The biggest reason why I was so hesitant to move the blog to a new website, even if the old one had become a technical nightmare, was that I didn’t want all those posts about the Disney Canon to be lost. Of course, the easy answer to all my worries was that as long as they’re on the internet, those posts probably wouldn’t get lost. I’ve created a page on this blog where you’ll find links to all the posts so far in this series, so you can look at those as I continue my journey through Walt Disney Animation’s official canon.
I’ve always felt like The Rescuers was a transitional film for Disney, and looking deeper into the company’s history, it actually is. In many ways, it is the end of the post-Walt era of Disney animation. This was the last film in which the animators who had previously worked with Walt Disney had major involvement in. It was also the last movie directed by Wolfgang Reitherman, who was in charge of pretty much every feature since One Hundred and One Dalmatians. At the same time, it was the first movie in what feels like a new era of Disney Animation. Most of the people working on The Rescuers were young animators trained by Eric Larson. Many of whom would be at the center of the Disney Renaissance that started in 1989.
It is apparent that the animators involved in The Rescuers (both young and old) wanted to finally break free from the trappings of what was thought of as a Disney Movie. The movie has a very distinctive feel and breaks many of the conventions associated with the studio’s previous output. It is by far the movie produced during this period that feels the most like a 70s movie (and not only because of its contemporary setting). For example, the songs are by and large used to establish mood and tone instead of being sung by the protagonists and the composition of the shots feel far less stagy than any of the previous films. The scene in which our heroes fly through New York is the most cinematic thing Disney had done since Sleeping Beauty (almost two decades earlier). It is probably the most elegantly animated of the 70s movies, and was the biggest success the studio have had since the days when Walt Disney was still alive. In fact, many of the old animators regarded the movie as the only satisfying production since Walt’s death. But is it really? (spoiler, I don’t think so).
There are many reasons why I don’t think so highly of The Rescuers. The first is that the best movie Disney released in the 70s is obviously The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, but saying that is tricky since Pooh was a feature composed out of three shorts (some of which were produced during Disney’s lifetime). If you don’t count Pooh, then I’m also a big fan of Robin Hood. And still, it’s not that I don’t think The Rescuers is the best film of the period, it’s that I don’t think it is a very good film.
My biggest problem with the movie is its excessive amount of sentimentality. I don’t remember The Rescuers being on my VHS collection when I was a child, but I sure as hell remember a scene in particular. It involves little kidnapped orphan girl Penny as she looks sadly into the distance, wishes for someone to come safe and a song called “Someone’s Waiting for You” plays in the background. When I was a kid, this scene never failed to bum me out and often make me cry. So much so that I once pictured the scene when I had to cry during a theater class. I was ten, and let me tell you, my ten-year-old self didn’t know much about subtlety; because watching the movie as an adult I can see how ham-fisted, broad and shamelessly emotional the more “sentimental” scenes are. Everything involving Penny pretty is shouting out you to feel something.
There have been many attempts during Disney’s history (and that of animation as a whole) in which the studios have shamelessly pandered to young audiences. Tim Brayton, from the brilliant blog Antagony & Ecstasy, would cite Disney’s Robin Hood and its decision to recast the characters as animals as such an example. I personally can’t find something as evidently manufactured as The Rescuers’ attempts at exploiting the emotional side of its story. While there have been intensely emotional and unapologetically unsubtle moments in Disney’s past, like the scene in Dumbo in which the little elephant visits his mother’s cage, they felt earned and consistent to the character’s journey. By the time we see Dumbo meet with his Mom and “Baby Mine” plays in the soundtrack, tears pour down my face because I’ve seen Dumbo go through so much stuff and more importantly, go through many different kinds of stuff. The Rescuers not only opens with an incredibly sentimental scene about Penny trying to escape from evil Madame Medusa, but it also only ever presents Penny as the little orphan girl you should feel sorry and sad about. To me, it just feels icky.
This is not to say that there aren’t things I appreciate about The Rescuers. For starters, we have the main characters, mice Bernard and Miss Bianca. They’re voiced by Bob Newhart and Eva Gabor respectively, and their performances surely get to a point of earnest and natural sentimentality in the characters’ relationship that the movies more emotional scenes lack completely. Bernard and Miss Bianca work incredibly well as characters, they’re a typical mis-matched romantic adventure duo that feels fun and natural. Newhart and Gabor create such a lovely communication between the two mice that many of their best scenes don’t even have music playing behind them. It’s a pity that the movie’s script doesn’t really provide as funny or suspenseful scenes for them to play with as the somewhat similar One Hundred and One Dalmatians, but the character work is so good I don’t have any doubt why Disney would go back to these characters a decade later when they released their only theatrical within-canon sequel: The Rescuers Down Under.
Talking about sequels, the other fascinating, if not entirely great thing about The Rescuers, is it’s villain. Initially, the antagonist was supposed to be Cruela De Vil, making this a sort-of-sequel to Dalmatians. Something obviously made the creative team change their minds (it might have had something to do with the fact that Cruela is nowhere to be found in the books by Margery Sharp, upon which the movie is based). However, taking a quick glimpse at the way Madame Medusa (voiced by Geraldine Page) talks and moves, it’s easy to see her as a not-quite-as-british version of Cruela. What is interesting about Madame Medusa, though, is that she clearly was a big influence in the creation and animation of Ursula, who is not only the evil sea-witch from The Little Mermaid, but arguably the very best Disney villains of all-time. We will talk more about Ursula when we get to that film, but for now, take a look at the beautiful animation utilized on Medusa.
So, Medusa is quite a character and Bernard and Miss Bianca are very sweet together, are then the Penny scenes enough to sink the whole movie for me? Well, yes and no. They are certainly the biggest impediment in me liking the movie, but truth be told, good characters, although they certainly help, don’t always make good films. Like I mentioned when I talked about the two mice, the script is just so weak that I just can’t get over it. I enjoy watching Bernard, Miss Bianca and Madame Medusa on a certain level, but when they aren’t dropped in the middle of an interesting story, well, fun animation and good voice work will only get you so far.
Next Time: I’ll take a hesitant look at The Fox and the Hound a movie with a very poor reputation that I haven’t seen since I was a child.