Sunday, February 27, 2011

Our Feature Presentation (14/50) -- The Rescuers (1970)

Confession time: I am not a fan of the Disney xerography movies. I love the lushly animated backgrounds of the Gold and Silver ages, and marvel at the sheer beauty the CAPS system brought to the films of the 90’s. This doesn’t leave the xerography movies many places to go; I find the visual style off-putting, and it doesn’t help that the main xerography movie I used to watch growing up wasn’t all that great, either. That said, I remember vaguely enjoying The Rescuers back in the day, so I was able to approach it sans my usual anti-Xerox baggage.

The Rescuers opens with a brief scene in a swamp, where a young girl throws a bottle into the river. After the opening credits, which chronicle the journey of the bottle through fierce storms and rogue ocean liners, we find the message wash ashore in New York City. Goodness knows what kind of currents are needed to carry a bottle all the way to New York from what is clearly Deep South, Louisiana (or, more likely, New Jersey. Ohhhhhh!), but never mind.

The message in a bottle is found by the delegates of the Rescue Aid Society, a mousy offshoot of the United Nations, held in the UN building. After determining that the note is a plea for help, the Rescue Aid Society assigns two mice to the case: Hungarian representative Bianca (Eva Gabor), and American, er, janitor Bernard (Bob Newhart; Bernard is also wearing what appears to be Mario’s outfit during his early portion of the movie).

Sorry Bernard, but our orphan is in another swamp.

The two mice find their way to Penny’s old orphanage, where they interview the resident cat, Rufus (John McIntire), about her last whereabouts. More sleuthing leads them to a sketchy pawn shop, owned by Madame Medusa (Geraldine Page). Medusa, in a one-sided phone conversation, informs the mice that Penny has been kidnapped in order to fetch a diamond from a particularly snug hole in the ground, and that she is being held in a swamp called Devil’s Bayou.

Wasting no time, Bernard and Bianca book a flight to the Bayou with the local air service: an albatross named Orville (Jim Jordan). Our heroes quickly find Penny, and set out to live up to their namesake and save the poor girl. Their exploits will take them through thick marshland, a riverboat pipe organ, and a dark cave filled with pirate treasure.

The scene where Penny retrieves the Devil’s Eye diamond is surprisingly well-paced

Given all of the comparable junk this movie is surrounded by (Robin Hood and The Aristocats before, The Fox and the Hound and The Black Cauldron after), I didn’t have high hopes for The Rescuers. Imagine my surprise, then, when I found it rather enjoyable. Perhaps it’s nostalgia, perhaps it’s because I know what the Disney Dark Ages are capable of; regardless, The Rescuers not only fails to be a total crock, but is also actually pretty good.

One thing that jumps out at me about The Rescuers is how completely 70’s it feels. It’s very odd for a Disney film to be so accurately carbon dated; most films seem to take place in some sort of timeless Disney Land (as opposed to Disneyland), and even the ones with “modern dates” on them don’t feel terribly entrenched in their respective time periods.

The Rescuers, on the other hand, could not have been made anywhere but the mid-70’s. Most of it comes from the visuals—the movie’s artwork, coupled with the general murk of the xerography process, makes the film look fairly gritty, similar to other films in the same time period. It’s a bit odd that a Disney movie would remind you of, say, The Warriors, but that’s exactly what happens.

Rescuerrrrs, come out to plaaayyyyy

The sound, too, is rather 70’s. Most of the songs have a light, 70’s soft rock feel to them, reminding me of Carly Simon or The Carpenters. In particular, the light horns and acoustic guitar in “Tomorrow is Another Day” create a tune that would be perfect to listen to while reading “A River Runs Through It” and watching “Match Game” after getting home from the roller rink.

Far from the pedestrian soundtracks of the previous two films, The Rescuers also has a decent, active score. It generates suspense and comic relief in all of the places it should, and even reuses certain themes, which is one of my favorite movie score tricks. Though still sparse in places (like many films of the time), the background music in this movie was a pleasant surprise.

Though sleepy, the songs from The Rescuers are rather pleasant, if only in a 70’s nostalgia-inducing way.

Aside from the obvious callbacks to the era of Chinatown and Electric Light Orchestra, The Rescuers has a few features that distinguish it from its contemporaries. For starters, it has the best-realized central characters out of any film from the Disney Dark Ages that I can think of. Bianca is a strong, though still rather feminine, female lead, and I loved Bernard’s superstitious nature (“Oh no, there are thirteen steps on this ramp”). Both are well-portrayed and instantly sympathetic, making it easier to follow the rest of the movie.

