Who Framed Roger Rabbit as urbanist critique


Doom v Rabbit or Moses v Jacobs?

Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988) is no doubt a classic film. It was technologically innovate, and spliced the detective film-noir genre with the comic, slapstick animation of classic ‘toons of the 1960s and 70s. Truly, a masterpiece of Hollywood cinema, and if you are not familiar with the film, you can read a great review of it here. One aspect though that often goes unnoticed is the urbanist narrative that runs through the film’s plot. It is set in 1947, and essentially, ‘Judge Doom’, the evil protagonist of the film, is plotting to destroy ‘Toontown’ (the suburb of Los Angeles where the animated characters live) and replace with a freeway. The film therefore is very much a critique on the ‘freeway-ization’ of LA, with overt glorification of the city’s transit-orientated past. Such a mantra is signposted early on in the film with the main hero ‘Eddie’ sitting on the back of a trolley car proclaiming, “Who needs a car in L.A.? We got the best public transportation system in the world!”


The Americana, transit-orientated history depicted in the film

In his famous villain’s speech where he reveals his dastardly plan to the heroes, he claims that the freeways will revolutionise LA, and create a vast automobile-based city that will “be beautiful”. You can see his speech in the video below.

This short segment highlights one the film’s most overt social critiques, namely that of the automobile dominated city that Los Angeles had become in 1988, and still is to this day (relatedly, you can read about my day-long trip around LA by car in search of the film locations of The Terminator films here, and my ode to UK motorways here). With this narrative in mind, it becomes extremely obvious that ‘Judge Doom’ and Toontown are simply comic metaphors for the classic urbanism argument of ‘walkability’, most readily articulated by the battle between Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs.

Those of us involved in urban studies will be very familiar with the Moses versus Jacobs debate, with Gratz’s 2010 book ‘The Battle for Gotham’ detailing it most succinctly. At it’s most basic (and rather too simply – read Gratz’s book for a far better overview), Robert Moses, a New York city planner wanted to build an expressway right through the Manhattan area of Greenwich Village, but Jane Jacobs, a local activist, lobbied enough support to eventually stop the plans and maintain the Village in its current guise. It is therefore very obvious to see the parallels between Moses and Judge Doom, who were both hell-bent on building a freeway through a populated area, and therefore capitalising on the influx of automobile-based investment opportunities that it would entail. And then there’s Roger and Jessica Rabbit, two residents of Toontown who manage to defeat Judge Doom and keep the community spirit of their beloved town free from the major development strategies of the over-bearing forces of the city’s governmental forces. A victory for communities over hard-faced capitalism; of walkability over the motorcar; of common sense over stupidity.


The utopian aesthetics of Toontown

Or at least, that is perhaps how it could be most readily portrayed in urbanist narratives that champion the small-scale walkability, and community-centered-urban-spirit-of-Jacobs at all cost (a la Richard Florida et al.). However, if we take the metaphors of Roger Rabbit even more undeviatingly, then we see the characterization of Moses as an evil, overlord of urban development through Doom, and the excessive ‘cutesyness’ of Toon town as the utopian idyll of walkable, harmonious neighbourhoods of Jacobites’ vision. For the success of Jacobs, for all its positive effects, has over time led to the super-gentrification of the city (see Lees, 2003) and done perhaps just as much ‘damage’ to the neighbourhood that an expressway might have done; maybe not physically and aesthetically, but socially. The valorisation of the ‘neighbourhood’ feel of The Village in New York has led to its festishisation, and therefore seen an influx of investment and a surge in property prices as these places become all the more desirable places to live. The ‘Jacob’s effect’ has created an urban system of wealth and inequality and displaced existing residents through rent control, rather than through demolition. It has maintained an urban aesthetic of walkable neighbourhoods at the expense of the socially, ethically and culturally mixed area that Jacobs was so keen to maintain (see Smith, 1996). In other words, Toon Town quite neatly represents the over-the-top, always colourful, joyous and sacchariferous urbanity that is trying to be maintained by those who champion the Jacob’s style of city aesthetic at all costs. And, on the flip side, Doom neatly represents the evil, maniacal and rancorous depiction of Moses that is so often portrayed by those wishing to valorise a Moses style urbanism.

In my view then, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? therefore is a very subtle, yet poignant critique of the propensity to paint the kind of urbanity that Jane Jacobs was fighting for as overtly positive, and the forces that attempt to destroy it as overtly negative. There is of course little doubt that the processes of neoliberal urban development (that Doom so succinctly describes) must be resisted when it threatens to destroy pre-existing communities in favour of profit for multi-nationals. However, when the maintenance of such a community creates super-gentrified areas that become enclaves of the super-rich, effectively the same outcome is reached. Or even worse, when entire communities are created specifically with such an idea in mind, creating sterile, homogenous and bland urban areas (i.e. New Urbanism). Caution needs to be exercised in order to maintain the positive parts of a community, and to guard against the desire of financialised urban processes to extract as much profit from the city as possible, whatever the cost. Who Framed Roger Rabbit? may be (rightly) heralded as being an innovate cult classic of Western cinema, but it is also a very acute and clever critique of the blind desire for ‘walkable’ urban neighbourhoods.

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