The Rescuers (1977)
Directed by Wolfgang Reitherman, John Lounsbery and Art Stevens
A little girl named Penny is seen throwing a bottle with a note in it in a river. The bottle makes its way to New York City, where the note is read by the members of the Rescue Aid Society: an international organization of mice dedicated to helping those in need, based in (and clearly modeled on) the United Nations building. The Hungarian representative, Miss Bianca, volunteers to investigate, and when the RAS leadership refuses to let her go alone she selects a lowly janitor, Bernard, as her partner/chaperone.
The two of them first investigate the orphanage that Penny had addressed the note to. They follow the clues to Madame Medusa’s pawn shop, where it becomes clear that the proprietor has kidnapped the girl. They attempt to stow away in her luggage, but fail and have to take a commercial flight (a.k.a. an actual albatross) down to somewhere in the Deep South. With the help of a dragonfly named Evinrude, they reach an abandoned riverboat in the bayou, where they find Penny and learn that she is being forced to crawl into a narrow sea cave to retrieve a priceless diamond.
The next day, Penny is sent back into the cave, and Bianca and Bernard help her to find the diamond before it floods with water. Madame Medusa and her assistant Snoops turn on each other once they have the jewel, and Bernard and Bianca (along with the animal cavalry brought by Evinrude) set off the riverboat’s fireworks cargo to create a distraction and allow Penny to escape. Back in New York, the mice watch a news broadcast that tells how the diamond ended up in the Smithsonian, and that Penny has been adopted by a loving family.
By the early 1970s, most of the Nine Old Men who had been running the animation department for decades were reaching retirement age. Only four of them were still working on animation by the time that Robin Hood was finished: Milt Kahl, John Lounsbery, Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston (Wolfgang Reitherman was still in the department, but he’s switched from character animation to directing a decade earlier). As such, Disney needed new talent, and a B team was created as a training ground for young, up-and-coming animators. They’d get the smaller, less prestigious projects, while the elder animators would work on the big-budget stuff. They’d also help out the senior animators by doing background characters or short sequences on the main films.
While Robin Hood was finishing up the B-team, lead by Don Bluth, was looking for something to work on next. They found a film that Disney had tried to develop in the early 60s, based on the Miss Bianca stories by Margery Sharp. The earlier version had been a spy movie in the James Bond mold, and it hadn’t really worked at the time. The B-team took the concept, and retooled it into a movie about Bianca and Bernard rescuing a circus polar bear, to be played by Louis Prima. However, it was put on hold when Prima was diagnosed with a brain tumor.
Meanwhile, the A team had finished up Robin Hood, and were looking for their own next movie. They grabbed The Rescuers from the B team and promoted it to Disney’s next major film (several members of the junior team, such as Bluth and Glen Keane, were promoted up to work on the production as well). Fortunately for the movie, being moved to the main crew also brought with it better resources and, finally, a breakthrough in animation technique. Disney had been using the xerography method for 15 years by this point, but this was the movie where they finally figured out how to get their machines to actually copy in a limited color palette, instead of just thick black.
The movie was released in June 1977, about a month after Star Wars, and it actually managed to hold its own against that behemoth in the battle for the family audience. It made about $50 million worldwide at the box office (roughly $200 million in today’s dollars), which made it Disney’s biggest success since The Jungle Book. It was also a big critical hit, with the general consensus being that it was the best thing the studio had released since Mary Poppins.
We go from one of the lightest, most pleasant films in the Disney canon, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, straight to what is certainly the darkest entry that we’ve had to this point. If you actually take a hard look at the material here, it’s an atypically grim affair for the House of Mouse. The plot not only deals with child kidnapping, but full-on child slavery, as Penny is forced into working in an exceedingly dangerous situation against her will. She’s physically and emotionally abused, and would almost certainly have died without the help of a couple of mice. If I didn’t know better, I’d assume this was a Bluth film…oh, wait. He worked on it. That explains everything.
Seriously, though, Bluth’s fingerprints are all over this movie. It was his first credit as a directing animator, and everything about it, from the tone to the color palette used in the Devil’s Bayou backgrounds, reminds me much more of Secret of NIMH or All Dogs Go to Heaven than it does the other Disney movies of the 60s and 70s. It makes me really wonder what sort of direction Disney might have gone in if he had stayed with the company. But that’s getting a movie ahead of myself.
I think this is the first Disney movie to be structured explicitly as a mystery, especially for the first half of the film. We see Penny throwing the bottle overboard at the very beginning, but she otherwise doesn’t appear on screen again (at least outside of flashbacks) until around the halfway mark. Before that, it’s the odd couple of Bianca and Bernard attempting to follow the clues to determine what happened to her. One Hundred and One Dalmatians had the kidnapping of the puppies, of course, but it was always pretty clear who’d taken them, and the story hinged on how Pongo and Perdita were going to find them and get them back. But here, we’re discovering everything right along with our protagonists.
While I like the idea of a Disney mystery movie in concept, this first attempt definitely had some issues. For all that it puts an emphasis on action sequences, I found it to actually be pretty slow in places. And several of the set pieces were undercut by the music, which switched to an almost slapstick mode when Penny and the mice were escaping from the boat at the end. Granted, I don’t think the image of Madame Medusa waterskiing on the backs of alligators is something that could really be taken seriously, no matter the context, but it’s hard to have any tension when the villains aren’t presented as much of a threat.
That’s only the end, however. For most of the film, Madame Medusa is a cruel, amoral antagonist, who intentionally inflicts abuse on a little girl in pursuit of her diamond. She’s not as flamboyantly evil as Cruella De Vil (whom she was clearly inspired by), but she might be even more detestable as a human being. There’s a long-standing, half-confirmed rumor that animator Milt Kahl deliberately based her appearance on his ex wife. If that’s true, then…damn. I would not want to be his divorce lawyers.
Thanks to the improvement in the xerography process that I mentioned earlier, this is probably the best-looking Disney movie since the 1950s. That’s nowhere more apparent than in the sea cave sequence. This scene is one that actually is tense, with the (wonderfully animated) water rushing out of a hole in the floor creating a ticking clock for the trio to find the diamond and escape alive. It’s a sequence that I don’t think they could have pulled off a decade earlier.
This film was definitely a big step up in terms of quality for the studio. They’re not quite back up to where they were in the 50s, but I think this is probably the most I’ve enjoyed one since at least The Jungle Book, and maybe One Hundred and One Dalmatians. We’re not quite out of the woods, however. The 80s are about to hit the studio hard.
Animation: B+ (The best-looking Disney movie in a decade, and the hand of Don Bluth is unmistakable)
Main Characters: A- (The pairing of the blue-collar man with the high-class lady works really well for this mystery, even if the the duo are mice)
Supporting Characters: B- (I like Penny and the albatross pilot Orville, but most of the other supporting characters are more window dressing than anything else)
Villains: B+ (Madame Medusa is a cut-rate Cruella De Vil, but she’s still quite effective in her portrayal of a petty, abusive woman)
Music: C- (The music is one of the weakest parts of the film, and actively distracted me at points)