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So. The Rescuers. Most successful animated film ever made at the time. Did you know that? I sure as hell didn’t. The Disney studio’s first big animated hit since The Jungle Book ten years previously, and the last until The Little Mermaid twelve years later. Oscar-nominated for Best Song and nominated for the American Film Institute’s list of the Top Ten Animated films of all time (NOTE: This post originally stated that it made that list. Apologies for the error.). People were saying it was the best Disney film since Mary freaking Poppins. And to that all I can say is…
No, I don’t hate it but…
Of all time? Because I can think of ten animated movies from Disney alone that I would put ahead of this. And as for being better than Mary Poppins?! I mean, Jesus!
And yet a lot of people have been telling me how much they’re looking forward to me reviewing this movie. How to account for the love this movie seems to engender in people?
I have a theory. Y’all just love mice.
Do you know what finally broke the Rescuers’ box office record? Hint; it wasn’t Ariel and it wasn’t Disney.
Yeah. From the late seventies to the late eighties everyone was just, really, really into cartoon mice.
Well, anyway let’s take a look at the film.
We get a first for a Disney movie, a cold open. No credits, just straight into the action. We see an old riverboat anchored in a Florida swamp. A little girl, Penny, sneaks on deck and throws a bottle with a message into the water. Through a series of matte paintings we follow the bottle on its journey up the coastline to the strains of The Journey sung by Shelby Flint and it is a gorgeous song, melancholy and atmospheric. In fact, let’s talk about atmosphere. You may have noticed that my system for separating the movies into different eras (Tar and Sugar, Restoration, etc.) is different from most animation historians (not that I am one). Most experts would designate everything from Cinderella through to Walt’s death as The Silver Age, and everything past that to Oliver and Company as The Dark Age. I, on the other hand, prefer to group the movies together by style and atmosphere. Robin Hood and The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh may have been released after Walt’s death, but I feel that they are very much of the same period as Jungle Book and 101 Dalmatians. Rescuers though? This is something new. It looks and sounds like a completely different kind of movie, eschewing the bright colours and comedy musical numbers of the Scratchy Era in favour of something much darker and more dramatic. This gloom pervades much of the films made between Walt’s death and the Renaissance, which is why I call this The Mourning Era.
The bottle washes up on the banks of the Hudson river and gets found by some mice who bring it to the Rescue Aid Society, an organization of mice that meets in a suitcase in the basement of the United Nations building. So we get a scene of all the mice from various different countries arriving. We see delegates from countries like Germany, Pakistan, Turkey…
You know what? I want to see her movie. I want to see the movie made about the little mouse with the afro looking after an entire damn continent.
But failing that we’ll have to make do with our heroes. First is Bernard, who’s the janitor and who’s voiced by…
Now…this is where things get a little awkward. See, I love Bob Newhart. I mean, what’s not to love? Great comedian, great actor, by all accounts a really nice guy. But his whole style is predicated on being low-key and unassuming and that doesn’t really work in animation. Look, I’m just going to say it. I think Bernard is dull. Taking an actor like Bob Newhart and taking away every acting tool at his disposal (body language, facial expressions) and just leaving him with his voice doesn’t work because his voice on its own just isn’t that interesting. Much better is Bianca, played by Eva Gabor, dahling. And I know, I know, I was pretty harsh on her in the Aristocats review, but that was Aristocats. I was harsh on everyone. But that’s because I just didn’t buy Eva Gabor, dahling, as a love interest and devoted mother. Glamorous, jet setting secret agent? Yeah, that I’ll buy.
Anyway, the meeting is called to order by The Chairman, a frightfully British mouse with a moustache.
WHAT THE HELL WAS THAT!???
You mean this big evil that I’m supposed to face that you and Walt won’t tell me anything about?
You don’t think maybe now would be a good time?!
Oh that is the biggest load of bull…fine. Whatever.
The mice read the letter, which Penny has addressed to Morningside Orphanage, begging them to rescue her. Bianca is deeply moved by this and pleads with the Chairman to be allowed to take the case. The Chairman isn’t happy with the idea of a woman being saddled with such a huge responsibility.
Bernard comes down with a case of White Knight Syndrome and says that Bianca shouldn’t go because it might be dangerous so the Chairman tells Bianca to pick a guy to go with her in case she breaks a nail or something. Bafflingly, she picks Bernard, and he reluctantly agrees.
First stop is Morningside Orphanage, where they meet Rufus the cat voiced by John McIntire. The mice interview Rufus and he tells them that Penny disappeared from the orphanage weeks ago and that the police have given up the search. We get a flashback scene between Rufus and Penny, who’s voiced by Michelle Stacy, who you may know for liking her coffee black.
