One would think that if a film pulls in over $325 million dollars at the worldwide box office, a sequel would be quickly put into production. But in Hollywood, the only thing that can overcome studio greed is ego. And in the case of 1989’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit it was a clash between some of the biggest names in Hollywood – Steven Spielberg and Disney studio head Michael Eisner – that squashed any hope of further feature length adventures of the loony `toon.
To fully understand how such an impasse came about, we have to go all the way back to the beginning of the first Roger Rabbit film.
It is 1980 and then-Disney studio head Ron Miller is given galley-proofs for the soon to be released Gary Wolf novel Who Censored Roger Rabbit?, a surreal and satirical take on crime noir novels that featured tough guy detective Eddie Valiant trying to solve the murder of comic strip star Roger Rabbit. Miller saw possibilities in the novel and, over the objections of Disney CEO Card Walker, paid $25,000 for the film rights to the book.
Miller passed to project onto Mark Sturdivant, a young Disney production executive, for development. Sturdivant assigned scripting details to Jeffrey Price and Peter Seaman, two former advertising copywriters, while Disney animator Darrell Van Citters began work on designing the various characters.
Price and Seaman would go through ten drafts of the script, eventually junking most of Wolf’s original plot, which owed much to pornography/blackmail storyline of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep. What they did do was change Roger and his companions from actors who posed for the photos that would become comic strips to cartoon actors and setting the story in 1947 at the height of animation’s Golden Age. This change of setting would allow the screenwriters to go all out with the concept of cartoon characters existing in the real world and feature cameos from the greatest cartoon stars of the era.
This would also be the biggest stumbling block the production would have to get around.
Sturdivant approached Warner Brothers, Paramount and Universal Studios about loaning out some of their characters to appear in the film, but was turned down by every one. Nevertheless, Miller had Sturdivant and Citters shoot some footage of a live action actor and had it combined with combined with pencil test animation to see if they could convincingly combine a cartoon rabbit into real world surroundings. This footage even aired on the Disney Channel’s Disney Studios Showcase in April 1983.
Combining live action and animation wasn’t necessarily a new idea. As far back as 1923, the Fleischer Studio had their Out of the Inkwell series that featured the animated Koko The Clown wandering off of animator Max Fleischer’s drawing pad out into the real world. Gene Kelly had danced with Jerry Mouse in 1944’s Anchors Away. Disney itself had put out several pictures that combined the two including Song of the South (1946), Mary Poppins (1964), Bedknobs And Broomsticks (1971) and Pete’s Dragon (1977). But never had such a project demanded such a high level of interaction between real life characters and their animated counterparts.
Anxious to get a director signed on board the project, Miller sent copies of the test footage and the script to Steven Spielberg, Joe Dante and Robert Zemeckis. Although Miller had promised a budget of $25 million dollars, all three passed on the project. (Remember, at this time Disney was not the powerhouse that it would be just a few years later.) In spite of this set back, Miller continued to press forward on the project, instructing Citters to start looking for vocal talent for the film. Citter’s eventual choice to voice Roger was a then-unknown member of the Los Angeles improv comedy group “The Groundlings” by the name of Paul “Pee Wee Herman” Reubens.
Unfortunately, while Miller believed in Roger Rabbit, the Disney Corporation didn’t believe in him and he was ousted in September 1984, leaving Who Framed Roger Rabbit in limbo.
A year and a half later and relatively new Disney head honcho Michael Eisner has started to turn the troubled studio around with the modest success of the films Down And Out In Beverly Hills and Ruthless People. Now, Eisner and Disney Studio head Jeffrey Katzenberg were looking for a film that would take that success one step further. They wanted a blockbuster.
And that’s when Katzenberg discovered the script for Who Framed Roger Rabbit.
Realizing that the script had tremendous crossover audience appeal, Katzenberg and Eisner were anxious to put the project into active pre-production. The only hitch is what had stalled the project when Miller was working on it, getting other studios to agree to loan out their classic 1940s era `toon characters.
Eisner had an ace up his sleeve that Miller didn’t have- a friendship with filmmaker in Steven Spielberg. The two had first met in 1980 when Eisner was head of production at Paramount Pictures. Spielberg and George Lucas were looking for a home for their pet project about an adventuring archaeologist named Indiana Jones. While every studio in Hollywood wanted to produce the film, only Eisner wasn’t hesitant about the film’s large proposed budget and the steep financial terms that Lucas and Spielberg were asking.
