothing, or opposite someone or something that wouldn’t be in the final product.

Acting Opposite Nothing

Much of Hoskins’ performance, as you can tell from the video above, was reliant as much on the special effects and animation technology as it was on Hoskins’ willingness to pretend. The scene after Eddie Valiant stares down the void is what’s being compared in that before-and-after example (you’ll have to excuse the stretched-out aspect ratio). Eddie is first seen driving his car through the fully animated Toontown, then spotting a woman he believes (incorrectly) to be femme fatale Jessica Rabbit, then having a hellish elevator ride courtesy of Droopy, being cheerfully assaulted by a different woman, and then falling down an infinite series of stories out of a building next to Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny, leading to the aforementioned gag about the spare.

(Of course, it should be noted that live-action and animation hybrids had existed long before this film, but none this ambitious and none that demanded so much from the leading human performer.)

Or, if you watch the “Before” half on the top of that video, Bob Hoskins pretends to walk his way through Toontown, but is really walking in front of a blue screen. Then, Hoskins falls on his face to simulate Eddie’s part of the elevator ride, acts as disgusted as he can at the invisible animated woman trying to kiss Eddie, then is dangled by a wire a couple of feet above the ground before he hits the ground. The kind of blue-screen acting Bob Hoskins was required to perform here is death-defying to an actor. How can you act terrified or confused or disgusted if you’re not able to react to anything?

Bob Hoskins, who we tragically lost in 2014 to Parkinson’s Disease, made it look so goddamn easy in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. “All the special effects in the world wouldn’t work without his performance,” said Zemeckis in one of the various behind-the-scenes featurettes you can find on the Blu-ray release of the film.

One such feature (which you can watch above) also includes footage of how Hoskins wasn’t always on his own — the voice of Roger Rabbit, Charles Fleischer, would not only stand in on set as the eponymous character, but he would get…dressed up as the goofy character. If you haven’t watched that featurette yet, you should, just because the image of the craggy-faced Charles Fleischer dressed up as Roger Rabbit is something else. It’s difficult enough to imagine actors interacting with a stand-in for an animated character; doubly so considering what one of those stand-ins looked like.

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