Who Framed Roger Rabbit was one of a handful of movies on my after-school VHS rotation, somewhere between Aladdin and Hook. Most of the movie’s adult themes went over my head; I wasn’t savvy to the Raymond Chandler influences, and I didn’t care about (or understand) the freeway-building plot at all. I was just in it for the Toons — the rubbery slapstick, bright colors, and familiar animated characters.
As an adult, I can better appreciate the story’s complexity, from alcoholic detective Eddie Valiant hanging on by a finger (at times, literally) to the Judge’s genocidal conspiracy to wipe out Toontown. As a pre-pubescent bisexual, I was confused and mesmerized by Jessica Rabbit’s whole deal, but only as an adult could I begin to parse the layers of her self-aware femme-fatale quip, “I’m not bad; I’m just drawn this way.”
Kids are immune to a lot of the horror that adults balk at. It’s easy to look back on the shows we enjoyed as children and say, “Actually, this is messed up. What the hell?” But sometimes the horror is so obvious that even as kids — or especially as kids — we get it.
And there is something in Roger Rabbit so horrifying that even a child can understand.
Turpentine, acetone, benzene — essentially, the Dip is just paint thinner, able to instantly dissolve a painted Toon into nothingness. For a child, that is a fundamental threat.
Cartoons are akin to martyred saints for children. They are crushed, punctured, walloped, and worse. But like a primordial plasma, they re-form. Injuries are a punchline, bandages played for props. They’re immortal, so it’s OK to laugh at the wacky physics of their existence. The Toons can bend the material world to their whims, even in service of humans, like when Lena Hyena saves Eddie from a fatal fall by catching him at the last moment.
A shoe, whimpering and begging for mercy, is subjected to the Dip and putrefies in seconds. Nothing is left but a pink slick on the Judge’s rubber gloves, and, implicitly, the other shoe in the pair is forever orphaned.
The Dip violated an essential rule for all cartoons, not just those exposed to it in Roger Rabbit. It can hurt cartoons. Really hurt them. It makes them vulnerable, subjectable to permanent damage. The Dip reveals in full force a reality that children are often shielded from: All bodies, no matter how impervious, will eventually fall to ruin.
What’s worse is the Toons know what Judge Doom’s horrific liquid is, and are themselves clearly terrified of it. From a filmmaking standpoint, that’s brilliant. The only time Jessica breaks from her drawn-that-way perma-pout is to scream at the mere sight of the Dip. The emotional stakes are laid out so clearly and terrifyingly that there was no doubt from the first moment that playtime was over; the Dip was serious business. To this day, Kathleen Turner’s exaggerated delivery of “oh my GOD, it’s DIP!” rings in my mind.
What happens to Toons, in the fullness of time? They certainly don’t age; Betty Boop is still boop-oop-a-dooping, although she waitresses now that the changing demands of female beauty have rendered her obsolete. The weasels laugh themselves “to death,” but that just sends their angel-garbed souls to whatever cartoon Heaven floats above Toontown.
No soul arises from the shoe. It has become unmatter.
The Dip doesn’t just threaten mere death to an immortal, but absolute oblivion. For a child who takes for granted the eternality of a cartoon’s goofs, the Dip is blasphemy. As an adult, I understand the innuendo behind patty-cake and the importance of a disappearing will. But the horror of the Dip is uniquely adolescent, threatening to obliterate all of a child’s favorite creatures. That, regardless of age, is pure terror.