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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Rescuers
If you were going to the movies in 1977, it probably didn’t seem like it had been too long since Disney had released an original animated feature. The Many Adventures Of Winnie The Pooh came out in March of that year and the studio had a seemingly endless supply of classics they could reissue whenever they felt like it. But not counting Winnie The Pooh, which consisted almost entirely of previously released short subjects, it had been four years since the studio’s last animated feature, Robin Hood. The last time the studio had such a lengthy gap between cartoons had been the stretch between The Sword In The Stone and The Jungle Book (Mary Poppins came out between those two but that doesn’t really count). At least part of the reason for that delay had been the death of Walt Disney himself. Now with their founder gone and production slowing to a snail’s pace, there was a real reason to think that Disney animation was about to become a thing of the past.
While it’s true that the animation department was smaller than it once was, it’s not as though they’d been idle. Like a lot of Disney animated features, The Rescuers took a long time to make it to the screen. Margery Sharp’s novel had been published in 1959 with a sequel, Miss Bianca, following in 1962. Disney acquired the rights after the publication of the second book (the series would eventually grow to nine volumes).
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Veteran story man Otto Englander was the first to take a crack at The Rescuers. Hewing closely to Sharp’s first book, Englander’s treatment was very different from what eventually made it to the screen. In this version, heroic mice Bianca and Bernard are sent to a remote, wintery country to rescue a Norwegian poet being held as a political prisoner. When the animators objected to the blank white setting, Englander switched the action to sunny Cuba. Sounds like a real laugh riot, doesn’t it?
Needless to say, Walt wasn’t crazy about making an animated thriller set in Communist Cuba and he put the kibosh on the project. It’d be a stretch to say Walt was involved in the making of The Rescuers. His involvement basically boiled down to, “I don’t know what I want this movie to be but not that.” And so, The Rescuers spent the rest of the decade sitting on the shelf.
The project might have stayed there indefinitely had it not been for an influx of young animators like Don Bluth. Bluth had been hired as a trainee in the early 70s as part of a concerted effort to inject some new blood into the studio after it was acknowledged that Disney’s legendary Nine Old Men were indeed old men, approaching retirement and health issues. The new folks, including Glen Keane, John Musker and Ron Clements, apprenticed under the veterans on Robin Hood and Winnie The Pooh. With the younger animators working out so well, the decision was made to assign them a project of their own that could be produced on a smaller budget. Bluth and his team opted to dust off The Rescuers.
But as before, the young turks had a tough time cracking the nut. They skipped ahead in the series to the sixth book, Miss Bianca In The Antarctic. They came up with a frankly bizarre sounding story about a polar bear being forced to perform in a stage show by a power-mad penguin. This version had a few problems. One, everyone still refused to animate a story set in a barren, snow-swept tundra. Also, nobody could figure out why a polar bear would allow himself to be victimized by a penguin.
Instead of the Antarctic, the team shifted the action to an American zoo. The penguin was out but they were all in on the dancing bear. Jungle Book alumnus Louis Prima was cast as the bear and Floyd Huddleston, who’d contributed songs to The Aristocats and Robin Hood, set to work on the music. The bear got a new friend, a lion who was to be voiced by Redd Foxx. The story had something to do with the bear wanting to escape the zoo and pursue his dreams of stardom. I don’t know, it sounds like a bit of a mess, to be honest, although the idea of Louis Prima and Redd Foxx teaming up in a Disney cartoon has a certain allure.
As this latest version grew more and more convoluted, Disney veteran Wolfgang Reitherman stepped in. He refamiliarized himself with Sharp’s books and decided the best way to approach the material was the simplest. Little girl gets kidnapped, the mice have to rescue her. There’s your story. Forget the bears and the penguins and the Norwegian poets. A straightforward kidnapping plot had worked for One Hundred And One Dalmatians. Surely it would work for The Rescuers as well.
Another problem every iteration of The Rescuers had encountered was creating a formidable villain. Reitherman gravitated toward the second book, Miss Bianca, which featured a little girl named Patience held prisoner by the Grand Duchess in her Diamond Palace. Artist Ken Anderson apparently took Reitherman’s One Hundred And One Dalmatians comparison literally and produced a series of sketches of Cruella de Vil as the Diamond Duchess. Cruella wouldn’t have been out of place but several of Disney’s old-school animators, including Ollie Johnston, didn’t like the idea of turning The Rescuers into a de facto sequel.
Additionally, no one wanted to work in the shadow of Cruella’s original animator, Marc Davis, who had moved over to Imagineering. Davis was a tough act to follow, especially when it came to women. Among others, he’d animated both Maleficent and Aurora in Sleeping Beauty. Cruella belonged to him and nobody wanted to take it on. And so, the Grand Duchess became Madame Medusa, her Diamond Palace became a beached riverboat in Louisiana, and animator Milt Kahl based her appearance and mannerisms on his soon-to-be-ex-wife, Phyllis Bounds.