The only clue Rufus can give them is that a few weeks prior, a strange woman offered to give Penny a lift but that she refused. He says the woman operates a sleazy pawn shop (at least I think he said “pawn”) and Bernard and Bianca head there to check it out. The pawn shop is owned by Madame Medusa, and Bernard and Bianca quickly find evidence that she is both insane and paranoid.
They find Penny’s school copy book but have to hide when the phone rings and Madame Medusa herself appears. Originally, the villain was going to be Cruella de Vil, but Disney decided that they didn’t want to make a sequel when they could come up with something original.
I have somewhat mixed feelings on Madame Medusa. She’s brilliantly voiced by Geraldine Page (who was nominated a staggering eight times for an Academy Award before finally winning Best Actress in 1985) and was the last character animated by Milt Kahl who I cannot believe I’ve gone this long without mentioning on the blog. Milt was one of the Nine Old Men, nine animators who were with the studio since Snow White. With a few exceptions he animated characters in almost every movie I’ve covered on this blog and was considered to be the finest draughtsman of all the studio’s animators. As this was his last film with Disney he wanted Medusa to be perfect and ended up animating pretty much every scene she’s in single-handedly. And it shows, the character design and animation are fantastic and very distinctive, and she moves like a petulant child in a grown woman’s body. My problem is that Milt supposedly based the character on his ex-wife, and she comes across as pretty damn repellent. Now, I don’t know what happened between them or who did what to who. Hell, maybe she was an absolute monster and totally deserved it. But I personally always feel uncomfortable when artists use their art to settle scores in their private lives.
Anyway. Medusa gets a call from her lackey, Snoops, who tells her that he needs “more time”. Medusa loses her shit and tells him she’s heading down to “Devil’s Bayou” to take care of things herself and starts packing. Bernard and Bianca stow away in her luggage but her driving is so erratic that the suitcase they’re in gets thrown from the car and they have to find another way to Devil’s Bayou.
They catch a flight on an albatross named Orville, even though Bernard is scared of flying and says he’d rather take the train. Bianca calls him a fraidy-cat but Bernard insists he “just likes trains.”
Despite Bernard’s fears, Orville manages to take off safely and narrowly avoids crashing into the stills of porn that the animators snuck into the scene.
Yup. That is absolutely real. In fact, when Disney discovered it they had to do a massive recall of three and a half million video tapes in the nineties. It was removed from all subsequent re-issues, and the perpetrator was never found.
Meanwhile in Devil’s Bayou Penny has escaped from the riverboat by the ingenious method of…just…walking out of there and runs into the swamp. Medusa realises that she’s gone and siccs her two crocodiles, Nero and Brutus on her. Medusa searches for Penny on her swampmobile while Snoops sends up flares to light up the swamp. Unfortunately, one of the flares hits Orville and he has to make a crash landing. They land near the home of Luke and Ellie Mae, two muskrats voiced by Pat “Alabama or Nothin'” Buttram and Jeanette Nolan. Ellie Mae runs to help, and Luke follows after her, stopping only to take a swig of his home-made moonshine.
Bernard and Bianca see Penny, who’s been recaptured by Nero and Brutus. They decide to follow her, and Ellie Mae gives them a boat, which is actually a leaf with a dragonfly for a motor named Evinrude.
They set off through the swamp after Penny and the crocodiles, while Ellie Mae promises to round up all the swamp animals to form a rescue party. The chase scene through the swamp is well done, and really brings home the colossal difference in scale between Bernard and Bianca and the crocodiles. The crocodiles bring Penny back to the riverboat and Snoops sends up a flare to let Medusa know.
Medusa returns to the riverboat in a rage and Bernard and Bianca overhear her ranting at Snoops and they finally learn what this whole kidnapping is about. Medusa is obsessed with getting her hands on the Devil’s Eye, the largest diamond in the world which is in an underwater cave called the Black Hole. Penny is the only one small enough to fit down there but Snoops says that once she’s down there she won’t take orders. Medusa hisses that he’s “too soft” and oooookay I think I’m starting to see why the Kahls’ marriage failed.
Medusa checks her watch and announces that the time for Fucking Around is over and that it is now Not Fucking Around o’clock. She is going to stick Penny in the Black Hole and not let her out until she finds the diamond. Simple as. Bernard and Bianca realise they have to spring Penny tonight but Brutus and Nero smell Bianca’s perfume and chase the two mice into the pipe organ.
We get a fun scene of the two crocodiles playing the organ to blow the two mice out and Medusa comes down to see what all the racket is. She freaks out when she sees the mice because apparently she emigrated to this movie from a fifties sitcom and even tries to blow them away with a freaking shotgun.
Bianca and Bernard just barely escape with their lives and Bianca angrily declares that she’d show Medusa what’s what if she was only a ten foot tall mouse.
Bernard, however, is ready to toss in the towel saying that there’s nothing two little mice can do and that they should just give up.
