Another entry from the “projects that might have been” file: a pitch which my brother Greg and I cooked up for a potential sequel to “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”. I still think this would be a blast.
Roger Rabbit Returns
by Eric Williams and Greg Williams
Based on Characters Created By Jeffrey Price & Peter Seaman
and Gary K. Wolf
Concept: When Roger and his toon friends head for New York in the 1950s to do a live TV variety show (yes, that’s right: a live cartoon show), Roger uncovers a sinister plot in which toons are mysteriously vanishing and being subjected to experiments which turn them into oversized mutants. When he accidentally releases the giant out-of-control toons into the city, it’s up to Roger to round them up and save the day.
The film opens with a black-and-white government educational film of the “duck-and-cover” variety in which Roger Rabbit demonstrates, in his usual frenzied fashion, how NOT to react in the event of an atomic bombing. When he flubs a take, we reveal a set painted in various shades of grey. As Roger heads to his dressing room, he removes his makeup and grey wardrobe, revealing his colorful self beneath.
This is Hollywood in the early Fifties. With the arrival of television, film work has begun to dry up for all but the biggest toons. Many toons have been forced to get jobs in the “real world” outside Toontown, while some just seem to have disappeared altogether. Even though times are tough, most toons have an elitist disdain for television, although they do have begrudging admiration for the stoic work of one of the few toons to have gotten a break in TV: that Indian chief on the test pattern.
Roger and Jessica are still married, but their financial situation has put a strain on the happy couple. Educational films just don’t bring in the simoleons Roger was used to getting in the old days. An oily human advertising executive from New York arrives at their house offering a contract to appear in commercials for a new brand of TV set. Roger is offended by the offer. Rabbit of integrity that he is, he refuses to sell out his art and lower himself to doing commercials, especially not for that evil new technology of television. The ad exec listens patiently to Roger’s tirade, then delicately explains that they don’t want Roger. They want Jessica.
Jessica doesn’t have Roger’s ethical qualms. The way she sees it, they need the money and this job will solve all their problems. There’s just one catch: she’ll have to work in New York. It’s a tough decision, but Jessica decides she can’t pass up this opportunity. She tries to convince Roger to come with her, but Roger is too stubborn to give in – and somewhat crushed that they didn’t ask him to do the ads. Fiercely independent, Jessica boards a train to New York, alone.
Once Jessica leaves, Roger immediately regrets letting her go. Desperate, he comes up with a brilliant idea to reunite him with Jessica: he and his other unemployed toon friends will go to New York and get work in live TV. Roger’s pals immediately embrace the idea. Baby Herman is so eager to go to New York that he’s nearly wetting his diaper, and he and Benny the Cab will be a natural fit in the Big Apple.
Roger and many other toons embark on an adventurous cross-country journey by train, pulled by a toon engine who happens to be Benny’s cousin. As they pass through the Painted Desert (freshly painted), they encounter Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner making a movie on location.
When they reach New York, Roger and the other L.A. transplants search for Jessica in Little Toontown, a region akin to Chinatown but populated by toons. Humans venture there to check out the entertainment in the area’s nightclubs and theatres – plus it’s the only place in the city to get really good Toon food.
Roger is reunited with Jessica, who has found a cozy apartment in Little Toontown. They settle in together, but there’s tension in their relationship. Roger is bothered by the frequent presence of the ad executive who, to Roger’s jealous mind, seems to be taking a bit too much interest in Jessica. A rivalry begins to develop between Roger and the slick ad man.
In Little Toontown, Roger comes into contact with a whole new crop of struggling toons paying their dues in dingy nightclubs and tiny theatres, much like the Method actors who were plying their craft elsewhere in New York around that same time. We encounter toons who wouldn’t become known to the public until they got their big breaks in the Sixties, like Bullwinkle and Rocky practicing magic (“Hey, Rocky, watch me pull a rabbit out of my hat!”). Or Yogi Bear and Boo-Boo doing beat poetry. Or Fred Flintstone in a toon production of “A Streetcar Named Desire”, wearing a torn leopardskin t-shirt, bellowing “Wilmaaaaa!” (In passing, we overhear an agent giving the following advice to foul-mouthed stand-up Papa Smurf: “You don’t have to work blue.”)