Bounds was the niece of Lillian Disney, Walt’s wife, and a fascinating character in her own right. She’d been an ink-and-paint girl at the studio around the time of Dumbo. She smoked like a chimney, drank like a fish, swore like a teamster and could hold her own in just about any company. She’d already been through a couple of husbands before marrying Kahl, including glamour photographer George Hurrell (who had some acrimonious business dealings with Walt in the 1950s, at least partly thanks to Phyllis) and animator David Detiege. Phyllis produced Detiege’s animated feature western, The Man From Button Willow, before divorcing him and eventually marrying Kahl. She sounds like she was sort of the black sheep of animation history. She also sounds like a hell of a lot of fun. I would have loved to spend a smoky, boozy evening with her soaking in all her stories.
Originally, comedian Phyllis Diller was set to voice the Grand Duchess. But as the character evolved into Madame Medusa, the studio went in a much different direction with Geraldine Page. Page had been a critical favorite almost from the beginning of her career. At the time of The Rescuers, she’d been nominated for five Academy Awards including her turns in the Tennessee Williams adaptations Summer And Smoke and Sweet Bird Of Youth. She’d go on to rack up three more, finally winning in 1985 for The Trip To Bountiful. Page had previously appeared in Walt’s musical fiasco The Happiest Millionaire but Madame Medusa would be her only voice acting credit.
There was hardly a character or concept from Sharp’s book that didn’t undergo some transformation on its journey to the screen. The girl, Patience, became Penny. The Duchess’ servant, Mandrake, became the obsequious business partner, Mr. Snoops (voiced by Disney veteran Joe Flynn, returning for one last role from beyond the grave). Her dogs, Tyrant and Torment, become crocodiles, Brutus and Nero. Even the name of the central organization was changed from the Prisoners’ Aid Society to the Rescue Aid Society.
The personalities of protagonists Miss Bianca and Bernard remained more or less intact from the books. Bianca is still a fashionable socialite with a strong sense of justice. The detail that Miss Bianca is the Hungarian representative of the Rescue Aid Society is a nod to the casting of Eva Gabor, the Hungarian star of Green Acres last heard from in this column as Duchess in The Aristocats.
Bernard is still a reluctant hero, braver than he gives himself credit for but preferring to avoid thrills and danger whenever possible. Disney couldn’t have found a better actor for the role than Bob Newhart. Considering that Newhart became a star on vinyl (he’s one of only two comedians to have won the Grammy for Album of the Year), it’s a little surprising he wasn’t tapped for animation sooner. But I’m glad he waited because Newhart’s unique comic timing helps make Bernard stand out among Disney characters.
As The Rescuers came into focus, the project was promoted to A-list status with Reitherman and John Lounsbery serving as directors. Lounsbery, an animator at the studio since the 1930s, had only just made his first short film as director, Winnie The Pooh And Tigger Too. Sadly, he passed away during heart surgery before The Rescuers could be completed. He was 64 and the first of the Nine Old Men to die. His work was completed by Art Stevens, a relative newcomer to Disney since he’d only been with the studio since Fantasia.
Reitherman’s story instincts served him well on The Rescuers. The movie starts with the orphan Penny (Michelle Stacy, whom you might recognize as the little girl who likes her coffee black, like her men, in Airplane!) already kidnapped, desperately tossing a bottle into the swamp in hopes that someone, anyone, will help her. The opening credits follow the bottle on its journey to New York through a series of moody, still paintings and the first of a couple of low-key songs by Carol Connors and Ayn Robbins performed by Shelby Flint. It’s a different look for Disney, a slightly different sound and a completely different mood. It establishes the movie as a mystery as much as it is an adventure. Who is this girl? Why is she in trouble? And how is anyone going to help her with so little information to go on?
Fortunately for Penny, the bottle is brought to the attention of the intrepid Rescue Aid Society, an international coalition of mice that meet deep within the United Nations building. Miss Bianca volunteers to lead the rescue effort but since she has little experience in that area, the Chairman (Bernard Fox, who previously popped up in The Million Dollar Duck) insists she take along a partner. Bianca selects Bernard, a janitor with as little field experience as her but a lot of heart.
Bernard and Bianca follow their only lead, tracing Penny to Morningside Orphanage. An old cat named Rufus (John McIntire, last seen romancing Helen Hayes in Herbie Rides Again) tells them he suspects Madame Medusa may have been responsible for Penny’s disappearance. A visit to Medusa’s Pawn Shop confirms that she and Snoops are in Devil’s Bayou, Louisiana, on the trail of the legendary Devil’s Eye, the world’s largest diamond.
The mice book a flight to Devil’s Bayou with Orville the albatross (Jim Jordan, radio’s Fibber McGee, hadn’t performed since the death of his wife and partner, Marian, years earlier but was coaxed out of retirement for what would turn out to be his final performance). Down on the bayou, they encounter a number of helpful critters with familiar voices including Pat Buttram, George Lindsey and John Fiedler. Even the newcomers have the ring of familiarity. Jeanette Nolan, who voices Ellie Mae the muskrat, had appeared in multiple Wonderful World Of Disney serials (and was the uncredited voice of Norman Bates’ mother in Psycho). Digger the mole was voiced by Dub Taylor, whose Disney resume ranged from TV’s Mooncussers to Treasure Of Matecumbe.