Eisner was now anxious to see if Spielberg would return the favor and help get his dream project into theatres. Spielberg remembered having been offered the Roger Rabbit script a few years earlier and though enthused by the idea of the film, he knew that mixing live action and animation in a convincing way would be expensive and time consuming. Eisner countered with a proposal that Disney and Spielberg’s production company Amblin produce the picture together. Disney would be able to supply the animation expertise needed while Spielberg would be able to get Lucas’s Industrial Light and Magic special effects house to handle the rest of the visual effects. Eisner was also banking that Spielberg would be able to use his considerable cache to persuade other studios to allow their classic cartoon characters to appear in the film.
Spielberg agreed, but with one caveat- Amblin and Disney would share the copyright on any characters that were created for the film. While that means that the two studios would split the profits from the film and all it’s ancillary merchandise like toys, t-shirts and the like, they would also have to completely agree on any project featuring the characters before it could move forward.
And with Eisner quickly agreeing to these terms, the seeds were sown for a rather tumultuous relationship.
Spielberg’s assistance on the production was invaluable. He was able to secure the rights for all the non-Disney characters from the various studios for an unbelievably low licensing fee of $5,000.00 per character. Needless to say, Warners did put a stipulation on the use of Bugs Bunny, demanding that the character could only appear in scenes opposite of Mickey Mouse and that the characters must have the same number of words of dialogue.
Production on Who Framed Roger Rabbit sprang into high gear, but the complexity of the project soon caused the film’s budget to creep upwards from its initially projected $30 million to $50.6 million. Things also fell behind schedule so much so that in the early weeks of 1988 it was beginning to look that it wouldn’t make it’s announced June 24th opening date. Since Disney had several multi-million dollar cross-promotional deals with the likes of Coca-Cola and McDonalds depending on the film opening on time, Katzenberg was feeling pressure from Eisner to meet the looming deadline. With Katzenberg driving the production crew, the film just barely made it into theatres on time.
The film was an immediate hit and with the receipts from ticket sales and ancillary merchandise climbing higher by the day, Disney and Spielberg were anxious to give the public what they wanted- more Roger Rabbit. With Spielberg’s approval Disney began production on the short Tummy Trouble. The studio also started plans to add some Roger themed attractions to the still under construction Disney/MGM Studio theme park. When Tummy Trouble appeared in the summer of 1989 attached to the front of Disney’s Honey, I Shrunk The Kids, audiences once again crowded theatres. To all involved, it appeared that Roger Rabbit definitely had “legs” and a series of short cartoons could become a perennial treat for filmgoers.
Disney and Spielberg quickly fixed a deal for a feature length Roger Rabbit follow up and announced that the series of shorts would continue with an installment entitled Roller Coaster Rabbit that would be produced at the Disney/MGM animation studio in Florida.
And that’s when the problems that were seeded in the Amblin/Disney partnership began to show fruit.
Spielberg wanted Roller Coaster Rabbit attached to the film Arachnophobia, which Amblin was producing for Disney’s new Hollywood Pictures division. However, Disney had sunk $47 million on Warren Beatty’s troubled comic strip adaptation Dick Tracy. Since many in the Mouse House felt that the $124 million that Honey, I Shrunk The Kids made at the box office was in part due to Tummy Trouble being attached to it, there was hope that Roller Coaster Rabbit would give Dick Tracy a perceived much needed similar push at the box office.
Disney got what it wanted and Roller Coaster Rabbit premiered on June 15, 1990 in front of Dick Tracy. While the movie did not do the box office business that Honey, I Shrunk The Kids did, it still grossed $103.7 million. Arachnophobia, despite being the better reviewed of the two movies, barely broke even. It had cost $31 million but only pulled in $53.1 million. It was felt that if the Roger Rabbit short had been attached to it instead, that Arachnophobia would have performed much better.
Since Spielberg is a man who is used to getting what he wants, he was miffed that Disney went and used Roller Coaster Rabbit to boast the box office on their own film over his production company’s film. He was now motivated to flex his muscles as co-owner of the franchise. Disney had already launched into production on the next short, Hare In My Soup, when Spielberg announced that he didn’t like the story and demanded that production be shut down. Disney had no choice but to comply. The studio then pitched other story ideas to him, but Spielberg shot down every one. By the time Spielberg finally approved a storyline, entitled Trail Mix-Up, two years would pass.
(The film that Hare In My Soup was scheduled to be attached to was the comic book adaptation The Rocketeer. Since that movie only grossed $46.7 million at the box office, many felt that it would have benefited from the boost Hare In My Soup would have generated.)
At the same time that Disney was busy developing a feature length follow up to Who Framed Roger Rabbit entitled Roger Rabbit II: Toon Platoon. The film was set to be a prequel, set in 1940, that detailed Roger’s journey to Hollywood, meeting future wife Jessica and his involvement in World War II. Unfortunately, it was that last storyline that caused Spielberg to scuttle the picture.