At one of these nightclubs, Roger meets an enterprising, somewhat conniving Tex-Avery-style wolf who helps Roger set up the live TV show, which Roger envisions as a toon version of “Your Show Of Shows”. They score a coup by booking the Indian chief from the test pattern as their big celebrity guest for the debut show. (The chief turns out to be a persnickety prima donna, always insisting on being shot in profile to show his “good side”.) The wolf is even able to arrange a sponsor for the show: the same TV company for which Jessica does commercials.
As he begins work on the show, Roger hears rumors around Little Toontown that toons are vanishing, lured away by a mysterious toon. This creates a McCarthy-like climate in which toons are suspicious of each other and especially of outsiders like Roger and his friends. Roger can’t believe it: If you can’t trust a toon, who can you trust?
Yet, at the same time, Roger is having suspicions of his own. Although they’re in the same city, he and Jessica are spending so much time apart, Roger starts to wonder if Jessica might be cheating on him with the slimy ad exec. He follows them one night and catches them having a seemingly romantic dinner. Jessica is upset that Roger would ever think she could love anyone but him, and she orders him to move out of their apartment.
A broken rabbit, Roger takes refuge at the TV studio and tries to bury his sorrow in his work. But as preparations for the TV show continue, several members of the cast and crew disappear. A tough New York cop, an old friend of Eddie Valiant’s, shows up at the theatre to investigate the disappearances. He seems suspicious of Roger, since the toons started to vanish right around the time Roger arrived in town. Roger is furious at the accusation, insisting to the cop that he’ll prove his innocence.
That night, at the hotel where he’s staying, Roger hears a struggle taking place next door and races into the hall to try to help his neighbor. Roger sees a mysterious, shadowy kidnapper running away with a helpless toon in his clutches. Roger chases him down the hallway which, like all cartoon rooms, is seemingly endless and has the same chair, lamp and framed picture repeated over and over again for the entire length of the hall. Unfortunately, Roger fails to catch the culprit.
The cop arrives to give Roger a piece of bad news: Jessica has vanished. Because Roger has an alibi for the time of Jessica’s disappearance, the cop now believes Roger is innocent. Roger tags along as the cop searches for Jessica, but Roger becomes separated from the cop and is lured into a trap.
Roger is spirited to a top-secret underground lab and locked in a cage. Many other toons are there too, including Jessica. From her, Roger learns that mysterious experiments are being done on toons in this lab, exposing them to extreme levels of radiation. Because toons can be exposed to far higher doses of radiation than people or animals, the adverse effects can be studied. Since it’s a project in Manhattan, its code name is, naturally, “The Kankakee Project” (hey, “The Manhattan Project” was taken).
But the diabolical scientists have discovered an unfortunate side effect: their experiments are creating giant mutant toons. You know what happened when sweet, harmless lizards in Japan were exposed to radiation? Exactly. Godzilla. Well, the same thing happens to sweet, harmless toons – they become enormous out-of-control monsters, albeit ones which still possess the mischievous humor inherent to all toons. The resulting mutants are kept locked away in an underground cave while the experiments continue. If something isn’t done quickly, Roger and Jessica will become the next guinea pigs. As they try to figure out a way to escape, Roger and Jessica also rekindle their relationship, whispering sweet nothings across the room to each other from their respective cages.
Back at the TV studio, the remaining toons are panicked. They’re in the frenzied final hours before the debut of their live show and their leader Roger is missing. But they’re show folk; no matter what, the show must go on. The wolf declares that he’s in charge now, an announcement that doesn’t sit well with the other toons.
