The Rescuers (1977) Review
What do I know about the film?
I was mildly baffled very early on in my first viewing of ‘The Rescuers.’ I knew that the film was based off the books by Margery Sharp but in the opening credits Disney declared that the story was ‘Suggested by ‘The Rescuers’ and ‘Miss Bianca’ by Margery Sharp.’ What happened to based on or inspired by? What suggested by actually suggests is they begrudgingly acknowledge the base idea/characters but their version has very little in common with the text. Either way, it seems a little disrespectful. Still, I doubt she cared: As a result of the film, all 9 of her ‘Rescuers’ books ended up on various best seller lists.
Some people cite this as the very first film that Walter Disney had nothing at all to do with but believe or not that still isn’t the case. ‘The Rescuers’ went into preproduction in 1962 when Walt was very much still alive. The actual book that is called ‘The Rescuers’ is about a Norwegian poet trapped in a prison who is visited by some mice who are part of an organisation that send in rodents to cheer up incarcerated individuals. I read it once at school. It was pretty good. Walt felt it all sounded a bit gloomy and would work better if it was about a Polar Bear named Willie. Because…Y’know. Willie the Polar Bear. Who wouldn’t want to rescue that guy? ‘Suggested by’ indeed…
But then he died (Disney, not Willie the Polar Bear) and they quietly scrapped the polar bear shit and took the lead from the literary sequel to ‘The Rescuers’ ‘Miss Bianca’ to focus the story on a kidnapped child. Much more Disney’s speed.
It took 4 years and a lot of man power: After a couple of public missteps, and many whispers that the Studio was nothing without their leader, everyone involved wanted a mega hit and were not taking any chances. Leading the animation team was none other than Don Bluth. Does the name ring a bell? For some of you it will. Others maybe not. But for now let’s leave it at that…
Now these reviews are for fun and not especially focused on the behind the scenes stuff that I am less interested in, but I feel it would be remiss of me not to talk a little about Disney’s 9 Old Men. And now is as good a time as any as I believe this was the final Disney feature that they all worked on. These guys were the core animators and subsequent directors at the studio from ‘Snow White’ onwards and I understand the name was coined by Walt himself. As individuals and as a gang they are responsible for some of the most lauded work in animation and, significantly, supported new up starts with their work at Disney and beyond. They are all deceased now but their legacy lives on in the incredible work they produced and it is fair to say that they left their mark on celluloid:
Stand down men. You did it.
So did the hard work on ‘The Rescuers’ pay off? Some of the animators have publicly stated that this was the best work they did post-Walt and the critics agreed. Many people saw ‘The Rescuers’ as a sign that Disney was still in the movie game. However, it would be their last big success until 1989.
When’s it my turn? Not yet…
Despite this being considered a glorious highlight of 70’s Disney, that is not a competitive field and generally speaking it is not usually cited as one of the best or most memorable films overall. One of the more famous stories comes from the recall of the VHS edition back in 1999. It turned out of one the animators was either A) not so happy at work or B) had an interesting sense of humour and no sense of proportion because during one of the flying scenes it was possible to spot a naked woman in the background in one of the windows. Now, normally these kinds of Disney controversies are either debatable or hold no water whatsoever (there are a lot of those during the renaissance era) but this was…errr…unmistakable:
Bernard’s face says it all really…
Pornography in a family film aside (I type that far too often…) what of the rescuing mice? Onwards!
Did I see it as a child?
I did see it a few times at my first babysitter’s house, but I owned and was completely enamoured with the sequel and when I think of The Rescuers, that is the movie I think of. But we have some time before we get to that. I do remember having a cassette tape of Disney songs with a song from this film that used to make me cry and some of the images triggered some really nostalgic memories…
Not this FYI.
I was quite obsessed with Miss Bianca as a very young child: Was it because she was an adventurous woman in a man’s world? Nope. It was the purple outfit. I LOVED it. In my defence I was 4. Very few people had attempted to explain the importance of having positive female role models to me.
On that subject though, I stumbled across this fantastic blog about Heroine’s in pop culture that I thoroughly recommend. This post is about the awesome Miss Bianca and while I will be talking about her in the body of the review I would encourage you to read this because it is great (It talks about her role in the forthcoming sequel though, so if you want to avoid the very smallest of spoilers for a 25 year old film, then hold off): http://swanpride.wordpress.com/2014/06/07/honoring-the-heroine-miss-bianca/
Going back to my childhood for a moment, I loved having both her and Bernard in model form:
Look at them go!
