By no means is it one of Disney’s greatest films, but I think a lot of people sadly forget about The Rescuers, an inventive and adventurous Disney movie from 1977. It was a pretty important film for Disney too, being their highest grossing movie to that date and the studio’s only major success between the death of Disney and the Disney Renaissance (thus why it earned a sequel thirteen years later). And you can see why, even if it’s not one of your favourites, purely out of how much an improvement it is over what came in the decade before.
The story based on a series of childrens' novels by Margery Sharp, is about a pair of mice from the Rescue Aid Society -sort of the mouse U.N.: Miss Bianca, a cunning and stylish Hungarian detective, and Bernard, a nervous, superstitious but spirited American janitor, who undertake a mission to rescue an orphan girl called Penny from her insane kidnapper, who’s obsessed with using Penny to get a priceless diamond hidden away in Devil’s Bayou.
I love how imaginative the miniaturized world is and just the whole idea of this parallel society to our own existing beneath us. Every institution has an equivalent for mice and it’s pretty creative. Like what they use for airplanes, motorboats, etc. It’s not quite as clever in detail as similar societies from Arrietty or Flushed Away, but I’m still impressed. It reminds me in many ways of the ingenuity behind the world of The Flintstones. But like The Flintstones, the mouse technology is often dependent on other animals. And you do have to wonder why there aren’t similar societies for albatrosses or cats. There are some other strange facets of this world, like how children are perfectly at home talking to animals but adults are unwise to it, and they do bring attention to the absurdity of a pair of mice rescuing a little girl rather than simply alerting the police and making the rescue a lot easier. But those are simple enough things to suspend your disbelief for, especially in light of the story which feels darker in tone than anything we’ve seen from Disney since One Hundred and One Dalmatians. Similar to that film, this is a story that deals with a kidnapping and quite a threatening one at that. From even the opening with a moody music and atmosphere to Bianca and Bernard’s investigation to their actual encounter with Penny in Devil’s Bayou, there’s a real tone of danger and peril present. And I can’t help but credit Don Bluth for this. He was a directing animator on The Rescuers and he clearly liked the story, later replicating the orphan subplot for All Dogs Go to Heaven, and this moody and darker tone feels very foreshadowing of his own films. The tension though not as strong as The Secret of NIMH for example, is still very real, often brought on by the unpredictable Madame Medusa.
Geraldine Page is pretty exemplary as Medusa bringing out a fearfulness in her voice. Design-wise, she’s clearly influenced by Cruella de Vil, but her features have a bagginess to them. Like Madame in The Aristocats there’s a grotesqueness to her animation, but here it works in her favour as a frightful, ugly villain. Her obsessiveness and ruthlessness as well as her penchant to treat Penny nicely one minute and cruelly the next, makes her the kind of person you wouldn’t want chasing you in her swamp-mobile. A villain like this makes us more grateful for our likeable heroes and I have to say, I love Bernard and Bianca; they’re a couple of my favourite Disney characters! Their personalities aren’t anything special by today’s standards but there’s just something really endearing to them as a team. I like how most of the time, Bianca’s a woman in charge, a detective in a very Phryne Fisher kind of way. She’s smart, classy, and principled, with an appetite for adventure, and Eva Gabor is perfect as her voice. Gabor’s performance was one of the few good things in The Aristocats and it’s just as lovely here. And Bernard is a wonderful companion for her. He’s one of the first protagonists in Disney to be an awkward loser, a real relatable underdog. His anxieties and attempts at gentlemanliness are enjoyable, thanks in large part to Bob Newhart’s performance which excels at humble likeability. They’re just a duo that compliment each other really well and I want to see them on more adventures. The supporting cast is made up of a lot of Disney regulars: Joe Flynn voices the stumbling henchman Mr. Snoops, Bernard Fox voices Mr. Chairman. Jim Jordan creates a pretty good comic relief character in Orville the albatross (more entertaining than Evinrude the exhausted dragonfly) and John McIntire has a nice if forgettable part as Rufus, Penny’s cat companion at the orphanage. There’s also a company of redneck critters who along with Orville, I’d have liked to have seen more of. The only character that brings the film down a little is Penny, who though she’s designed fine and has a sympathetic back-story, is voiced by a pretty terrible child actor. Some deliveries she gets out fine and feels like a real enough kid in a desperate situation, but other times her dialogue is more forced than the kids in Charlie Brown specials.
Penny is also the cause of a couple of the films’ cornier sequences. Despite what I said about the generally darker mood, The Rescuers does still feel like a Disney film and the comic relief doesn’t always work. Once again, we get a scene where one character imitates the villain while other characters humour them. A couple scenes around Penny really play up the cute and corny; and while some of the action sequences work, like Bianca’s rescue of Bernard from Medusa’s suitcase, others like Medusa’s crocodiles Nero and Brutus (what interesting names) playing the organ to catch the mice don’t (though the crocodiles are animated well). The whole climax through to the ending is very rushed. I feel like the film could have taken more time with it considering on a whole it’s less than an hour and a half. And at times the animation does look a little haphazard.
However I think the animation is generally pretty good. It’s not really great or new, but there’s a subtlety to it that adds to the tone. The sequence where they find the Devil’s Eye, the diamond Medusa’s intent upon, looks fantastic, and again like something out of a Bluth film. There’s also the scene where they take off on Orville from New York. And yes I’m aware of the controversial topless woman who showed up for a couple frames in the initial home video release (evidently Tyler Durden worked on this film). But that aside, the sequence around it I think is really nice. As they fly over New York, the colour scheme favours golds and browns that for me create a warmth in mood. The mini-romance we get between Bernard and Bianca is also nice, and it is accompanied by a sweet little song “Tomorrow is Another Day”. The music for this film I also think is underrated. This was the first Disney film in a long time where the songs weren’t written by the Sherman Brothers but I think they fare out nicely. It’s different for a Disney movie not to have any songs sung by the characters and are rather there to just move a scene along (apart from “Rescue Aid Society” that is, the agency’s anthem) .Hell, I don’t think they’ve done this since Bambi! The opening song is accompanied by that moody music and acts as an intriguing set-up to the story; and of course “Someone’s Waiting For You” is a beautiful accompaniment to the theme of loneliness, belonging, and is actually comforting. The songs are performed by Shelby Flint who does a very good job.
Everyone I think did a very good job on The Rescuers, an imperfect but really great film that I think should get more attention than it does! It’s a kind of adventure movie that we haven’t seen from Disney in a while, and one not afraid to be a little bold.There are aspects of the story, voice acting, pacing, and comic relief that don’t hold up, but the characters, ideas, the world and the tone I think really stand out. It exists in a great middle ground between a Disney film and a Don Bluth film, which I think sets it apart for the better. While I don’t think it’s quite one of Disney’s best, it is one of my personal favourites. I definitely recommend checking it out to see if you agree. And as for the sequel ...well, we’ll get to that.
Next Week: The Fox and the Hound (1981)