The Rescuers is another of those films lost to the fog of my childhood memory. It was originally released in 1977, and then was re-released in 1983 and 1989 (this being back when Disney regularly re-released films to theatres, and without 3D updates). I wasn’t born for the first release, and I’m certain I’d remember the film if I’d seen it at age ten. My brother insists we saw it, though, which suggests it was probably in 1983, when I was old enough to watch but not old enough to remember. But a film unremembered is the same as a film unseen, so when I came across a DVD of the film, I decided to check it out. After all, Disney is almost always entertaining.
The Rescuers, based off a series of children’s novels, is about a group of mice who help out children in trouble. In the film, a young girl (voiced by child actress Michelle Stacy) is kidnapped, and puts out a message in a bottle asking for help. The bottle is found by the Rescue Aid Society, and they send out two of their members, Bernard and Bianca, to save the child.
…which is verging on “blind leading the blind” territory.
The theme of the film would appear to be that anybody can help someone else, no matter how small. Indeed, a recurring question is what can two little mice do? Though in this case, perhaps it would also be fair to ask what these particular mice can do, as both are inexperienced at their mission. Bianca, the Hungarian delegate to the R.A.S., has never been on a field operation before (it’s implied no female mouse ever has). Bernard, suggesting she take a companion for safety, is himself drafted by Bianca, but he’s not even a full member; he’s merely the janitor. Much of the danger and humor both comes from the combination of Bianca’s bold naivete and Bernard’s superstitious nervousness.
One comment I often see regarding modern animated films is the tendency to go with big name actors for the voices. This is sometimes viewed pejoratively, and sometimes just observed in passing. And indeed, it seems like many of the older Disney works are voiced primarily by actors who specialized in voice work or character acting. Which makes The Rescuers interesting, as the major characters are mostly voiced with major actors. Bernard and Bianca are voiced by Bob Newhart and Eva Gabor, both of whom were significant TV stars. Newhart gives Bernard a working-class American accent that suits his personality, while Gabor, of course, gives Bianca the airs of an affluent Eastern European. (Not having read the books, I have to wonder if the character was Hungarian originally or some other nationality). The villains, a pair of kidnappers who are searching for a hard-to-reach diamond, are voiced by Geraldine Page and Joe Flynn. Flynn, a Disney-favorite character actor, is entertaining as the badgered and nervous Mr. Snoops. Page, an established film star, gives Madame Medusa a terrific voice performance, blending the arrogance and lack of class of her character, aided by the visual design. One of the characters refers to her as sleazy early on, and the description is apt.
After decades of depicting European royalty and upper class, Disney delves into white trash.
The Rescuers is part of the era sometimes referred to as the “Dark Age” of Disney Animation, when the production values were lower (in respect to its era) than the classic era of Disney, or the later Disney Renaissance. It does show to a certain extent; the character designs are a bit simpler, with many of the mice having solid black eyes and eye whites that aren’t white, but rather match the color of their fur. The animation quality is just a hair less fluid than one expects from better-regarded eras of Disney. And there is sometimes a disconnect in quality between the background and the foreground. Nevertheless, it still has some merits to it; the character designs may have some simplified details, but the overall look of the characters is creative, particularly the denizens of Devil’s Bayou. Backgrounds are often richly detailed, and the opening sequence is done in a lovely watercolor. It may not stand up to the level of, say, The Lion King, but it does well enough.
As to the story, it’s fast-paced and entertaining enough for an adult as well as children. Since it’s a Disney film, we know that the Rescuers aren’t going to fail in their rescue attempt, but the lack of surprise on that front is of no concern. The path the plot takes to get to that point is enjoyable enough on its own, as the setbacks and pitfalls along the way are creative and flow naturally from the plot.