One day, my friend Amanda and I were playing with them in the garden and invented a game which involved throwing them up in the air with a cry of: ‘Here goes Bianca!’ and ‘There goes Bernard!’ We were preschool age if that helps you understand why this was fun…Anyway I must have hurled Bernard with too much enthusiasm because he sailed into next door’s garden.
So I went and rang the doorbell, with some trepidation. You might be wondering why two 4 year olds were able to wander out of their house and into someone else’s unsupervised…The short and less criminal version is: It was a different time.
Anyway, my elderly neighbour answered the door, listened to my request and went through his house into the back garden to retrieve Bernard. Then he made a mistake. He made us laugh.
‘Am I going to have to leave out some mouse traps?’ he joshed in a good natured voice.
We didn’t just giggle. We roared. To our toddler minds, this man was a comedy God. So I assume you can guess what happened next.
Imagine you have worked hard your whole life, you have retired, you own a nice little property in a small village. You are trying to read your paper or whatever on a lovely Sunday afternoon and you hear, for the 15th time in the space of an hour, your doorbell ring. Surely it couldn’t be them again? You think. But it is. The Children of the Corn with their evil little smiles, innocently insisting they have accidentally hurled the toy mice into your garden. Again. And you know they want you to say your catchphrase. They want the classic material. The golden hits. And even though you think you might vomit if you say it one more time, you have to oblige or the creepy little freaks will never go away.
This went on all afternoon, until finally his slightly less patient wife answered the door. Our faces fell. We had no evidence whatsoever that she was a fellow scholar of comedy after all. But we gave her a chance:
‘Hi. We threw some mice into your-‘
‘You need to stop doing that now.’ She said gently but very, very firmly.
Her Husband was nowhere to be found. I can only assume he was lying on his living floor crying in the foetal position muttering: ‘I can’t say it again…’
We were not put off. Maybe she just needed prompting. So while my friend tried to see if her Husband was visible behind her by literally jumping as high as she could, I fed her the line.
‘Oh. You should maybe put out some mouse-‘
‘I’m sorry girls, but it is a no. Goodbye.’ And the door was closed on our tiny faces.
Crushed we returned to my garden. After a few minutes of stunned silence, Amanda asked: ‘What about Bianca and Bernard?’
I simply jumped the wall and got them myself. It was easy really and I could have done it in the first place.
Penny the orphan and her excellent teddy bear have been kidnapped by a braless woman (we see she has packed one but she never wears it) and her pet crocodiles and is being held in an old ship at Devil’s Bayou for some nefarious purpose. It is up to the Rescue Aid Society, a kind of mouse UN, to sort this shit out. The cool as a cucumber Hungarian delegate Miss Bianca volunteers for the task and requests a superstitious but good hearted janitor named Bernard to accompany her…
This is the first Disney film to have a pre-credits sequence and I really enjoyed it as an introduction to the film. Everything is shrouded in shadow and gloom as a little girl creeps out to throw a message in a bottle into the water, while two smirking crocodiles (the internet debate if they are alligators, but I am plumping for crocs, may the spirit of Steve Irwin strike me down if I am wrong) watch. It sets us up with a couple of little mysteries. Who is the girl? Who is the message for? Who are the crocodiles? It is not instantly clear what is happening which makes a refreshing change of pace for Disney who usually like to spell out the story in the first couple of minutes.
Even the opening song, ‘Rescue Me’ is something really different. It is sang from the perspective of the bottle and the accompanying melody and especially the images are all melancholy and beautifully crafted.
Greetings from Sad Island! Depression at the bottom of every coconut!
Ever since I was a child I remember being fascinated by the concept of a message in a bottle and on the frequent occasions I went to the beach I would always be on the look out for one so I really do love the way this film starts.
Remember how I mentioned the head animator was Don Bluth? Well, tonally this feels like one of his classic movies, in that it manages to balance considerable darkness with some understated hope in a way that can be accessible for children without talking down to them, which is a massive point in its favour. The opening moments are a good example of this.
The next scene is our introduction to the International Rescue Aid Society whose meeting takes place within the actual UN building. For the record, as a legitimate fully Scottish person I’d like to point out that kilts are formal wear reserved for distinct occasions such as weddings and are generally not worn to work meetings. Sorry America.
I love stories that are set in our world but have to show it from a different perspective. For example I always loved the concept of Mary Norton’s ‘The Borrowers’ because you have to think outside the box to make their world work within ours. The mice in this film are of a similar size to Borrowers and therefore there are some great bits of visual creativity to show how they get about, like using a comb as a ladder, and how they hold their meeting inside some forgotten luggage. I love things like this. See how many little details can be spotted in just one shot:
During the song ‘Rescue Aid Society’ we are introduced to our main characters and again, we don’t get them just stating who they are and want they want out of life like so many Disney protagonists. We infer from what we are shown. Like Bernard the janitor singing along outside with such passion. We don’t need a monologue or even an ‘I want’ song to see that this guy desires to be part of what is going on inside.
