Since April is Cartoon Month for us, let’s start it off right by discussing the mixture of animation and live-action together. If you look into the history of animation, you will realize that this trope is as old as animation itself. Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) may not be the first piece of entertainment to tackle this trope, but it is undoubtingly the one that perfected it. Still, the basic concept of human and toon interacting goes way back and as Roger Rabbit is a tribute to the golden age of animation during Hollywood’s studio days, it can also be seen as a tribute to these old cartoons that mixed animation and live-action mediums.
It is impossible to discuss this trope and not mention Gertie the Dinosaur (1914) by Winsor McCay, the father of animation. In this landmark cartoon, the title figure does tricks while appearing on a screen as the real-life in-the-flesh McCay directs her like we are witnessing a circus act. This was actually an act McCay would do on the vaudeville stage before it was adapted to the screen. This created a stir back in the day and McCay rose to become a prominent figure in cinema through his animated visions. This was a stepping stone to the full-fledged cartoon seen in the likes of Felix the Cat. While Felix the Cat was 100% animated, he did in fact interact with the real world at times such as in Felix Saves the Day (1922).
While Felix played on the idea of interacting with the live-action, it was not the norm of his animated world. Having animation and live-action coincide was the norm for many other silent film cartoon figures, however. The most prominent of these cartoons was the Out of the Inkwell series done by the Fleischers and starring Koko the Clown. In these cartoons, Koko would align with live-action film to create a clear narrative and combining the two mediums. For instance, he could push his arm inside the windows of a real-life building through the special effects of simple animation. In fact, many old movie special effects were just drawn animation being applied to live-action situations but in a more realistic matter. Outside of Out of the Inkwell, Walter Lantz had the Dinky Doodle shorts and Walt Disney had the Alice Comedies which all fit the same formula. As the silent era came to an end and film studios jumped on making cartoons, they stuck to 100% animated series rather than something in the vein of Out of the Inkwell.
Naturally, there are one-shots and exceptions with individual cartoons. Bosko’s first cartoon Bosko the Talk-Ink Kid (1929) had Bosko interact with his animator and co-creator Rudolf Ising. This wouldn’t be Bosko’s last cartoon to feature live-action in the mix but the Bosko cartoons were precursors to the other Warner Bros. cartoons to come and not a series in line with this trope. Speaking of the Looney Tunes, Bosko wasn’t the only Warner Bros. character to utilize this trope. The most famous Looney Tune cartoon to follow this trope closely is You Ought to Be in Pictures (1940) starring Porky Pig and Daffy Duck. It is one of the most beloved Looney Tunes cartoons and even as a kid in the early 2000s, I wondered how a cartoon and live-action mixture was put together in the “black and white days.” The cartoon itself feels very similar to Who Framed Roger Rabbit in terms of world-building. Warner Bros. also tackled this trope in Eatin’ on the Cuff (1942) and The Mouse That Jack Built (1959). Other studios would occasionally use this trope for a joke such as Tex Avery at MGM using it at the end of Señor Droopy (1949) with amusing results. Avery used this type of joke in more cartoons outside of Droopy, but again they were usually for a brief joke at the end of the cartoon.
Outside of the short cartoon, this trope was also used in some movies. It wasn’t that uncommon for movies to have an animated sequence, but occasionally the animation and the film’s usual live-action would crossover. Disney themselves would do this every once in a while such as in Song of the South (1946), So Dear to My Heart (1948), Mary Poppins (1964), and Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971). This mixture amazingly ages quite well as the animation still looks great today as opposed to those early 2000s abominations that had a CGI cartoon character interacting with live-action actors and settings. While it seemed perfectly normal for live-action Disney to meet-up with animated Disney, it must have seemed spectacular when MGM did it (actually pre-dating the above Disney examples) with Anchors Aweigh (1945). The highlight of the film has Gene Kelly dance with Jerry of Tom and Jerry and the result is as enjoyable today as it was back in 1945. Tom and Jerry then occupied the screen with Esther Williams in Dangerous When Wet (1953) and Hanna-Barbera helped out Kelly for a second time for his Invitation to the Dance (1956).
While these sequences where live-action and cartoon met were wonderful additions to their films, they felt all too brief. This is where Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) comes in decades later. While other live-action films before Roger Rabbit did dally in this trope, none of them took it as far or as successfully as Roger Rabbit. Not only is Roger Rabbit a love letter to old cartoons and filled with 1940s nostalgia (complete with a film noir parody), but it is a technical achievement in every way. Like with the Disney examples, the film still looks impressive today and doesn’t feel dated to modern viewers like a CGI-fest would. Roger Rabbit also found the perfect way to mesh animation and live-action together through its story of having toons as a race of creatures with the recognizable ones being movie stars including our title character that is a Goofy-esque cartoon slapstick celebrity. The world makes sense and the story is easy to follow leading to a fantastic film on just about all fronts. It is really a shame there aren’t more movies like it as while it feels as though Roger Rabbit will not be dethroned there is still ground to cover in terms of this trope taking over a full piece of work rather than just a scenario. While the popularity of having a whole piece of work following this trope went out with the silent era, its results have aged moderately well and occasionally remarkably well in the case of Roger Rabbit. Sure, the novelty is no longer as strong and the mystery to how these mixtures of animation and live-action were made does not hold the same level of charm as today we know how it was all done. I do feel, however, that something that utilizes this trope without relying on the novelty and apparent aspects to what it entails can work in this day and age.