Hidden amongst all of the animated favorites, Disney Channel original films, Star Wars sagas and god knows what else in the digital Disney Vault known as Disney+, lies a modern classic that is rarely, if ever, referenced in today’s modern Disney era — Robert Zemeckis‘ 1988 animation/live action marvel Who Framed Roger Rabbit. The events that surrounded the production of the movie and the almost completely animated shorts that followed ultimately led to a bitter custody battle between Disney and Steven Spielberg over the care of the character, and a number of unproduced sequels and never-built theme park attractions were victims of this acrimonious dispute. In other words: it’s a miracle that Who Framed Roger Rabbit is even available on Disney+.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit was a notoriously difficult production. Former Disney president and CEO (he was also Walt’s son-in-law) Ron Miller purchased the rights to Gary Wolf‘s very-different novel Who Censored Roger Rabbit in 1981, shortly after it was published, and set the writing duo of Jeffrey Price and Peter S. Seaman, who were also developing a project for Disney called Trenchcoat (now largely forgotten and not available on Disney+), to adapt it. Various attempts were made to crack the ambitious mixture of live-action and animation. In a 1983 episode of Disney Studio Showcase, from the nascent days of the Disney Channel director Darrel Van Citters and character designer Mike Giaimo (who is one of the production designers on Frozen 2) introduce test footage from the production, describing it as “a live action picture in which half the cast is animated characters.” The footage is very different, with Roger sporting a totally different look (with Paul Reubens‘ stuttering voice) and an animated character named Captain Cleaver (a “big, brash, phsy” homicide detective “from downtown”) serving as Valiant’s cartoon foil. Plus Jessica is more of a “cunning and seductive” heat seeker who has cast Roger aside after landing a big role (from the footage it sounds like she was voiced by Disney stalwart Russi Taylor). But the core of the story was remarkably formed, just as we know it today: Roger is a cartoon character framed for murder who hires a human private eye (Peter Renaday in the test footage) to help clear his name.
At the time Disney was confident enough in the project (and in Walt Disney Animation to successfully pull off the ambitious mixture of live-action and animation) to tout it on the admittedly smaller, pay-cable version of the Disney Channel. Still, this was 1983. Creative leadership at the studio was almost nonexistent and rumors of the shuttering of the entire animation department persisted. In 1984, after weathering attacks from corporate raiders and equally damaging green-mail attempts, a new leadership team was installed at the top of the company, led by Michael Eisner, Frank Wells and Jeffrey Katzenberg. A year later, Eisner revived the project, putting it back into active development. In reigniting the project, he made a key creative ally in Steven Spielberg, who brought on director Robert Zemeckis, despite a pre-Eisner Disney rejecting the duo’s earlier film Back to the Future for being too racy.
The deal to secure Spielberg, largely overseen by Katzenberg, was unique: according to James B. Stewart‘s indispensable Disney War, Spielberg and his director Zemeckis had complete creative control and a share in any profits. (Disney, wisely, kept all merchandising rights.) And although Katzenberg saw the Who Framed Roger Rabbit project as a way to “save” the flailing animation division and suggested using Van Citters as the animation director for the project, Zemeckis insisted that they instead hire Richard Williams, who Zemeckis considered the “best animator in the world.” Williams, a persnickety perfectionist based in London, openly disliked Disney’s corporate culture and only accepted the job on the condition that Disney would release his long-in-development animated feature The Thief and the Cobbler. Williams’ film was ultimately never finished and released without his approval. Rumors circulated long after the film that Disney plagiarized whole sections of Williams’ film for their own, similar Aladdin.
Spielberg was also pivotal in the key area of securing the rights to several animated characters thanks to a sweetheart agreement with Warner Bros, Fleischer Studios, King Features Syndicate, Felix the Cat Productions, Turner Entertainment and Universal Studios, “lending” the characters to Spielberg for a small fee and, occasionally, some bizarre stipulations. (For instance, Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny had to say the same amount of words in their dialogue. Watch it again and count. It’s true.) Harvey Comics wouldn’t allow Spielberg and Disney to use Casper, which must have been a crushing blow to the production, considering an incredible (but ultimately too-complicated) sequel set at Marvin Acme’s funeral, where the Friendly Ghost makes an appearance. (Bluto, Elmer Fudd, Herman the Mouse, Felix the Cat, Goofy, Popeye the Sailor and Yosemite Sam were all pallbearers.) Spielberg and Zemeckis also persuaded Industrial Light & Magic to help out with the visual effects.