Enter Miss B. And again, the entrance says it all. She is running late but she still stops to squirt her perfume and makes a hell of a first impression with her sassy, confident wiggle. That might sound somewhat sexualised but it really isn’t: She is sexy as cartoon mice go, sure. But that is not her sole reason to be admired. There is a confidence to her strut, a self assuredness that is rarely so well illustrated in female characters who so often can be reduced to one word tropes. In short, she works it:
I suspect she was late on purpose so she could walk in like this.
So we establish the main flaw in sending important information via a body of water. The message is virtually unreadable. Oops. But there is enough information for Bianca to ask for the assignment. After a bit of ‘But you are a woman! Most unorthodox!’ hand wringing, it is deemed appropriate for her to pick a buddy and unsurprisingly she goes for the awkward janitor mouse. So one of them is a blue collar worker and the other has ovaries! How on Earth will they succeed at anything that doesn’t involve crying in a Mike Leigh film???
Well as Bianca enthusiastically predicts, they make a great team. Eva Gabor (Previously taking the lead in ‘The Aristocats’) is great as the dazzling and effervescent Miss Bianca and Bob Newhart’s distinctive stammering delivery is a nice counterbalance to her certainty that they will succeed. I am pretty sure they wouldn’t have recorded their dialogue together (standard practice dictates this rather knowledge) but their chemistry is great. Disney are quite restrained about their burgeoning romance: While it is clear Bernard likes Bianca and she is fond of him, the front and centre plot is not whether they will end up together.
There is quite a lot of peril thrown at our leads throughout the film, and in one scene when they are being pursued by crocodiles and Bianca is all ‘Bernard help!’ I found myself rolling my eyes and writing: ‘Come on B!’ in my notes. I wanted her to not be a damsel in distress so bad I could taste it…But then she saves him from danger a bit later later and I relaxed my guard a bit: They rely on each other. He is easily overwhelmed and a little stuck in his ways, while she is gung-ho about everything without being totally tone deaf to the needs of others. She brings as much to the mission as he does and this makes the pairing pleasing to me. They are a team of equal value more than most male/female pairings are in films.
One of their best shared qualities is the ability to inspire and motivate others, often simply from leading by example. They don’t go on and on about being brave, they just are. When they meet some other mice who live in Devil’s Bayou they gain their support quickly as it becomes apparent that the pair, Luke and Ellie May, knew about the kidnapped child. It makes you wonder why it took the arrival of Bernard and Bianca for them to rally round and make a plan to help the girl…It might have something to do with the fact that Luke is constantly drinking what can really only be petroleum. But maybe it is because they needed assurance that mice are capable of saving the day. The Rescuers also convince a desolate Penny that there is hope just as she had lost heart. They seem able to call people to action just by being themselves.
I can see why. Even when they consider giving up, Bianca hears the music of the ‘Rescue Aid Society’ in her head and reminds Bernard that they agreed to take on the mission and it really is as simple as that. I found this more moving than if they had had a cliché falling out and an extended period of separation only for them to realise much, much later that they had to do the right thing: Their attitude is consistent, they believe in their cause and the only thing in their way are some pretty intimidating obstacles, but they keep their chin up and get on with it. It is nice to see. You want them to triumph and, most importantly, you want them to triumph together:
So I believe in the pairing, what else? Well the action sequences just get better and better as the film progresses. As I said, there is a lot of peril. While some of the moments are undercut by it being a tad predictable (Let the record show that films have taught me that if a plane I am on is crashing I can just open my umbrella at the last minute and I will not be smushed to death) but the pacing and the style of the scenes just kept improving. The crazy swamp chase? Good. The crocodiles trapping them in an organ while the humans try and shoot them? Great. The cave filling up with water? Fantastic.
I love that cave scene. Penny is being forced to look around for something called the Devil’s Eye because the villains, Medusa (subtle) and Snoops can’t fit down there themselves. Despite several escape attempts, Penny is always returned and forced to go into the caves again. On this occasion she is more motivated than usual because Medusa has stolen her beloved teddy bear. As someone who has a childhood toy who was my friend through rough times, I was stricken by this and wrote down: ‘If anything happens to that Bear I am going to flip.’ and when Medusa tries to hang on to him in order to store the diamond I added: ‘Bitch was going to keep teddy. Kill her’ I meant every word too. Not ok, Medusa. Not ok.
I would cut the inside of her mouth with a rusty blade if she took my-What? What are you staring at me like that for?
