Some people have speculated that Who Framed Roger Rabbit is some sort of sequel, remake, or homage to Chinatown. But it’s none of those things. Who Framed Roger Rabbit is actually a perfect parody of that classic murder mystery.
I would like to thank fellow blogger O Poderoso Chofer for inspiring this Movie Matchup. I probably never would have picked up on all of the parallels between these two films if he hadn’t suggested the idea to me, so I owe him one.
This is going to be a little different from my other Movie Matchups. Rather than simply pointing out the parallels between these two films, I’m going to emphasize the comedy twists that Who Framed Roger Rabbit puts on Chinatown.
Let’s hop to it!
First, here’s a rundown of all of the similarities I’m going to discuss between these two films:
- They’re both set in a similar time period in Los Angeles, though one is grounded in reality while the other presents an alternate reality in which classic cartoon characters are real actors.
- The main character is hired to take pictures of a man having an “affair.”
- He had a tragic experience in a certain part of L.A.
- He explodes in anger at someone who criticizes his job.
- Evidence disappears and later reappears at a pivotal point in the plot.
- The main character gets roughed up by a “midget” in one film and a giant gorilla in the other.
- A prominent businessman gets murdered.
- The wife of the man who was murdered (or accused of murder) is angry at the main character at first, but later hires him to find someone.
- The villain is buying up a lot of real estate for a shady scheme involving the future of L.A.
- In the end, the main character has to return to the part of L.A. he hates.
Now let’s go in depth on each of these points.
Chinatown takes place in 1930s Los Angeles before the city really hit the bigtime. Its setting is completely believable, which makes the events feel like history more than fiction.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit turns the idea of reality on its head by presenting us with 1947 L.A. where cartoon characters live and work alongside humans. It makes sense to the child in all of us because it’s fun to think that cartoons are filmed just like regular feature films and the characters we love have a life beyond the films they appear in.
Taking Pictures of an Affair
Jake Gittes is a private investigator who is hired by a woman claiming to be Mrs. Mulwray to take pictures of Mr. Mulwray having an affair. He succeeds in taking pictures of Mr. Mulwray and another woman together, but they never actually do anything besides talk. But apparently it’s scintillating enough to become front-page news.
Eddie Valiant is also a private eye who is hired by the head of Maroon Cartoons to spy on Roger Rabbit’s wife ostensibly for the purpose of helping Roger. The funny thing is that Eddie succeeds in taking pictures of Jessica Rabbit and Mr. Acme in a compromising situation… they play pattycake together. Oh, the infidelity. This bit of silliness is enough to put Roger into a frenzie, though.
Tragedy in Toontown/Chinatown
Jake used to be a police officer walking the beat in Chinatown. He never goes into detail about what happened to him during his time in Chinatown, but he says that he had an experience where he was supposed to help someone, but he wound up hurting them. He can’t stand to go to Chinatown as a result.
Eddie used to be a cop with his brother and they would often work in Toontown helping toons solve crimes. But one day they were attacked by a malicious toon who dropped a piano on them, breaking Eddie’s arm and killing his brother. It’s kind of hard not to laugh about that tragedy. A piano dropped on someone’s head? I know I’m supposed to be sad about that, but I just can’t help thinking of Wile E. Coyote or Sylvester the Cat getting comically crushed by a heavy falling object. Eddie hasn’t been able to bring himself to return to Toontown for several years since that experience.
You Wanna Step Outside?
After exposing Mr. Mulwray’s “affair,” Jake is criticized by a fellow patron getting a haircut at a barber shop. Jake gets really defensive and tells the man to step outside so they can duke it out.
Eddie has a similar encounter at a bar. When a fellow bar patron hears that Eddie is doing a job for Mr. Maroon he implies that Eddie is working for a toon. Eddie takes that as a personal insult, kicks the guy’s barstool out from under him and shoves a hardboiled egg in the guy’s mouth as he forcefully declares he doesn’t work for toons.
Disappearing, Reappearing Evidence
When Jake goes over to the Mulwrays’ house to talk, he notices something reflecting light in a little pond in their backyard, but he doesn’t have time to fish it out right then. He later discovers what it was he spotted down there: a pair of glasses belonging to Mr. Mulwray’s murderer.
