1988 Ebert Cup | Preliminary Round | (8) Who Framed Roger Rabbit? v. (9) Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam
The eagle-eyed among you might remember that I made a blog a while ago praising the genius of Canadian animator Richard Williams, and I fear I'll be repeating myself in that respect over the course of this play-by-play. Williams was the animation director on Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, a sly, skilful melding of film noir and cartoon slapstick. If you want to see what makes Williams's work here and elsewhere so breathtaking, I recommend watching the video linked in the blog post I referenced earlier, or even seek out the Recobbled fan cut of his never-finished magnum opus The Thief and the Cobbler. But if pressed to describe his work in one word, it'd be fluid. For all the movie magic employed to create a seamless live-action/cartoon world, the fluidity of the animation is the linchpin. But the animated half of the film is just, well, half the story. The other half belongs to Robert Zemeckis.
Robert Zemeckis is cursed with the gift of gimmickry. Few directors are as adept at using special effects as storytelling devices as he is, but his sturdy, Spielberg-esque directing chops are often held hostage by the whims of the effects he employs. This has sometimes led to catastrophic results, most notably his late-period uncanny valley hat trick of The Polar Express, Beowulf, and A Christmas Carol. But here, he directs with a unique kind of precision; he manages to make incomplete frames feel full. Zemeckis strikes a delicate balance between leaving just enough room for the toons to exist in and making the blocking overly lax. To the credits of both Zemeckis and Williams, the illusion is maintained throughout, and 30 years on still stands as the apex of this branch of mixed-media filmmaking.
Credit must also be given to the actors, the conduit through which an audience experiences the work, and thus the most liable to wreck the illusion. The voice cast is anchored the legendary Mel Blanc, rounded out by a murderer's row of cartoon lifers, and bolstered by the smart stunt-casting of Kathleen Turner as Jessica Rabbit. The live-action cast had it rougher. They had to act against puppets and props and disembodied voices, and no actor had to do it more than the late, great Bob Hoskins. But the legendary English actor was no one's first choice to play Eddie Valiant, the alcoholic private dick with a distaste for toons. In fact, he wasn't even in the top 10. According to Wikipedia (a dubious source, I know, but bear with me), Harrison Ford was Zemeckis' first-round pick, followed by Bill Murray and Eddie Murphy. And then Chevy Chase, Robert Redford, Jack Nicholson, Sylvester Stallone, Wallace Shawn, Ed Harris, Charles Grodin, and Don Lane. A few of those might have worked, but there's a lot of cultural baggage that comes with casting, say, Nicholson in a movie that riffs heavily on Chinatown. Harris may have worked as well; go back and watch Knightriders for a clinic on portraying rumpled masculinity as both earnest and silly. But casting Hoskins was a coup: his blunt features, raspy voice, and boxy build make him credible as a tough noir-era gumshoe, and him standing 5-foot-4 makes the 6-foot-1 Christopher Lloyd's Judge Doom look even more like a towering, ominous force than he already is.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit? is part of the cycle of late 80s-early 90s kids' movies with the power to traumatize. I say the following without exaggeration: Christopher Lloyd should have been on every Academy ballot for Best Supporting Actor for his work on here, and nearly everything he does in the film is nightmare fuel of the highest order. He murders an adorable cartoon shoe in cold blood in his first scene. The climax of the film, which I won't spoil here because I'd like for you to get the full effect if and when you do see it, is fucked up. I rewatched this movie shortly after my 30th birthday and I still think it's fucked up as a grown man.
Dear America was fucked up too, but in a more subtle, insidious way. The film's structure is simple: celebrities read letters home from soldiers in Vietnam over amateur video footage, presumably shot by those same soldiers. This isn't new territory for the war documentary; it isn't even new territory for writer/director/producer Bill Couturié. In 1982, Couturié co-directed Vietnam Requiem, a TV documentary made for ABC News's Closeup about the post-traumatic stress disorder in Vietnam vets that netted the Alphabet Network a Peabody Award.
Couturié's resume is full of similarly socially-conscious work, both as director and producer; he won an Oscar in 1990 as the producer of Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt, which was about the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt. He has continued to chronicle the effects on war on soldiers. The one major outlier in his filmography is the Matt LeBlanc-starring baseball-playing chimp movie Ed, which he directed and produced. It was a massive bomb, no one liked it, and Couturié hasn't made a fiction film since, in Hollywood or otherwise.
As with WFRR, Dear America's beating heart is its form. Having people read letters over footage they or someone like them shot is a dirt-simple and highly effective way of telling this particular story. The beginning of the film is all smiles and surf music, a parade of fresh faces blissfully unaware of the horrors awaiting them in Southeast Asia. And I do mean fresh; I knew that the average age of touring soldiers in Vietnam skewed young, but I didn't know that it averaged out at 19. As the film goes on, and as the conflict keeps metastasizing, the plight of these young men grows more dire, the tone becomes more grim. The speed with which the switch flips from “patriotic naivete” to “existential hell” is whiplash-inducing.
The great Francois Truffaut once said that there's no such thing as an anti-war film. Now I'm just some dude on the internet, and who the hell am I to disagree with one of the great humanists of French cinema, but I believe the opposite to be true. War is such an abhorrent concept that any depiction of it will make it look terrible. Telegeny doesn't negate evil. Often it even amplifies it. The brief scenes of combat in Dear America are harrowing, and the cumulative effect of the footage and narration is decidedly anti-war. The final pivot, a flash forward that concludes the film, is the perfect emotional crescendo, until Bruce Springsteen's “Born in the USA” starts playing over the end credits. Now the fact that this song, along with the also-used-herein “Fortunate Son” by Creedence Clearwater Revival, has become a kind of lazy anti-war shorthand is not this film's fault. But time hasn't been kind to on-the-nose music cues, even if they were fresh and bold once upon a time. But this is a minor gripe regarding what is overall a solid piece of work.
There's something uniquely perverse about this tournament pairing, a documentary about the horrors of war and a movie where a cartoon rabbit does pratfalls. As with the previous round, tournament namesake Roger Ebert gave both of these movies the full four stars, citing both as exemplary in the respective idioms. And as powerful and moving as Dear America is, the level of technical mastery and boundless creativity of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? is what puts it over the top.
The winner: Who Framed Roger Rabbit?