Review Disney’s THE RESCUERS

I have been viewing and reviewing the Disney animated full length features in chronological order, both to get a sense of the trends of changes over the decades, to revisit childhood favorites, and introduce myself to films unwatched in my youth.

THE RESCUERS (1977) is one such film. I never saw it as a child, and so cannot give an entirely objective review.

It comes from the midst of Disney’s Dry Spell, when animation quality was low (at least by the stratospheric standards of the classics) and the plots suffered from a lax and wandering lack of discipline never seen when Walt himself, a perfectionist, was at the helm. This itself was one of the better films in the Dry Spell, perhaps presaging its end, and promising better films to come.

Fans of Don Bluth, famed for such classics as SECRET OF NIMH and AN AMERICAN TAIL, not to mention the video game DRAGON’S LAIR, will recognize his workmanship here. The character designs for the talking mice reflect his influence, as do some of the shot compositions.

This is the first film where Don Bluth was directing animator, as well as the last film where Milt Kahl, Ollie Johnston, and Frank Thomas, work jointly. Several of the animators who later would helm the Disney renaissance are brought on here, so this film can be regarded as the passing of the torch of tradition between old and new Disney.

The film is based loosely on the 1959 children’s book of the same name by Margery Sharp and its sequel. However, instead of a Norwegian poet being imprisoned in an unnamed uncivilized nation, the murine-led Prisoner’s Aid Society (renamed in the Disney film to the Rescue Aid Society) must rescue a kidnapped orphan child from a criminal hideout in the Louisiana swamplands.

The plot consists of the detective work in New York of the two rescue mice, their comedy-relief air travel to Louisannia aboard an awkward albatross named Orville, and the attempt to rescue the plucky young waif with the aid of a comedy relief brigade of local volunteer militia, manned by small swamp critters with southern accents.

The most memorable of these volunteers is the dragonfly who acts as the outboard motor for swampboat-leaf, despite that he has no lines of dialog, only very expressive sound effects.

The orphan girl, Penny, is the only one small enough to enter a cramped pirate’s save where a fabulous diamond is buried, but the cave is flooded except at low tide. The climactic sequence involves the waif and her rodent friends descending into the claustrophobic depths, amid the bones of the dead, attempting to find and recover the million-hued diamond before the flood waters smother them. Don Bluth’s animation techniques are in evidence here: it looks akin to scenes from NIHM and DRAGON’S LAIR.

As with most Disney films, the original is unrecognizable, except through character names and general tropes. The villainess is a rehash of Cruella DeVil from 101 DALMATIONS into a slovenly hag named Madame Medusa. Her henchmen consist of a portly and fussy bespectacled fellow named Mr. Snoops even less threatening than the evil butler from ARISTOCATS. Two monstrous crocodiles named Brutus and Nero replace the bloodhounds tyrant and Torment from the novel.

The plot is fairly standard, but lacks any element of character development. Bernard is not shy at the outset but grows in confidence, nor is Miss Bianca cowardly and learns courage. Both are the same at the end as at the outset, and, more to the point, Miss Bianca is not the inspiration for Bernard to grow into a hero from his humble beginnings as a janitor. I see no point, indeed, in establishing him to be janitor, if that was not the intent for the character.

An example of this lack of follow-through can be seen in Bernard’s fear of the number thirteen, which is mentioned thrice, but never actually hinders him, and which he never is seen overcoming. It does not reveal anything in particular about his personality or background. Why is it there?

The motive of the mice is sheer philanthropy, as their Rescue Society was founded from the mouse in Aesop’s fable who pulled a thorn from a lion’s paw (an idea I find delightful). The problem with sheer philanthropy as a plot-motive is that your main characters have nothing at stake. This is commonplace enough in superhero stories, Westerns, whodunnits, but in those cases the heroes are larger than life, skillful and competent, coming to the aid of the weak and small. But in this case, the heroes are weak and small, for they are mice.

I dwell on this point because, in the novel, the mice had the mission of befriend prisoners in jailcells to comfort them and brighten their lives, as was a trope older than Mark Twain (who mocks it HUCKLEBERRY FINN), and their attempt to free the Norwegian poet from the horrible Black Castle is extraordinary. Here, the two mice set off to find and rescue the girl with no reasonable hope of success, but the effort is not portrayed as anything but an ordinary mission of the society. It is remarkable only insofar as the janitor is dragooned into being a field agent. Normally, in a story, the adventure forces change and growth on a character: he graduates from squire to knight. Not here.

There are unfortunate scenes which have no point and advance no plot, such as when the mice attempt a shortcut through the zoo at night, and are frightened.

The villains are mean-spirited, as they should be, but Madame Medusa is more tawdry and merely unpleasant than a fairy-tale villainess would be, and Mr. Snoops is merely an unfunny version of a stock comedy-relief sidekick: a bungling Mr. Smee from PETER PAN without the heart and charm.

A romantic subplot between the two rescuer mice, the elegant Miss Bianca and the humble janitor Bernard, is implied, but not shown onstage. Miss Bianca is clearly attracted to Bernard at the outset of the film, and the couple seem to be a couple at the end, but there is no chemistry between them because there is no romantic scenes nor songs between them. It is even less a romance than was seen in THE ARISTOCATS, if that is imaginable.

The musical score is forgettable, indeed, literally so in my case. I had to look online for descriptions of the film to confirm whether there had been any songs in it, despite that I had just watched it. There are, in fact, three or four songs present. Imagine a whole film score consisting of “Cheer Up, Charlie” the one song that no one remembers from WILLY WONKA & THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY (1971) starring Gene Wilder.

I am deeply shocked to discover, as I looked up some background on this film, that  one of these amnesia-inducing songs was nominated for an Academy Award. For what is inexplicable, one offers no explanation.

The characters are brought to life vividly by the voice acting, which merits special mention. It is, in my humble opinion, the best part of the film. Zsa-Zsa Gabor brings a feminine charm and elegance to Miss Bianca, and the humble goodwill and wit of Bernard is from Bob Newhart. The film does not show that Miss Bianca is an aristocrat and Bernard a workingman, but their voices do. Joe Flynn of McHALE’S NAVY fame portrays Mr. Snoops. Jim Jordan portrays Orville the Albatross, and if you do not recognize the name, you would recognize the voice. He played iconic Fibber McGee of FIBBER McGEE & MOLLY in radio and film. This was his last performance, and, indeed, he did not live long enough to see the film’s theatrical release.

The swamp setting is as dramatically portrayed as the metropolitan skyscrapers, or the dizzying clouds of an unsteady albatross flight. The backgrounds are not as well done as Disney’s best, but are strikingly done, especially the spooky wreckage of the sidewheeler riverboat.

One thing that is remarkably well done, and compares favorably even to Disney’s best work, which the theme. Hope and faith are lauded as virtuous, never to be surrendered even in the face of overwhelming adversity. This message is mentioned by the orphanage cat, Rufus, who give the girl’s backstory, and repeated when the little girl says her bedtime prayers.

Since I cannot bring to mind any film where a little girl said bedtime prayers being made in the current generation, the theme struck me as remarkable and moving. The whole thing is well done, and is perhaps (next to the depiction of Don Bluth style fireworks) the best part of the movie.

I can give only a modest recommendation. The film is good, but not great, and hints of the coming Disney renaissance can perhaps be glimpsed.