So anyway that’s how they end up in the cave, and what a set. Water geysers, an abandoned pirate skeleton (what’s his story?) and of course the big fuck-off diamond. It is genuinely beautiful. The colour choices was great and I have to admit I would put a frightened child into serious danger to get it:
I really like shiny things.
The atmospheric silence except for drips of the cave and the threat of the water always present, the vulnerability of two small mice and a little girl in that environment…It is kind of intense. I enjoyed it.
The supporting characters are a bit hit and miss for me, but there is enough of them that works that they deserve a mention. Evinrude the Dragonfly is that rare thing: Mild comedy relief in a kid’s film that doesn’t make me want to snap my own neck. His communication through buzzing alone and some great little reaction shots, plus the fact they don’t overuse him, makes him an enjoyable character to cheer on.
The other members of the gang that live in Devil’s Bayou are fun too, although what is with the proportions of the animals? How is a turtle, a rabbit, an owl and some mice all the same size? Rufus the cat, from the Morningside Orphanage, who fills our heroes in on the possible whereabouts of Penny, is a delight. I especially love the way he tolerates the various uncomfortable ways Penny holds him.
While I am not crazy about either Medusa or Penny (for further details scroll down) they share a scene which I actually think is quite brave for a film like this. The set up begins in an orphanage flashback when Penny is totally crushed following another Adoption Day going by without…Wait. Hold the rotatory phone. Adoption Day. At an Orphanage? Holy shit, what a concept! Is that a thing??? I know quite a bit about the Care system, in my own country anyway, and I am pretty sure they don’t put the kids on display for perspective parents like at a mall. Or a dog show. But that is exactly what the film implies as Penny tells Rufus that a nice set of parents showed up and seemed to be considering her but left with a lovely little red haired orphan (Annie?) and that she will never get picked because she isn’t pretty. Yikes.
But this isn’t a throw away line. Later in the film, Medusa is peeling off her face-
And informs Penny that nobody would want to adopt ‘a homely little girl like you.’ Now throughout the film Penny tries to run away, talks back to the adults, isn’t intimated by the threat of being shot, and isn’t even afraid of big ass crocodiles. But when someone reinforces her belief that she is ugly she is totally inconsolable and everything from the way she closes the door, to her walking slowly to her room is done in a defeated way. It is pretty heartbreaking.
‘It’s going to be another 25 odd years until Linda Perry writes ‘Beautiful.’ How am I supposed to know what to do until then?’
Initially I was annoyed by the inclusion of the ‘homely’ comment directed towards a child but then I thought about it for a few seconds and realised that clearly we are supposed to see how wrong it is that a brave, sweet, shade-throwing kid like Penny, who hasn’t even hit adolescence yet, has been made to feel less than due to looks. Disney often give the message that beauty is all (the goodies are hot, the baddies are not etc) and here they seem to be saying: ‘Isn’t that a terrible message? This little girl is great as she is’ Is it hypocritical? Kind of. But each film is a new story so leaving behind what Disney traditionally do, I think it was quite bold of them to show the impact criticising someone’s face can have on their self esteem here.
There are some odd little surreal moments in the film that really made me laugh, intentionally or not. When Bianca and Bernard get on an albatross to leave the city, Bernard is a nervous wreck. Like Newhart in real life, he doesn’t like flying. They are going really fast and Bianca assures him that it is fine and she runs red lights all the time. Wait what? How? Does she have a car? A motorbike? Is it a small mouse sized automobile or does she hitch rides? Did a Disney film just condone dangerous traffic behaviour? Add Bianca’s wild past to the list of never to be made Disney prequels I would kill to see.
In the scene where Penny runs away, all the villains are out looking for her. When Snoops gets her back, he sends a message to Medusa in fireworks that spells out: ‘GOT GIRL’ I had to pause the film just to process this. There MUST have been an easier way to tell her! She is just out on the water, couldn’t he have shouted the same message? And if he was worried about attracting attention, maybe don’t advertise your kidnapping skills in large exploding lights in the sky? And how expensive must that many fireworks have been? And how did he have time to set it up? How long would that take? Can you even get fireworks to spell out words? Honestly, I laughed for about 35 minutes.
If you think that is a stupid nit to pick wait till you get a load of this: For some reason, the fact that all the mice wear clothes and the people never comment on this just confuses the hell out of me. Medusa freaks out when she sees the mice and shouts for help but doesn’t comment on the fact that they are both wearing little hats. (she also tries to kill them with a shot gun…who does that?) And when the swamp gang attack her, why doesn’t she give up the diamond and pick up the tiny mouse with a piny and a rolling pin that can talk? I bet you that would be worth a hell of a lot more than even the Devil’s Eye. But no. We just have to accept there are mouse clothes shops and nobody who sees a mouse wearing clothes is surprised by that. Maybe Cinderella branched out with a boutique after her film ended.