When Eddie meets Mr. Acme, he gets squirted with some ink that disappears on his shirt almost instantly. Later, Acme delivers his will to Jessica Rabbit, but she only sees a blank piece of paper. Roger even writes a love letter to Jessica on it. Acme gets murdered over the contents of that will. At the end of the film, the ink reappears on Eddie’s shirt, which makes him realize that Acme wrote his will with the same ink, and suddenly the will’s words materialize underneath Roger’s silly love letter.
The Midget and the Monkey
During his investigation of Mr. Mulwray’s death, Jake gets cornered by some thugs. One of them, who he calls a “midget,” cuts Jake’s nose as a warning to stay away. The cut doesn’t keep him from pursuing his investigation, though.
When Eddie tries to peep on Jessica and Mr. Acme at a club, a big gorilla bouncer literally tosses him out. Eddie doesn’t receive any lasting scars like Jake – just a wounded pride. He still finds a way to take pictures of those two playing pattycake.
Murder Most Goofy
Jake sneaks into a crime scene where an old friend of his (who is now a police lieutenant) informs him that Mr. Mulwray has been killed. They fish his body out of some water.
Eddie gets awakened by an old friend (who is also, coincidentally, a police lieutenant) who informs him that Mr. Acme has been killed. He takes Eddie to the crime scene where Mr. Acme’s body is being carted off after having his head crushed by a safe. Again, the filmmakers find ways to add levity to a scene that was played very seriously in Chinatown.
I Hate You… You’re Hired!
After hearing about Jake’s pictures of her husband, Mrs. Mulwray threatens Jake with a lawsuit. However, when her husband is killed she drops the lawsuit and hires him to find her sister. He winds up sleeping with her in the course of his investigation. He knows she’s keeping secrets from him, but he can’t help being drawn to her.
After hearing that Roger is the primary suspect in the murder of Mr. Acme, Jessica Rabbit slaps Eddie for helping frame him with his compromising pictures of her. Soon after that, she has a change of heart and offers to pay Eddie to find Roger for her. He winds up half-naked with her in a funny scene where the innuendo is played for laughs. He doesn’t trust her and he can never really tell whose side she’s on. In her defense, she says that she can’t help it that she looks guilty, but she’s just drawn that way.
The Land Grab
In Chinatown, Jake eventually learns that Mr. Mulwray was killed by his former business partner over a real-estate swindle worth millions of dollars. A corrupt businessman is withholding water from local farmers to send the price of their land into a tailspin. He then buys up huge tracts of land under false names and prepares to annex it all into L.A. as a way of securing the city’s future.
The villain in Who Framed Roger Rabbit is much less subtle, as one would expect from a cartoon bad guy. He sets up a front organization in which he is the sole shareholder. He buys up L.A.’s public transportation company and all the land in Toontown once Mr. Acme’s will fails to materialize, which would have given the land to the toons, themselves. The villain plans to destroy Toontown and replace it with a freeway. He says freeways are the future, and he means to make bucket loads of money off them.
Forget It, Jake – It’s Toontown
In the end, Jake is forced to return to Chinatown in order to try to help Mrs. Mulwray and her sister escape from the villain. But the villain catches up to them and has Mrs. Mulwray killed and all the evidence of his wrongdoing destroyed so that he will get away scot-free. Jake just has to live with the fact that he couldn’t redeem himself his second time around in Chinatown.
Eddie is forced to face his fears and enter Toontown once again in search of a killer. The villain soon captures Eddie, Jessica, and Roger. He’s going to kill them all and bring his plan of toon genocide to fruition, but Eddie manages to thwart him with some quick thinking and cartoony hijinks. In the end, Eddie gets to take revenge on the toon who murdered his brother and save all of Toontown.
Where Gritty Meets Witty
Chinatown is a grim, gritty story about one man who learns that he is unable to stop larger forces from having their way. Who Framed Roger Rabbit is a lighthearted story about one man’s redemption, which he earns by helping a cartoon rabbit prove his innocence.
At first glance, these two stories might not seem to have much in common, but now hopefully you can see that Who Framed Roger Rabbit is a brilliant parody of Chinatown. From the setting to the setups and payoffs, Who Framed Roger Rabbit turns all of the seriousness and drama of Chinatown on its ears and has a lot of fun doing it.
That’s all, folks!
This is the Deja Reviewer bidding you farewell until we meet again.
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