A Study in Disney: ‘The Rescuers’ (1977)

| December 27, 2021

Disney is as much a part of our lives as love and death.  It’s wrapped around us, and not just in our childhood.  There are thousands and thousands of Disney movies by this point but the one that really shape the company and the culture are the animated features.  Disney busted out of the gate in 1937, intending to create a new artform and make an evolutionary leap in cinema.  So, every other day from now through March, I will be chronicling every single one of Disney’s canon animated features.  It’s a fascinating journey, and a lot of fun too.

Wool and Wheel: The Rescuers {1977}

It is alarming that in the same year, Walt Disney Productions produced two films centered on the abuse and exploitation of an orphan.  Both The Rescuers and Pete’s Dragon featured parentless kids under the thumb of greedy adults who wished to exploit them for their own selfish ends.  Of the two, The Rescuers has much more harrowing stakes.  Think about it.  The titular hero of Pete’s Dragon is being exploited by his adopted hillbilly family to be their slave.  In The Rescuers, Penny has been kidnapped and forced to traverse a mine in order to steal a legendary diamond, but we are left to wonder about her fate.  What happens when she finds the diamond?  Does she get left in the mine?  Returned to the orphanage?  Dropped off in the middle of nowhere?  What becomes of her?!

Of the two, The Rescuers works a lot better.  It was an attempt to get the studio’s animation department back on track and prove that animation was still a viable commodity – recall that it was only a few years earlier that Disney’s studio execs were discussing shutting down the animation department.  Pete’s Dragon, meanwhile¸ was the studio’s first musical in many years and was written off by critics as lackluster attempts to recapture the magic of Mary Poppins.

The gestation of The Rescuers goes back a decade and a half, to 1962 when the story was pitched to Walt Disney.  It was based on a 1959 book by British children’s author Margery Sharp about a society of mice whose goal is to rescue prisoners held by a totalitarian government.  The project got as far as a written treatment before being shelved when Walt became uneasy about the story’s political content.

Cut forward 10 years.  Walt is gone and the Disney Studio is scrambling to save an animation department that seems to be only a shadow of its former self.  After an apprenticeship program in association with Cal Arts, brought new blood and new talent, among their first projects was a revival of The Rescuers idea headed by young animation director Don Bluth, which had a change in the story that removed all of the political overtones and changed the Mouse Prisoner’s Aid Society to the Rescue Aid Society.  And since none of Sharp’s single books were pliable as a single animated film, the film incorporated elements for several of Sharp’s books in order to build a pliable story. 

What emerged was something a bit unusual if you’ve followed the crop of Disney animated features that had come before.  For one, its tone.  There’s a curious lack of background music that give certain scenes an air of mystery and dread; and added to the swampy bayou location, this works perfectly.  For another, this film incorporates a few odd choices in the voice acting that give the film a fresh palette, in particular Bob Newhart who had never done voice work before.  As Bernard, he’s not affecting his voice and his famous deadpan delivery and stammering line-reading give the character some nuance and even maturity.  Newhart is so relaxed here that it is really too bad that he didn’t do more voice work.  His sidekick is Bianca, voice by Eva Gabor, whose soothing voice made her perfect for a Disney adventure.  She had worked before as the voice of Duchess in The AristoCats, but here she has a much bigger and more important character to play.  She’s the calm and reasoning counterpart to Bernard’s nervous nelly.

Another perfect, but rather unusual, choice in the cast is Geraldine Page as Madame Medusa.  Usually quiet and understated in her roles, Page lets herself go here, playing a character who is stuck in a state of permanent rage – what you might call Disney Rage.  The character herself isn’t much in the cannon of Disney villains, and for that she has been at the center of much of the film’s critical drubbing over the years, dismissed as a useless make-over of the Cruella DeVille character.  As a matter of fact, Cruella was originally considered to return as this film’s villain but the idea was quickly shut down when the screenwriters considered that it would be unscrupulous to have The Rescuers be in the same universe as One Hundred and One Dalmatians.  So, the character of The Grand Duchess from one of Sharp’s books was given to legendary animator Milt Kahl who based Madame Medusa on his ex-wife.

It is hard to disagree with the critics.  Medusa would seem to be a steal from Cruella, but they may not be completely correct.  She might seem to be in the same lot, but she seems to be in much more dire straits financially – think of her as Cruella below the poverty line.

Another asset to the film is the kid.  Kids in animated movies are precocious, precious and all loaded with cloying cuteness.  What is refreshing about Penny is that she actually seems like a real kid.  Voiced by Michelle Stacy (famous as the “Coffee Girl” in Airplane!), Penny is about five-years old and when she talks, she talks like a five-year old.  She stammers with words and struggled with a phrase here and there – just like a kid.  How many kids in movies are allowed to do that?

The result was a box office hit in 1977, but today reaction to The Rescuers is generally mixed and much of that may come from a re-evaluation of The Rescuers Down Under.  That may not be a good thing.  While the sequel has the advantage of the advent of computer animation (it was essentially a test for the CAPS system), that should not devalue this film in any way.  For one thing, the story.  Yes, this is a hero-versus-villain story but it builds in an interesting way.  The movie opens with a message in a bottle that is received by The Rescue Aid Society, an international coalition of mice who rescue those in need – it is headquartered in New York, adjacent to the United Nations, no less.  The message is vague (the ink on the paper got smeared) so Miss Bianca and the janitor mouse Bernard decide to take the case themselves.  This provides an interesting mystery that the two must put together themselves.  This doesn’t sound like much, but how many animated films are smart enough to tell a story as it unfolds rather than make it all clear at the beginning?

Ultimately, they discover that a little girl named Penny has been kidnapped from an orphanage and forced by a demented pawn broker Madame Medusa and her business partner Mr. Snoops (voiced by the late Joe Flynn) to retrieve an enormous diamond called The Devils’ Eye from a tiny sea cave.  And in order to keep Penny from running away, she is put under guard by Medusa’s pet crocodiles, Brutus and Nero.  That’s a pretty harrowing plot for a kid’s movie, but it raises the stakes and gives the story a lot of weight.

If there is one minor issue with this film, it may be the fate of the villain.  There’s a wild chase that ends with Bernard and Miss Bianca helping Penny get away with the diamond, but the fate of Madame Medusa is left hanging.  She ends up in a comical mishap in which she seems about to be lunch for Brutus and Nero but might her just desserts have been better served by being sent to jail?  She exploited a child.  Might it have been more satisfying to see her brought to justice.  It is a small quibble but it might have made for a slightly more satisfying conclusion.

Despite this, The Rescuers is an enjoyable adventure and, really, the peak of Disney’s animation for the decade.  In the wake of this film would come studio in-fighting, the exodus of Don Bluth and a dip in the quality of the studio’s animated features that nearly ended Disney’s legacy of animation.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.