The close of the 1970s marks a turning point in the Walt Disney Company. We’ve seen turning points before with individual films, but none more so than in The Rescuers. The film would be the last hit for Disney until 1989, and would signal the close of the longest “golden age” in Disney history; spanning 30 years from the time of Cinderella. The adventures of two little mice is the epitome of everything Disney originally set out to achieve (remember, it all started with a mouse) while entering the somber, dramatic storytelling that would define the animated films of the 1980s.
Two mice of the international Rescue Aid Society set out to help a lonely little girl in need. The glamorous Miss. Bianca (voiced by Eva Gabor) and dour janitor Bernard (voiced by Bob Newhart) must journey to desolate Devil’s Bayou to save Penny (voiced by Michelle Stacy) from the evil Madame Medusa (voiced by Geraldine Page).
The Rescuers is based on a series of popular books by Margaret Sharp about the Rescue Aid Society and its star, Miss. Bianca. The finished product set a few milestones, that boded both good and ill for the company. This was the last film to be nominated for an Academy Award (Best Original Song for “Someone’s Waiting for You”) until 1989’s The Little Mermaid. It was also the first box office success since The Jungle Book, ten years ago, and the last until The Little Mermaid. When it was in theaters, The Rescuers broke the record for the longest box office gain on opening weekend. With all that, The Rescuers is an underrated film that doesn’t have nearly the clout of Disney’s other cinematic gems. It doesn’t have a Disney attraction, and I’ve never seen photos of any costumed characters at the park, and yet this movie originally sold out when Disney first put it out on DVD! I say it’s time to reclaim The Rescuers!
The characters are a colorful blend of kooks with the average Bernard and Miss. Bianca roped into things. The original intent was to bring back Cruella de Vil in the role of Madame Medusa, and I applaud the animators for not doing so. Madame Medusa is one fantastic villainess because she’s over-the-top, but still grounded in reality. The best way to describe her is as a combination of Miss. Hannigan from Annie (particularly Carol Burnett’s interpretation although I wonder how much Burnett was inspired by this), and our aforementioned 101 Dalmatians villain. Madame Medusa may wiggle around like a jazz baby, and look like a pasty drag queen, but she’s got determination. Geraldine Page’s vocal stylings give the character an air of sophistication in spite of her trashy appearance. The scene with Penny where Medusa is trying to gain the little girl’s trust is one of my favorite Disney moments. She wants Penny to like her, calling herself “Auntie” Medusa, but she has no tact when she tells the child she won’t get adopted because she’s “homely.” Added to that is Medusa taking off her make-up, and the half-done up appearance alerts the audience that the makeup doesn’t hide her ugly soul. The odd couple pairing with the male character, Snoops (voiced by Joe Flynn in his last work) is also unique because I don’t recall a female/male pairing before this. Yes, Cruella had male goons who did the heavy lifting, but here they work as a team despite Snoops being berated by Medusa at every turn.
Our main heroes are the conventional duo, but Bernard and Bianca are the prognosticators of the crime-solving husband/wife teams of the 1980s (Hart to Hart, Moonlighting, etc.). I like to compare our mice heroes the Charles’ from the Thin Man series. Bianca is elegant and pampered whereas Bernard is humdrum. The voice casting works to set-up their identities with the foreign Eva Gabor playing Duchess in some ways, but Miss. Bianca is more enduring a character. This is my favorite Bob Newhart role because there’s nothing special about his voice, but that’s what makes his character memorable. Bernard works as a janitor while aspiring to be a member of the Rescue Aid Society. His superstitious fears of the number 13 enhance his character and make him believable to inhabit our world. I’ve focused on the attempts to make animal characters relatable to a human audience in several of these reviews, and I believe The Rescuers is the authoritative interpretation of what an animal character should aspire to be. Apart from being small and animated to look like mice, Bernard and Bianca are human. They have mouse clothes, mouse umbrellas, and have to pack before any car trip. With that, the mice also have human flaws such as the Chairman of the Rescue Aid Society fearing that it’s no longer “a man’s world,” so he’s not surprised Miss. Bianca wants to take on Penny’s case alone, but she’s a woman and needs to be chaperoned; Bernard agrees. Other than that, Bernard and Bianca’s relationship is that of equals with both being in danger at certain points (a breath of fresh air that live-action movies can’t seem to do). At its heart, the Rescue Aid Society takes on the cases that no humans want or care about, making the mice better people than humans themselves.
The animation continues to show the potential of the xerography process. The animators utilized color inks for the first time, so the characters aren’t lined in dark blacks, but lighter colored blacks. This was the last film to be animated by all nine of Disney’s “Nine Old Men,” and the quality is apparent. The opening credits are painted and the paper background creates a beautiful contrast to the watercolors on top. The opening credits are rather beautiful, setting up the downbeat tone of the movie by showing the tragic journey of Penny’s bottle. Her hopes and dreams are contained to one bottle, and as the water pushes it along – almost dashing it against the rocks – the animation becomes darker. It’s reinforced by the melodious songs of Shelby Flint. The original intent was to get The Carpenters to sing the songs, and Flint has a similar vocal quality as Karen Carpenter. All three songs sound similar with “The Journey” conveying its meaning best. The opening credits show the bottle going on its journey as the song rises and crescendos like the waves on which the bottle is propelled. Since the plot is so serious, it doesn’t make sense to have characters sing, so the three songs do enhance the feelings of the character (usually Penny with two out of the three). Again, all three have the same progression so I’m not sure I’d call them Oscar-worthy, but they’re nice and don’t obstruct the narrative.
The Rescuers exemplifies the simple stories of the 1970s, and marks a change in the Disney model. The five animated films of the 1980s are all adaptations of classic literature and/or are firmly in the vein of the fantastical. The Rescuers is the most human, down-to-Earth story Disney set out to do, and I’m glad I got to re-experience it with adult eyes.
NEXT WEEK: I’ll be taking a break (something I’ll start doing when we close a decade) next week, but April 6th we’ll kick off the 1980s with a discussion on The Fox and the Hound.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.