So the fact that Zemeckis was granted so much control over the property seemed warranted. Of course, nobody expected Roger Rabbit to become the phenomenon that it was. Released on June 22, 1988 under the Touchstone Pictures label instead of Disney (after Roy E. Disney objected to Dolores’ line: “Is that a rabbit in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?”) and went on to become the second highest-grossing film of the year (after Rain Man) and the 20th highest grossing film of all time (at that time). It won three Academy Awards and Williams, who had begun to distance himself from the project almost as soon as it was released (partially because he was removed from his leadership role following an intervention by Katzenberg meant to curb cost overruns), received an honorary Academy Award for the movie’s myriad technical accomplishments.
Roger appeared in commercials for Diet Coke. There was merchandise everywhere, from comic books to video games. Just a year after the film opened, it was Roger, not Mickey Mouse, who can be seen at the end of the intro for the Wonderful World of Disney television series (a series where Eisner would frequently appear). Roger was all over the parks – in the Party Gras Parade at Disneyland in 1990 (meant to coincide with the park’s 35th anniversary) and Surprise Celebration Parade at Magic Kingdom in 1991 and chiefly at the just-opened Disney-MGM Studios (now Disney’s Hollywood Studios) in Florida, where the tram tour would let you off near full-size replicas and props from the movie, including the menacing DIP machine from the film’s climax.
And while only one attraction based on Who Framed Roger Rabbit actually opened (Roger Rabbit’s Car Toon Spin, in Disneyland in 1994 and Tokyo Disneyland in 1996), there were plans for much more. In Imagineer Kevin Rafferty‘s recent book Magic Journey, he reveals that an entire Cartoon Studio land was proposed for Disney-MGM Studios with Baby Herman’s Runaway Baby Buggy Ride (“a Mr. Toad-like dark ride romp in a baby-buggy vehicle”), Roller Coaster Rabbit (“an indoor/outdoor gravity coaster”), and a “simulator-based attraction” Rafferty refers to as Toontown Transit, the “anchor attraction” for the land that centered on a new character, a bus named Gus who dreamed of stardom. (At the same time, Rafferty was also working on Dick Tracy’s Crimestoppers, an attraction that was announced on “The Disneyland Story,” a 1990 episode of The Magical World of Disney hosted by Harry Anderson, as being part of what was being referred to as the Disney Decade. It was supposed to open in 1996. It didn’t. According to Rafferty it was “just too huge and expensive to justify.”) None of those projects ever saw the light of day, but if they had, Spielberg would have had to sign off on them.
Which brings us to the short films. In 1990, Peter Schneider, then senior vice president of Disney Animation, told the New York Times that a sequel to Who Framed Roger Rabbit wouldn’t be ready until 1992. The shorts, he suggested, was a way to “keep him alive.”
The first, released in 1989, just a year after the feature film opened, was titled “Tummy Trouble” and attached to Disney’s Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. To Disney’s understanding, the short film was a huge box office boost for the movie and they quietly secured the names for a number of sequels, including (and this is all true), Honey, I Made the Kids Invisible; Honey, I Launched the Kids to the Moon; and Honey, I Xeroxed the Kids. It was directed by a young Rob Minkoff, who would later direct The Lion King (Schneider considered the shorts talent incubators). “Tummy Trouble” took nine months to animate (Disney claimed it was the most expensive short they’d ever produced) and was the first theatrical animated short the studio had made in 16 years.
This was followed, a year later, by “Roller Coaster Rabbit,” again directed by Minkoff and produced at the company’s new Florida animation studio, located inside Disney-MGM Studios. And here were the tension starts to arise. Disney, keen to repeat the formula of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, wanted the short attached to their big summer movie, Warren Beatty‘s costly comic strip adaptation Dick Tracy (a movie that co-starred Charles Fleischer, the voice of Roger). Disney was worried about the cost overruns and wanted to increase the movie’s visibility. Spielberg, on the other hand, wanted the short attached to his own Disney summer release, Arachnophobia. Released by Hollywood Pictures, another division of Disney more squarely aimed at adult audiences, it was referred to as a “thrill-omedy” by the studio (seriously, it’s in the trailer) and was directed by Spielberg’s longtime producer Frank Marshall, who also directed the live-action, ILM-assisted segments of the Roger Rabbit shorts. Disney said no. “Roller Coaster Rabbit” went out with Dick Tracy.