The Rescuers also enjoys one of the strongest villains since 101 Dalmatians (Shere Khan was more of an idea than an actual villain, so he doesn’t count). Falsely sweet, totally sour, and absolutely enormous in character, Madame Medusa sashays wildly about the film, leaving no bit of scenery un-chewed. Her over-the-top animation coupled with an excellent vocal performance from Geraldine Page hoists Madame Medusa to the top of the villain pedestal, where she will remain until Ursula comes along (who, coincidentally, also looks like a man in drag).

I’ve heard of alligator shoes, but this is ridiculous

The supporting characters, on the other hand, don’t fare so well. With the exception of Orville (who I liked quite a bit more I remember), the secondary cast is replete with Jar Jars. For the villains: Snoops, the stuttering, cowering fat bloke who acts as Medusa’s henchman. For the heroes: Ellie May, a rolling pin-wielding swamp mouse whose high-pitched trill frequently reminded me of Edith Bunker.

Lastly, and most damning, is Penny (Michelle Stacy), one of our chief protagonists. Granted, she’s not as bad as she could be, and her character arc is a good one (little girl wants to be adopted, but is afraid that no one wants her), but she is just pants. On. Head. Aggravating. I have a huge bias against child characters that are played for adorable points, and it’s unfortunate that Stacy wanders so far into the Preciousness Danger Zone. It takes a deft hand to successfully pull off the cutesy, na├»ve act, and Penny’s hands show a decided lack of deftness (Judith Barsil is the only actor or actress I can think of who can sell this kind of character).

Oh for Pete’s sake.

The film more or less works, though. Bernard, Bianca, and Medusa do enough to elevate the action above their mediocre colleagues, and the film has some fairly exciting set pieces, like a scene near the end where Penny and our two mice need to extract a diamond from an old pirate skull, all while the water level slowly rises. It’s a shame this movie hasn’t seen the amount of re-releases that other films around it have, because it’s a surprisingly good time. Though uneven in spots, The Rescuers is well worth discovering if you haven’t seen it, and more than worth revisiting if it’s been a while.

Top 3 Songs:

  1. “Tomorrow is Another Day”
  2. “The Journey”
  3. “Rescue Aid Society Anthem” (this bugger’s been stuck in my head for the last week)

Favorite scene:

  • Bernard, Bianca, and Penny struggle to recover the Devil’s Eye while fending off the rising tide.

Favorite character:

  • Bernard (it was a close call between him and Medusa, but an outstanding villain is par for the course in a Disney film, and I enjoyed Bernard’s character tics)

The Jar Jar:

  • Three way tie: Ellie May, Snoops, Penny

How I Watched It

I plucked this edition of The Rescuers from Amazon (like I have for so many of these flicks). It’s currently the only edition of The Rescuers available, and you should have no trouble buying it in-print. The picture quality looks pretty good (I rather liked the use of different-colored lines for certain characters, like how Bianca was outlined in purple), and it sounds good enough for most regular users.

Bonus materials are both sparse and ample. On one hand, there is no Making Of featurette, which is unfortunate, though par for the course with movies that aren’t considered True Blue Disney Classics. Anyone jonesing to get an inside look at the film that helped phase-out the remaining Nine Old Men (Ollie Johnston, Frank Thomas, etc.) in favor of new Disney animation talent (Glen Keane, Ron Clements, etc.) will be sorely disappointed.

On the other, there are several fun, non-film related extras. Included is a Silly Symphony cartoon (“The Three Blind Mouseketeers”), and a Walt Disney True Life Adventure on water birds (presumably because Orville is an albatross. I dunno). Also included is a photo gallery of concept art, animators at work, voice recording sessions, and the film’s debut, which is neat. It’s not definitive by any means (and something I’d like to see corrected if the film is re-released on Blu-ray), but it’s a damn site better than Robin Hood’s bonus material.


  1. If you think the picture quality of that DVD edition looked 'pretty good' you'd be blown away if you saw the film the way it is *meant* to look; nothing at all like the crummy, washed-out, dark, over-saturated presentation of the DVD. Fortunately, Disney has a second chance to get it right as the film is soon to be released on Blu-ray.

  2. Oh man, it is silly how excited I am for The Rescuers to be released on Blu-ray. Granted, my excitement stems more from the sequel included in the package, but gritty '70s cinematography is always appreciated in HD, especially if it's animated.