The cast also included a couple of Disney veterans whose voices weren’t exactly recognizable. Veteran story man Larry Clemmons stepped behind the mic to voice Gramps the turtle. And longtime foley artist and voice actor Jimmy MacDonald hummed along as Evinrude the dragonfly. MacDonald had provided the distinctive sounds for any number of nonverbal characters, from Pluto to Winnie The Pooh’s bees, and had also been handpicked by Walt to be the second voice of Mickey Mouse. Technically, MacDonald had retired in 1976 but a life of leisure didn’t seem to suit him. He came back for The Rescuers and various other projects over the years.
The animals volunteer to be on call should the need arise and Evinrude whisks Bianca and Bernard to Medusa’s riverboat. They locate Penny, who admits she was hoping for a slightly larger rescue party but is still happy that somebody got her message. But before the mice can do any rescuing, Medusa and Snoops arrive to give Penny one last shot at finding the Devil’s Eye. They lower Penny into a cave full of buried treasure and, with the help of Bernard and Bianca, she finds the gem in a pirate’s skull. She pries it free and barely manages to escape the cave before the tide fills it with water.
Now that her mission is complete, Penny hopes she’ll be let go. But Medusa has other plans and conceals the diamond in Penny’s beloved teddy bear, planning to double-cross Snoops and keep it for herself. With the villains fighting among themselves, Bernard and Bianca put their plan into action. The swamp varmints turn up to lend a hand (or paw) and in the ensuing melee, a great many fireworks are discharged, the riverboat sinks and Penny ends up with both her teddy bear and the diamond.
Back in New York, all’s well that ends well. Penny donates the Devil’s Eye to the Smithsonian and is even adopted by a loving family. Bernard is ready for a break but when a new assignment arrives at the Rescue Aid Society, Miss Bianca can’t resist the call to action. The last we see of them, they’re flying off with Orville to a new adventure.
In a lot of ways, The Rescuers is an odd duck of a movie. Its mix of high-stakes adventure and funny talking animals could have gone off the rails in any number of ways. And yet, Reitherman, Lounsbery and Stevens walk the tightrope and strike the perfect balance of silly and serious. Somehow, it just works.
The movie has plenty of laughs but it’s not really a comedy. It’s darker than most of Disney’s other animations, both literally and figuratively. The color palette is all muted earth tones and dingy backgrounds. In fact, one of the animators tried to really capture the seamy side of Times Square by adding a subliminal photo of a nude woman in an apartment window to a couple frames of one shot. (It’s gone now, so don’t bother looking.)
The movie has a couple of songs but it’s definitely not a musical. One of those tunes, “Someone’s Waiting For You” cowritten by Connors, Robbins and Sammy Fain, was nominated for an Oscar (it lost and we’ll be getting to one of its competitors very soon). The songs are pleasant enough but they aren’t intrusive. The music takes a back seat to the story and the characters.
The note-perfect vocal casting certainly plays a significant role in what makes The Rescuers so memorable. But I think the key element here is the character of Penny herself. Obviously you can’t make a movie called The Rescuers without having someone in need of rescuing. But Penny is no damsel in distress. She’s a tough, resourceful little girl who isn’t afraid to stand up to her captors, both human and reptile. Penny could have been a whimpering victim. Instead, she’s a fun hero we can root for.
The Rescuers was released June 22, 1977. For the first time in years, the critics absolutely loved it. Sure, there were a few holdouts who didn’t think it held a candle to the golden age Disney classics. But most hailed it as a welcome return to form and the most invigorating sign of life Disney had produced in well over a decade. Even better, audiences turned it into a huge hit. It was Disney’s highest-grossing movie of the year. It did even better overseas, actually outgrossing Star Wars in France and West Germany.
In the U.S., the movie had an accompanying short feature, the nature adventure A Tale Of Two Critters. At 48 minutes, it’s apparently not long enough for Disney to consider it a feature, so it won’t be covered in this column. But I swear we’ve looked at movies that aren’t much longer than that, so I really don’t understand what their cut-off is. Oh, well. It isn’t as though we haven’t already looked at plenty of movies just like it.
In 1983, Disney re-released The Rescuers alongside a more high-profile short. Mickey’s Christmas Carol marked the return of Walt’s signature character to theatres after an absence of thirty years. Naturally, the studio made a big deal out of Mickey’s comeback and The Rescuers got even more eyeballs on it. Disney’s theatrical reissues were big business until home video really took hold, routinely outperforming the studio’s new releases. The addition of Mickey’s Christmas Carol certainly helped elevate the status of The Rescuers, which might otherwise have been considered too new to truly be considered a classic.
Despite the success of The Rescuers and the hope for the future of Disney animation it carried, it would be another four years before the studio released their next animated feature (although another live-action/animated combo will be coming soon). The animation division would have to navigate some choppy waters in the years ahead, including the defection of Don Bluth. But that’ll be a story for another day. And as for Miss Bianca and Bernard, to paraphrase 007, The Rescuers will return.
VERDICT: Disney Plus.
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