The beginning of ``Who Framed Roger Rabbit'' is a time warp. It's as if you'd traveled back 20 years or more, to the era when a seven-minute cartoon was part of any evening at the movies. The screen comes alive with animation, starring - you guessed it - a rabbit named Roger, who's supposed to take care of Baby Herman while mommy's away. Baby keeps getting into trouble, and Roger has to save him every 10 seconds from a burning stove, an overflowing sink, or some other household menace.
It's an incredibly action-packed cartoon. But just when you're starting to enjoy it most, a director's voice yells ``Cut!'' and suddenly we're in the movie studio where the cartoon is being made. The director is unhappy with Roger's performance; Roger himself seems oddly distracted; and Baby Herman - who's 50 years old, despite his looks - is disgusted with them both.
This scene introduces us to the world of ``Who Framed Roger Rabbit,'' which takes place in a fantasy-skewed version of Hollywood during the late 1940s. Real people and cartoon characters exist there side by side, one group just as real as the other. The animated people are known as ``Toons,'' and, although humans look down on them, they have qualities that make them great for starring in cartoons. Drop a refrigerator on the head of a Toon like Roger, for example, and he'll just shake it off and get on with the scene.
On this particular day, the chief of Roger's studio is worried: The long-eared star isn't concentrating, and his performance is awful. The apparent reason is that Roger's glamorous wife, a Toon who looks like a real woman, is running around on him. So the studio hires a private eye to investigate.
His name is Eddie Valiant, and he doesn't like working in Toontown - after all, a Toon once killed his brother. But he needs the money, so he takes the job. Soon he's chasing a villain named Judge Doom, who has an evil scheme to wipe out Toontown and replace it with something truly horrible: a freeway shopping mall full of gas stations and fast-food joints.
``Who Framed Roger Rabbit'' was made for Steven Spielberg's production company by Robert Zemeckis, who directed the antic ``Back to the Future'' a few summers ago. It's the year's cleverest comedy in more ways than one. The animated sequences are brilliant - as funny and good-looking as almost anything from the golden age of Walt Disney and Warner Bros. cartooning. The human characters are played with bursting enthusiasm by actors like Bob Hoskins and Christopher Lloyd, who seem like half-cartoons themselves; the guest stars include everyone from Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny to the balletic hippopotamus who danced in ``Fantasia.''
Most important, the story also has dark overtones that lend a hint of seriousness to what could have been just silly. Judge Doom's plot recalls the movie ``Chinatown,'' which also dealt with a scheme to manipulate (and profit from) the future of Los Angeles's development. And there's a subtle comment on insidious American racism in the relationship between exploited Toons and condescending human beings. When he menaces a helpless Toon with the only concoction that can kill it - the stuff is called ``dip,'' like some kind of sinister hors d'oeuvre - Judge Doom transcends caricature and becomes an embodiment of pure bigotry.
I would have liked ``Who Framed Roger Rabbit'' even more if its sense of humor were as keen as its energy and as intelligent as its subtexts. It often seems more frantic than funny, and some of its scary scenes will be too much for young children to handle.
But for sheer movie excitement, this is the easy winner so far this season. And if Roger Rabbit doesn't find himself up for an Oscar, it's time for Toons everywhere to go on strike.