When Penny finally gets her happy ending, Bernard and Bianca are watching it on the news. Incidentally, the other orphans sing: ‘For she’s a jolly good fellow’ to her only adding the verse: ‘She’s got a new Mom and Dad! Hooray for new Mom and Dad!’ A refrain which has been stuck in my head my whole life. I genuinely still sing it at baffled passers by sometimes. So Penny is asked about her adventure by a news reporter and Penny proceeds to give a shout out to her mice friends and the reporter’s reaction is priceless. She clearly thinks Penny has lost her damn mind. I loved it because it made me think of this:
So the rescuers successfully rescued Penny…But what couldn’t they rescue about this film?
What Doesn’t Work:
Well apart from the above examples, and I don’t know how funny all of those things were supposed to be, the film is pretty light on laughs. This seems like a mean critique when looking at how subtle a lot of the little character moments are and it is for sure a very sweet film. Not every film has to have me rolling around laughing. But coming off the back of some of Disney’s funnier films, I couldn’t help noticing that whenever the pace dragged, I flagged and some decent comedic writing may have helped that.
There is a scene right after the allocation of the mission where Bianca suggests they take a short cut through the zoo which just feels like a waste of time. I suppose it sets up their characters some more but it just goes nowhere…It could be cut and nobody would miss it.
Penny the Orphan is kind of annoying. Most of that is the pitch of the voice, and the fact that she is just a bit too cutesy for my liking, which is a shame because she has some good line readings and I actually think her acting is ok. It isn’t really her fault that her voice makes me vomit carrots and that children are always written as being so…Innocent, I guess. Like when the mice first actually see her she and her teddy bear are praying that everyone she cares about gets blessed. Awwwww. I guess the moment would have lost something if she had been picking her ass and smelling it when they first met her but still…I prefer a character to have traits that I can decide if I find charming or not instead of hitting me over the head with a mallet that says: ADORABLE RIGHT? on it.
Medusa has some good moments but within the first second I saw her I wrote: ‘That’ll be the villain then’ and it really is all a bit predictable and one dimensional. This wouldn’t be that bad except I quickly noticed something: Her design, her car, her line readings (courtesy of legend Geraldine Page, damn this is a good cast) all felt very, very familiar. Very familiar. Like, Disney have done this villain already…
Oh there it is…
Yeah we already have one Cruella and we don’t need another. It turns out, and I found this out after I had watched the film, this was originally going to be another vehicle for ‘101 Dalmatians’ MVP Ms De Vil and it shows. It feels pretty lazy and I don’t think Page’s work is quite distinct enough to get past this and the ‘villain because evil’ limitations of the character.
Ultimately, I think wittier dialogue, better structure (in one scene they conduct a plan that they quickly abandon for reasons I am still not totally clear on) and some more surprising set pieces may have made it more memorable as it is one of those films that, while there are some good moments, it struggles to stand out when put up against the back catalogue. The animation is good but not fantastic: Again nothing that really stands out. I think it is a film that is easy to be fond of, hard to love.
I can see why they were pleased with it. ‘The Rescuers’ set a prescient that would go on to define a lot of animation in the 80’s: The style, atmosphere, tone, the likeable characters and one of the best pairings Disney ever did would all be emulated and expanded upon in future work by Bluth and his contemporaries. However as the years have gone by it has faded in importance because part of the problem of testing the waters with a new style is you don’t quite get everything right because you have nothing to refer to: It has very few stand out moments and some of the ideas and characters don’t quite work for me. However I think it deserves to be seen and would recommend it, if only for the fabulousness of Bianca and that weird bit with the fireworks.
Disney Nightmare Inducer Count: 4
Crocs, scary bats, dead pirate and legit child abuse.
I didn’t talk about the music much in the review…the soundtrack feels much more Bluth than Disney and I kind of missed the ‘Disney factor’ of the full on musical. The soft female vocals is all a bit namby-pamby and it was all the more disappointing when I found out it could have been The Carpenters…The Carpenters, man! But I didn’t want to declare it as a thing that didn’t work because the songs are largely effective in the context of the film. I have always had a soft spot for ‘Someone’s Waiting for You’ which actually used to make me cry as a very young kid. I was dead sensitive that way apparently…It is no ‘Baby Mine’ but it is still quite…tear making. If you are that way inclined:
Next Time: Two animals who are usually enemies become the very best of friends…What could possibly go wrong? The Fox and the Hound (1981)