Spielberg was unhappy and his relationship with Eisner was strained, but production was already in development on “Trail Mix-Up,” the third short film. This time, the short was directed by Barry Cook (who would go on to direct Mulan), again at the Florida satellite studio. And this time, when it came to what film it would be attached to for theatrical exhibition, Eisner made sure it was a high-profile Spielberg production, 1993’s A Far Off Place. (Keep in mind this was released a year after most had assumed a Who Framed Roger Rabbit sequel would hit the big screen.) Placement of “Trail Mix-Up” didn’t help the movie in the same way “Tummy Trouble” aided Honey, I Shrunk the Kids and “Roller Coaster Rabbit” was meant to assist Dick Tracy. A Far Off Place only made $12.9 million and Spielberg was done.
A fourth short film entitled “Hare in My Soup,” which saw Roger as a waiter in a fancy restaurant, was well into production. Someone I spoke to remembers seeing the short film being animated, once more at the Disney-MGM Studios. And occasionally film cels from the short will pop up online. But in a move clearly meant as revenge for “Roller Coaster Rabbit’s” placement in front of Dick Tracy instead of Arachnophobia and the sour reception to A Far Off Place (despite having a Roger short attached), Spielberg claimed that the story for “Hare in My Soup” wasn’t strong enough and, owning 50% of the character, shut it down. It was the first domino to fall but would lead to three additional shorts in the early stages of development (“Clean and Oppressed,” “Beach Blanket Bay,” and “Bronco Bustin’ Bunny”) being quietly canceled.
Development continued on what would wind up being the lone Roger Rabbit attraction, which would open in 1995, but Spielberg was not happy. (Google photos of him and George Lucas at the attraction’s opening at Disneyland. They look like they’re attending a funeral.) The strained relationship also put the kibosh on any potential sequels, including a bizarre-sounding prequel called Toon Platoon by writers Nat Stein and Jeff Mauldin (with later revisions by Tony Sheehan) that concerned Roger fighting in World War II and had a final reveal of Bugs Bunny being Roger’s biological father. Another unproduced sequel, Who Discovered Roger Rabbit, saw a surprising resurgence when, in 2008, Broadway actress Kerry Butler recorded “This Only Happens in the Movies” for her album of Disney covers called Faith, Trust, and Pixie Dust. “This Only Happens in the Movies” was one of five original songs Alan Menken wrote for the unproduced sequel, which would have focused on Roger’s early career on Broadway. The song is amazing. I’ve also heard of a sequel that saw the Disney villains battling it out on the site of the still-under-construction Disneyland that would have actually been filmed at the still-under-construction Euro Disneyland (now Disneyland Paris). Animators like Eric Goldberg and Tony and Tom Bancroft have taken stabs at computer-generated Rogers in the years since as well.
But Spielberg wasn’t having any of it. Both Toon Platoon and Who Discovered Roger Rabbit featured nefarious Nazis plots and Spielberg vowed to not have Nazis appear as villains in any of his more frivolous entertainments. (This explains why the baddies in the final version of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull are Soviets, when Frank Darabont’s far superior draft had at least one Nazi, hiding out in the South American jungle.) Spielberg chose to shut down the projects instead of redeveloping them. Slowly Roger faded from the theme parks and merchandise, another one of Schneider’s key pillars of “keeping him alive,” disappeared almost completely. For a character, who just a few years earlier, dominated all aspects of the company, to vanish just as quickly, is bewildering. Ultimately Disney found that it just wasn’t worth the trouble.
One Disney historian I spoke with said that the reason Who Framed Roger Rabbit appears on Disney+ at all is because Spielberg was so happy with Disney’s prime, holiday-and-Oscar-adjacent opening date for his upcoming remake of West Side Story. And as an added bonus, Disney has snuck the three short films on the service, only they haven’t advertised them individually (again, that would be far too public a showing), but hidden them alongside the film’s other bonus features. It’s great seeing the shorts again; they’re funny and charming and full of top tier animation. But it’s hard not to be disappointed that a curdled relationship between Disney and Spielberg kept us from any further adventures. It being on Disney+ is a minor miracle, especially because none of the movies that are so intertwined with the character’s slide into obscurity (Dick Tracy, A Far Off Place, or “thrill-omedy” Arachnophobia) are available yet. Honey, I Shrunk the Kids is available.