On an ordinary day in 1986, executives from the Walt Disney Studio piled into a screening room to see what $100,000 had bought them.

That’s what they had paid for a proof-of-concept screen test for an upcoming film. If they liked what they saw, the project could move forward. If they didn’t, the movie would likely get axed.

What they saw, left them baffled. One confused executive asked producer Don Hahn “What is that? Is it a guy in a rabbit suit?”

It wasn’t. But that was precisely the reaction Hahn and his team were looking for — because the test had blended an animated character with live-action elements so convincingly, it fooled the Disney execs. They didn’t even realize they were looking at animation. They thought it was a dude in a costume.

The 42-second clip — starring a young Joe Pantoliano as the live-action detective — was a test for a movie based on a book about a comic strip hero who gets murdered. The book was titled Who Censored Roger Rabbit? The movie would eventually be called Who Framed Roger Rabbit. 

It’s no wonder the audience in that screening room was stunned. Today, the test still looks fantastic; a throughly persuasive illusion of a world where man and cartoon co-exist. Some films had blended live-action and animation before Roger Rabbit, including Disney’s own Mary Poppins, where Dick Van Dyke waddled with a flock of animated penguins. None had ever done it to such seamless effect, or so consistently throughout an entire film. The test ran less than a minute; the final Who Framed Roger Rabbit made Roger and several other “toons” central to its feature-length story, a film noir spoof set in a world where cartoons live side-by-side with humans.

When Who Framed Roger Rabbit opened in theaters several years later, viewers around the world shared a similarly stunned reaction. Who Framed Roger Rabbit became the top-grossing film of the summer 1988 season. To put its success in comparison: It earned almost exactly as much as the original Die Hard and Beetlejuice did in theaters combined(Eventual 1988 Best Picture winner Rain Man was the only movie to gross more in theaters that year.)

Roger Rabbit helped turn around Disney’s fortunes after a decade of box-office flops. The following fall, Disney had another major animated hit with The Little Mermaid. Beauty and the Beast followed two years later; it earned nearly as much as Roger Rabbit. Aladdin debuted in the fall of 1992 and outgrossed them all. By that point, the so-called “Disney Renaissance” was in full swing.


Historians widely credit Roger Rabbit with sparking that Renaissance, and with helping generate new interest in the classic Disney and Warner Bros. toons who appeared in cameo roles in the movie. The movie also inspired a couple of stylistically similar (but creatively underwhelming) copycats in the live-action/animated hybrid space, including Cool World and Space Jam. But viewed today, Who Framed Roger Rabbit appears far more important than that. Even if you strip out its enormous impact on the animation medium, Roger Rabbit still might be the most influential Hollywood blockbuster of the ’80s.

True, the films that bear direct visual similarities to Roger Rabbit petered out fairly quickly. But the formal techniques underpinning those similarities — inserting lifelike animated characters into otherwise live-action worlds — has become the basis for countless blockbusters since 1988. I see shades of Roger Rabbit and his flawless integration into the physical and emotional space of his movie, in characters ranging from The Lord of The Rings’ Gollum to Harry Potter’s Dobby to the title characters in King Kong, Paddington, Sonic the Hedgehog, and Detective Pikachu.

It’s also hard to envision what Marvel movies look like in a world without Who Framed Roger Rabbit, which provided a template for what a world inhabited by ordinary humans and supernatural beings might look like onscreen. They’ve mined that template in film after film as they’ve introduced us to a spiteful, soulful space raccoon and an invulnerable alien god with purple skin and a hunger for ultimate power, and dozens of Avengers and Guardians and Eternals in between.

And Roger Rabbit has more in common with Marvel. In the late 1980s, director Robert Zemeckis and screenwriters Jeffrey Price and Peter S. Seaman envisioned a world shared by all of history’s most famous toons, from Warner Bros.’ Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck to Disney’s Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck to Max Fleischer’s Betty Boop. (Author Gary K. Wolf’s original Who Censored Roger Rabbit? novel included similar cameos from real-life comic-strip heroes like Beetle Bailey and Dick Tracy.)


While these cartoon characters had never met in any context before, they all lived together in Roger Rabbit’s “Toontown,” essentially a fantastical neighborhood in Los Angeles populated by all these animated icons. That concept helped pioneer the notion of a shared cinematic universe that would become so popular in Marvel’s films decades later.

Like so many modern films from Marvel and others, Roger Rabbit is also peppered with Easter eggs for hardcore fans. You don’t need to know, for example, that the line of cows waiting outside the “Cattle Call” audition at Maroon Studios includes Disney’s Clarabelle. The sight of a bunch of animated cows waiting at a “Cattle Call” is already funny. If you do know that’s Clarabelle, however, you also likely that she essentially vanished from Disney’s cartoons in the early 1940s — which means in a world where toons are real, she would be looking for work in 1947, when Roger Rabbit takes place.

That sort of attention to detail has become the coin of the realm in modern Hollywood. It was almost unheard of at the time — and it was certainly not part of the cartoons that Roger Rabbit is paying tribute to. The way Roger Rabbit applies worldbuilding logic to classic cartoons is very similar to the way Marvel has adapted and modernized their own superheroes for the big screen. (Roger Rabbit’s use of weaponized nostalgia to hook older audiences in what is ostensibly a movie for children is reminiscent of Marvel’s business model too.)


Ironically, the main way Roger Rabbit isn’t like modern movies is the fact that despite its outsized influence on other forever franchises, it never became one itself. Disney, Zemeckis, and producer Steven Spielberg tried off and on for years to continue Roger Rabbit — at one time the plan called for a prequel set during World War II, at another the film would have revealed how Roger and Jessica met. Yet another project conceived following star Bob Hoskins’ death would have actually involved the ghost of his character, Eddie Valiant. Frankly, I’m relieved that last one never got made — although it sounds enough like the 2021 Ghostbusters legacyquel Ghostbusters: Afterlife to make you wonder if even the unmade sequels to Roger Rabbit have influenced Hollywood.

A sequel — providing it didn’t involve the spectral likeness of a beloved dead actor — could have been good. It also might have been redundant. These days, so many movies feel like Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

Classic Movies That Are Cringe Now

If you'd rather preserve the memory of how much you loved these movies, just don't rewatch them.

Gallery Credit: Emma Stefansky

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