With the production of his film Shindler’s List in 1993, Spielberg had gone through a spiritual awakening and an embracing of his Jewish heritage. As such, he decided that Nazis will no longer be used a villains in his movies. Since part of the plot of Toon Platoon involves the unmasking of the manager of the radio station that Jessica works at as a Nazi spy, Disney was forced to go back to the drawing board for another premise (For a review of the script to Roger Rabbit II: Toon Platoon, click here).
New scripters Sherri Stoner and Deanna Oliver were brought in and they pushed the prequel’s setting back a few more years to the great Depression and shifted the setting to the East Coast, specifically New York City during the Great Depression. The film was now titled Who Discovered Roger Rabbit. Some elements from Mauldin’s script remained- Roger is still looking for his long lost mother while wooing Jessica. However, this time, in an attempt to get closer to Jessica, Roger takes a job as a stagehand at the Broadway show she’s appearing in. One night Roger is trapped on stage when the curtain rises and a star is born.
The script is reported to be a loving send up of period Hollywood musicals, so much so in fact that when Disney composer Alan Menkin read a copy he penned five songs for the project and volunteered to serve as an executive producer.
By 1997, Disney was anxious to get to work on the film. However, there was a new wrinkle. Michael Eisner’s former studio chief Jeffrey Katzenberg is now a partner with Spielberg at Dreamworks SKG. Katzenberg’s departure from Disney had been anything but amicable and it is thought that Eisner was worried that Katzenberg might try to influence Spielberg to scuttle the project. In perhaps what may have been a move to help stay in Spielberg’s good graces, Eisner hired Spielberg’s two former Amblin producers Frank Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy to serve as producers on the new film. For whatever reasons, Spielberg OK’ed the script and permitted Disney to start with pre-production.
Thoughts of the cost overruns from the original Roger Rabbit were chief in Eisner’s mind and he was anxious to keep to that from happening again. He ordered a production test done to see if any of the new animation techniques the studio had developed during the `90s could be adapted for the production.
The test was produced at Disney Feature Animation in Florida in the spring of 1998. Animator Eric Goldberg, who was first hired at Disney to work on the original Roger Rabbit feature, drew up a new model sheet for a younger Roger.
The test scene consisted of two animated weasels bursting into the office of a Hollywood agent to “persuade” him to audition their friend Roger. Roger then bursts into the room and proceeds to cause the kind of havoc only a ‘toon like he can. The test was designed to see if traditional animation and computer-generated images could be successfully combined with live action footage of the agent and his office. Roger and the weasels were realized through traditional animation while the weasels’ Tommy guns and a table that Roger breaks were rendered through CGI. Unfortunately, the result was not as successful as hoped for, so another test was ordered. This time both characters and props were animated with a computer and produced a much better result.
The second test was enthusiastically received by Eisner, until a projected budget that placed production costs for Who Discovered Roger Rabbit at over $100 million dollars. Faced with what he thought to be an extravagant cost for a sequel to a 12-year-old movie, Eisner cancelled the project. Having lost money on Another Stake Out and The Rescuers Down Under, sequels released six and thirteen years respectively after their original films, Eisner was unwilling to commit that much money to a character who last appeared on screen in a short film 5 years ago. Add in the general Hollywood thinking that a sequel generally pulls only 2/3rds of what its originally grossed, Eisner felt that it was too risky a project to undertake and in the summer of 1999 suspended pre-production.
Since then, no new news has emerged on a possible future for Roger, Jessica and friends. But in Hollywood, the one firm rule is that anything can happen and something may come along that could cause Disney to reassess the viability of making a new Roger Rabbit film. Unfortunately, the box office failure of Monkeybone and The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, two films that combined animation and live action, aren’t about to inspire anyone at Disney to greenlight a similar project anytime soon.
In 1991, Gary Wolf released a second Roger Rabbit novel, Who P-p-plugged Roger Rabbit?, that combined elements from his original novel and the film version. In this new story, Roger hires Eddie Valiant to try and find out who his competition is for the role of Rhett Butler in Gone With The Wind. Soon, murder victims begin to stack up and Eddie looks to be the culprit. Eddie has to prove his innocence before the cops catch up with, along the way encountering Hollywood legends like Clark Gable, David O. Selznick and Baby Herman’s latest girlfriend, Carole Lombard. Wolf also introduced some new characters including Eddie’s sister Heddy Valiant, Jessica’s little (literally!) twin sister Joellyn and the shadowy Kirk Enigman.
This book and Wolf’s original novel are unfortunately currently out of print, since this may be the only way that fans can get a further adventure of Roger Rabbit.