The Rescuers (1977)

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The Rescuers
Dir. Wolfgang Reitherman, John Lounsbery, and Art Stevens
23rd entry in the Disney Animated Canon
Premiered June 22, 1977

The Rescuers was one of my favorite Disney movies as a kid, and I barely remember any of it. Having watched it again, I understand the latter, but not the former, nor why it was so popular with my mom’s students for however long she held on to our VHS copy. In its own time, The Rescuers was a return to form that saved the Walt Disney Company from certain doom. Today, nobody much cares for it, at least not adults. What changed?

The Rescuers was the last film to have any creative involvement from Walt Disney himself, having optioned Margery Sharp’s book of the same name as well as some of its spinoffs back in 1962. The original plot centered around the titular rescuers helping a Russian poet imprisoned in a Soviet gulag, but Disney thought it was too heavy duty and gave up on the project. By the ‘70s, though, the company was so starved for new content that they revived the picture as a placeholder– as they did the previous entry, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh– until they could make something more ambitious.

Mind you, it may not be political, but The Rescuers is very dark, in both its visuals and its story. It begins with a little girl named Penny (Michelle Stacy) dropping a message in a bottle into a swamp, where it floats into the sea, and thence into the sea, washing ashore in New York City to the tune of a very depressing song called “The Journey” by Shelby Flint. Arriving in New York, the message is taken to the Rescue Aid Society, a subsection of the United Nations run entirely by mice. Penny’s message is garbled due to water damage, and Hungarian delegate Bianca (Eva Gabor) volunteers to investigate. When pressed to choose a partner, she selects Bernard (Bob Newhart), the Society’s oafish but kind janitor.

The investigation takes them first to the orphanage where Penny ran away out of frustration over not being adopted, then to a sketchy pawn shop run by a haggard and villainous woman named Madame Medusa (Geraldine Page), who, after receiving a phone call about “the girl,” takes off to Louisiana; Bernard and Bianca in hot pursuit with help from a pilot/albatross named Orville (Jim Jordan). Arriving there, they discover that Medusa and her stooge Mr. Snoops (Joe Flynn) have been keeping Penny as a slave on a condemned riverboat, taking advantage of her small size to get into a tidal cave that houses a sunken treasure called the Devil’s Eye Diamond.

In spite of the decided maturity and darkness of the story– you really sense the involvement of animator Don Bluth here– The Rescuers comes off as kinda half-assed. Penny is irritatingly cutesy. In fact, that’s her only defining characteristic, and the effect is dulling. All we care about is Bernard and Bianca. There are a handful of genuinely cute animal characters, like the orphanage cat (John McIntyre), Orville, and tiny, voiceless Evinrude the Dragonfly (James MacDonald). But then there’s an overload of ancillary characters living in the swamp who are little more than stereotypes and cameos, let alone the villains. Madame Medusa may not look much like 101 Dalmatians’ Cruella de Vil, but she certainly feels like a less fun version of her. Perhaps that’s appropriate in a film that prominently features child slavery, alcohol, and firearms, but it doesn’t give the audience much to grab onto. Much less her henchman Snoops, who has no personality at all except as her toady.

Little of it adds up to a coherent whole, at least for a movie that’s trying to tell a complete story, unlike The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, and especially a film this short, topping off at 77 minutes. With so little time, the padding is even more desperate and the jokes ever more repetitive.

Signs This Was Made in 1977

  • The head of Rescue Aid Society makes a weirdly non-committal semi-endorsement of the unprecedented act of sending a female mouse on a rescue mission.

  • When Bernard and Bianca enter the Morningside Orphanage, they enter on top of a chest belonging to “Jimmy Jones.” That would have been horrifying a year and a half later. Also, orphanages still exist in the United States.

  • Though not a musical in the conventional sense, The Rescuers features three original songs, all of them easy listening pieces performed by Joni Mitchell’s vocal inspiration Shelby Flint, and all but the very dark opener are awful.

Additional Notes
The Rescue Aid Society has a delegate from “Africa.” You know, that country Africa. More strangely, it has a delegate from Latvia, which was part of the Soviet Union at the time.

Penny’s teddy bear looks an awful lot like Winnie the Pooh.

How Did It Do?
Although you wouldn’t guess it now, The Rescuers was Disney’s biggest success of the 1970s; earning $48 million against a $7.5 million budget, receiving the biggest opening weekend box office of any animated film up to that point, and beating Star Wars in France. Critics flocked to the film as well, giving it an 83% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes; the company had failed to recover from Walt Disney’s death in 1966 and subsequently fell behind the rest of Hollywood creatively and financially, to the point that many wondered if the studio would fold entirely (it almost did). The Rescuers demonstrated that they still had it– though much of that credit belongs to Don Bluth, who would soon leave Disney and spend most of the 1980s beating them at their own game. At the same time, most people I know who’ve seen The Rescuers are way more lukewarm about it.

On the strength of its 1977 debut, The Rescuers became the first (and until 2011 only) WDAS film to receive an official sequel, 1990’s The Rescuers Down Under. In many ways, the sequel’s fortunes were directly inverse to that of the original: it flopped when Disney panickingly pulled all advertising after a 4th-place opening, and critics at the time didn’t like it as much as the original, but it is now widely regarded as the far superior film. Which it is: funny, exciting, and gorgeous to look at. In many ways, The Rescuers Down Under is a product of the Hollywood blockbuster model that was emerging when the original made its debut.

Next Time: Sorcerer

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