Today marks the 30th anniversary of the only family film to draw a direct line from the death of cartoons to the origin of the modern highway system. Robert Zemeckis’ Who Framed Roger Rabbit is re-calibrated noir that lurks in the same playground as The Long Goodbye. A washed-up gumshoe (Eddie Valiant, played with pure sportsmanship by Bob Hoskins) with a boozy habit takes on a simple private investigation case and ends up in over his head in a vast, industry-wide plot. There are plenty of memorable elements to the story: Alan Silvestri’s Bogart-in-a-funhouse musical soundtrack, the shared universe allowing Droopy, Porky Pig, Betty Boop, and Mickey Mouse to share a scene together, and the groundbreaking car chase sequence combining live-action with animation all make for a fun pulp smashup.
But it was not all fun. One portion of the film gave me nightmares as a child. I would fast-forward the VHS tape to avoid it, staring at the floor and counting Mississippis until the requisite amount of time had passed and I could safely press play again. That element was a pale-faced authority figure clad in black, depicted by Christopher Lloyd: Judge Doom.
Doom is the feared magistrate of Toontown with a Final Solution for any and all law-breaking Toons in his jurisdiction. Without a hint of empathy, he places quivering, frightened Toons in a vat of pigment-erasing chemicals that he dubs “The Dip.” From his first moments onscreen he is a cold, calculating enforcer of the rules, a monstrification of everything children regard with dread and fear. When Marvin Acme is murdered, the Judge is ruthless in his hunt for the killer and makes no efforts to sugarcoat his hatred for the Toons of Toontown. Authority figures like school principals and cops are already intimidating and slightly scary when you’re a kid navigating life. So the big-screen existence of an authority like the Judge who blatantly advances a destructive agenda is, as it was for 9-year-old Anya, nothing short of ghastly.
But someone stands up to this monster. After a madcap chase through the city armed with evidence of a sinister conspiracy, Valiant is knocked out and wakes up in front of the Judge, who cops to a whole Toon genocidal plot. A scuffle ensues, and a steamroller makes a pancake out of Judge Doom. Happy ending, yeah?
In a kids’ movie, this should be the end of it. Most baddies wouldn’t be able to survive a steamroller pressing, but Judge Doom is no ordinary baddie. As the story progresses, the Judge reveals himself to be disguised: his true form is that of a cartoon. To the accompaniment of Silvestri’s Danny Elfman-esque strings and bombastic horns, the flattened Judge springs right up, a giggling paper-thin facsimile of a human. By the third act, the Judge is a monstrous visualization of the ugliness he has inside. The coordinated effects and animation teams of Roger Rabbit really do their part to throw peanut oil directly onto the traumatic grease fire of this scene, sprinkling in popped eyeballs, corporeal inflation by mouth, and an unhinged screech coupled with blood red-tipped eye daggers:
Pure nightmare fuel.
Once he goes full Toon, the Judge is near-unstoppable. He wields a Green Lantern-like ability to magically conjure up weapons, turning his hand into an anvil and then a giant circular saw. It’s only by the luck of a well-placed fall that Valiant is able to put the Judge in the path of his own killing machine and provide one of the most satisfying (and prolonged) villain deaths to grace a children’s movie. Watching Judge Doom slowly dissolve into an emerald pool of Dip conjures up memories of the Wicked Witch’s demise in The Wizard Of Oz (down to the high-pitched “I’m melting” mewlings), and it’s a worthy comparison. When you’re a kid, the inherent unfairness of the world is a villain unto itself. People in charge can be bad. There are those who actively try to hurt others. Bad people can get away with doing bad things, and we can feel powerless against them. All cold, harsh truths perfectly embodied by Judge Doom.
He is, as he says, “Not just any Toon.”