During this climactic section, we intercut between Roger and Jessica’s adventures and the hapless live broadcast. During the live show, which is plagued by technical difficulties and the lack of a proper script, the undisciplined toons run rampant through the studio, ad lib, stall for time and stand blankly before the cameras, not knowing what to say. The harried human director of the show is going berserk in the control booth, trying to keep the show on track. The Indian chief, appalled by the other toons’ unprofessional behavior, stays locked in his dressing room. The arrogant wolf fills in for Roger, but he doesn’t have the spark of a true toon, and he’s certainly not a star of Roger’s caliber. Finally, Baby Herman becomes so frustrated with the bedlam onstage that he accidentally curses on live TV (which, as you trivia experts know, is what effectively ended Baby Herman’s career).
Eventually, Roger bumbles into a way to escape his cage. He then releases Jessica, but, in the process, accidentally releases all the mutated toons as well, who escape into the subway and spread out over the city. One especially large toon, whom we have previously seen admiring Jessica, snatches her up in his gigantic paw and flees the building.
Now it’s up to Roger to rescue Jessica and subdue the rampaging mutants, which are wreaking havoc throughout New York. Mayhem ensues. People lock their doors and hide in their homes. It’s “War Of The Worlds” all over again – only this time, it’s real.
Roger meets up with the cop and the two of them race frantically around town, attempting to capture all the mutants. When they discover one toon teetering on a high ledge, Roger and the cop, standing on a nearby roof, calmly persuade the toon to walk over to their building. They urge him not to look down — for, as we know, a toon can walk in mid-air indefinitely as long as he doesn’t look down.
Inevitably, the giant mutant toon carries Jessica to the top of the Empire State Building. Roger flies to her rescue in a toon plane (another of Benny’s relatives), snatching her out of the giant toon’s hand. The giant mutant takes a swat at them and loses his grip, toppling from the building and threatening to crush the crowd of people below. Using typical toon logic, Roger immediately hits on an idea. He and Jessica race down the stairs of the Empire State Building, stopping halfway to order a glass of water at a bar. Then, they continue the rest of the way to the street. They look up — and the mutant giant is still falling. Roger holds out the glass of water and the giant toon lands in the water, squeezing completely into the tiny glass.
Roger hears a little voice from inside the glass. He puts an ear to the glass and listens intently as the mutant’s squeaky voice tells him the identity of the toon who has been luring other toons into this evil experiment. Roger hands the glass to the cop for safekeeping, then he and Jessica board the toon plane and fly to the theatre where the live show is still in progress.
Bursting into the theatre, Roger leaps onstage and starts improvising a fierce battle with the wolf. As the fight goes on, the wolf is subjected to a series of sight gags which Roger orchestrates to prove that the wolf is not really a toon at all. He can’t, for example, run into a backdrop painted on a wall –- he slams into the wall instead. And when he gets clonked on the head with a cartoon anvil, he doesn’t scrunch up like an accordion -– he just falls to the ground, moaning.
Finally, the wolf’s head is removed, revealing that he’s actually the oily human ad executive wearing a full-body toon suit (“Aha! A creep in wolf’s clothing!”). This revelation restores everyone’s faith in the essential goodness of toons — and the essential evil of advertising executives. The ad exec confesses that the Kankakee Project was designed to determine just how cheaply his company could make this new brand of TV. Or, to put it another way, just how much radiation could be allowed to leak out of these TVs without killing the consumers.
The ad exec explains that his job was to lure unsuspecting toons to New York to be used in the experiments. He says he never planned to harm Jessica; he just needed to keep her locked away once she learned about the experiments. Clearly, the ad executive has fallen in love with Jessica, but she slaps his face and tells him that, no matter what he looks like on the outside, he’s still a wolf on the inside. She falls back into the arms of her faithful rabbit.
As the cop hauls the ad exec away to the Little Toontown Jail, the live TV broadcast ends with Roger and Jessica leading a rousing, triumphant production number.