Meanwhile we get a scene between Penny and Medusa and ooookay we need to talk about this animation. Rescuers is very much a transition film. While many of the animators who worked on it were old hands like Milt Kahl, Ollie Johnston and Frank Thompson, a lot of new and younger animators were involved too. This was the movie where the new generation, people like Don Bluth, started to replace the last of the old guard. As you’d expect, this means that the animation quality tends to dip and peak. Some of it is excellent, but some of it is obviously the work of very talented but still inexperienced animators who are still finding their feet. It’s also a transition film in the sense that it finally allowed the studio to break away from the Scratchy style. Remember back in the 101 Dalmatians review when I said that the technology used to copy the drawings was essentially the same as an office photocopier? Well, with this movie it became a colour photocopier. The new xerography process allowed them to copy colour as well as black lines, leading to a softer, less sketchy outline. Next time we’re going to cover Fox and the Hound, where this technique was pretty much perfected (seriously, I just rewatched it recently and I hadn’t realised that it is a gorgeous film).
But here…they’re still working the kinks out let’s just say.
Damn. I need my medicine.
Okay, so anyway. The distracting animation aside, this scene is actually quite effective. Medusa pretends to be all sweetness and light while undermining Penny’s self-esteem to get her under control. It’s actually pretty dark, and when Penny asks to be allowed to return to the orphanage so that she will have a chance of being adopted, Medusa simpers “Adopted? Who would want a homely little girl like you?” and it’s a real gut punch. Penny returns to her room and we get a song called Someone’s Waiting for You. It’s a little too saccharine for my taste, I gotta say, but I do like that as Penny looks out over the bayou she sees Bambi and his mother.
And for once Bambi’s mother doesn’t almost get killed!
Bernard and Bianca finally make contact with Penny and promise to rescue her. Penny says that there’s no point trying to escape as long as Nero and Brutus are free to track her down, so they come up with a plan to lock them in an old elevator using Bianca’s perfume as a lure. Penny also suggests stealing Medusa’s swampmobile and setting off all of Snoops’ fireworks in Medusa’s room and…damn, I’m starting to see why Penny was put into care.
Bianca loves this idea; “Oh Bernard, it’s so exciting! Perfume, crocs, swampmobiles! It’s just got to work!”
Well. Can’t argue with that logic. Bernard no doubt realises that the plan is foolproof, but just to be on the safe side he sends Evinrude to Ellie Mae to get reinforcements. But Medusa, remembering what time it is…
…decides to send Penny down into the Black Hole even though the tide is in and she kind of needs to not have water in her lungs to breathe. Bernard and Bianca go down with her and there, inside the skull of a pirate, they find it:
Penny almost drowns, but manages to get the diamond and Medusa Snoops pull her back up. Once they have the diamond, Snoops and Medusa go full on Treasure of the Sierra Madre and start fighting over it.
Fortunately, Ellie Mae and the rest of the “swamp critters”, a group of rabbits, turtles, moles, muskrats, owls…
…arrive and attack Medusa and Bernard and Bianca put Operation Crocodiles-Perfume-Fireworks-Swampmobile-Yippee! into effect. Penny grabs her Teddy bear (where Medusa has hidden the Devil’s Eye) and they get to the swampmobile and motor off. The riverboat explodes from all the fireworks and starts sinking into the swamp and Medusa is left clinging to one of the chimney stacks, while below, her crocodiles wait in the waters to devour her alive.
Back in New York, Bernard and Bianca watch the news with the rest of the Rescue Aid society showing that Penny has finally been adopted.
Hm. You mean the girl who now owns the diamond worth millions of dollars has suddenly found people willing to adopt her? What an odd coincidence.
Their mission is completed, and the movie ends with Evinrude arriving with a message from someone else who needs rescuing.
As I said, I don’t hate The Rescuers, but the success and popularity of this movie have always been a little baffling to me. I like it, I just don’t love it. But it was nevertheless a very important movie in the canon. This movie shows the studio slowly and painfully relinquishing its hold on the past and charting a new course without Walt and many of the Nine Old Men and embracing new techniques, younger animators and new technologies. It isn’t always successful, but it was very necessary.
Not a pretty movie. No two ways about it.
The Leads: 14/20
Bianca is great, a courageous, resourceful female lead. Bernard though? Meh.
The Villains: 15/20
Medusa hits that sweet spot between wacky fun villainy and genuinely sinister villainy.
Supporting Characters: 11/20
Honestly, most of them are pretty bland.
The Music: 14/20
Some lovely atmospheric incidental music and a few nice mellow songs sung by Shelby Flint.
FINAL SCORE: 62%
NEXT TIME: Bring your hankies. That’s all I’m saying.
NEXT REVIEW: March 7th 2013