Michelle has perfect timing this week with her next underrated post about The Rescuers… this week the film celebrates 35 years since its release with a blu-ray release!
Disney’s 1977 film, The Rescuers is a perfect example of how a film can be a commercial success upon release and over time, become one of the most underrated of the Disney canon. Indeed, if success is measured by the amount of merchandise one can find on the shelves, then our dear friends at the Rescue Aid Society are in need of some serious help. I have never even seen a plush toy of the movie’s two brave protagonists despite the fact that when it debuted in theaters, it was the company’s first hit since The Jungle Book.
So why is it such a forgotten treasure?
Before I attempt to answer that question, let’s address a few well known concerns first. I know this movie is rarely found on people’s top favorite lists. It has no big Disneyesque musical numbers. The animation is dark and very rough at times. Some of the secondary characters even look as if copy and pasted into scenes which could be mistakes in the photography or damaged cells- who knows? Despite the slight flirtation of the two main characters, there is no sweeping love story that takes center stage and some scenes are just downright unnecessary.
But now that we got those initial reactions out of the way, let me explain why this movie deserves its own spot in this series despite those gripes.
The Rescuers is a movie based on the children’s novels by Margery Sharp. The story centers around two mice, Bianca and Bernard voiced by exotic, sophisticated Eva Gabor and sweet, endearing Bob Newhart. When a message for help reaches the Rescue Aid Society, an organization modeled after the United Nations, these two mice volunteer to uncover the mystery of the missing orphan, Penny. Once they find out that she was captured by a truly insane and unstable woman named Medusa, they have to come up with a plan to escape before Medusa can force Penny down a dangerous pirate cave in search of a rare diamond.
That’s some story.
But the best part about this movie I believe can be found within the characters. This film was the last collaboration of many of the original Disney animators or Nine Old Men as they are affectionately known. There was a passing of the baton so to speak to the animators who would create some of the best films of both the Disney Renaissance as well as the films from the later established Don Bluth Productions studio. It was the joint effort of many great minds and both Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas were known for saying that it was their best film without Walt Disney. They felt this film had more heart than their previous ones and I really think that heart came from their characters and story development.
When Bernard and Bianca go in search of Penny’s whereabouts, they run into Rufus the cat at the Morningside Orphanage. Adorable, glasses wearing Rufus was animated by Ollie Johnston and was seen to many as a self-portrait of the caring and sweet older animator. The flashback scene between Penny and Rufus in the orphanage is one of the best in the entire movie because it is the embodiment of that “heart” those animators were so proud of. When Penny is sad because a couple overlooked her for another little girl, Rufus assures her that with faith, she will one day find the perfect Mommy and Daddy.
“You see that bluebird? Faith is a bluebird you see from afar. It’s for real and as sure as the first evening star. You can’t touch it or buy it or wrap it up it tight, but its there just same, making things turn out right.”
Walt worked on so many films where the theme centered on the idea of having faith that someday, things would change for the better and that scene was proof that these men. who worked so closely with him, believed in that dream too. Also, I absolutely loved when Penny grabs Rufus and runs to dinner. I always smile as he slips in her arms because I have seen so many little kids grab cats that way and it’s always amazing to see something so natural and every day animated right before your eyes.
But if you really want to have a discussion on why this film is underrated, we would have to discuss its severely underappreciated villainess, Madame Medusa. Insane, manipulative, and unstable Medusa. The power in Geraldine Page’s voice only served to complement the flawless animation done by Milt Kahl. Medusa was actually his favorite character to animate and you can tell by just how much work went into her. He even had a friendly competition going with Marc Davis over whose villain was better — Medusa or Marc’s Cruella de Vil. You can tell both villains have a lot in common (one main thing being both these ladies should have their licenses revoked) but physically, they are very different. Medusa’s moves are unlike any I’ve seen in a Disney character. Her ever changing facial expressions show a multitude of emotions and sometimes in under 10 seconds. One moment she can be excited and the next, infuriated . The two-minute scene that introduces her is the perfect example of her unpredictable personality. I just love how her legs fly in the air when she sits down excitedly thinking that Mr. Snoops had found her diamond.
I consider Medusa a master of manipulation. She is for lack of a better description, highly animated. When she speaks, her whole body moves with her voice, whether she is being dangerously calm and overly sweet or completely enraged. When Bernard and Bianca manage to sneak onto the riverboat, they witness an exchange between Medusa and Mr. Snoops. Bianca turns to Bernard and whispers, “She’s insane, utterly mad.” The audience is looking at Medusa as she says this and her posture couldn’t be anymore menacing. She is sitting hunched down on the couch, an evil expression on her face, her long cane in her hand ready to take a whack at whoever displeases her.
I’m not quite sure why she doesn’t get the recognition she deserves. If one was to rate a villain on his or her evilness, they’d find that Medusa is just as loud and aggressive as other Disney antagonists. She’s extremely violent and incredibly cruel. Not only does she kidnap Penny and force her down a cave where Penny can potentially drown, but she’s verbally abusive too. She basically tells poor Penny that no one will ever want to adopt her and she says this without the chuckle and “Oh, you know I’m just kidding” that helped cushion some of Mother Gothel’s more lethal insults.
Madam Medusa: crushing little orphan’s spirits since 1977.
She may not have a fancy fur coat or accent, but she’s got her own style. Haven’t you seen the wardrobe change and make-up scene?
From the moment the movie begins, the images are dark and scary and the score written by Artie Butler further enhances that eerie feeling of the bayou and the dark cave. In contrast, the songs sung by Shelby Flint are extremely different and play during key points in the film. I know a lot of folks don’t really like these 70’s sounding songs, but Shelby’s Linda Ronstadt-like voice is so relaxing and the perfect way to break up the spookier musical scenes. I especially love the song, “Tomorrow is Another Day,” that plays while Bianca and Bernard are on their way to the bayou. Some of the most beautiful background paintings are showcased as these two mice snuggle and become closer. As Bernard sweetly states in the end, “You might say that Penny brought us together,” and you know it all started the moment he shyly put his arm around her during that musical scene.
So we are back to the original question: can a film be a commercial success and still be underrated? I think the real culprit in this instance is time. Has Bernard and Bianca’s absence from the parks been so long that our children have forgotten who they are? Have we?
Granted, the 1970’s were a sketchy time for the company, but this movie did stand out. While Bernard and Bianca may not be the most popular Disney couple as they do not hold any royal titles, they do however have class. Sweet, protective Bernard, while always insisting on doing the “dirty work” himself, never seems to realize he will always need Bianca to help him out. And ultra feminine Bianca, always looking for the next adventure but making sure it doesn’t wrinkle her dress, of course. Perhaps with the 35th anniversary release of the film, a new generation of children will watch and begin to wonder whatever happened to those two courageous little mice.
I would love to see a Medusa face character in the parks, even if it would only be during Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party. I can imagine her walking around wearing her trashy blue eye shadow and holding her cane as she berates the adults and asks little kids to follow her. It would be an excellent time for parents to have that stranger danger conversation with their children. Also, with a few minor adjustments to their huge costumes, I don’t see why Bernard and Bianca couldn’t make a Magic Kingdom comeback. Put them in the parades so they could at least spark the interest of the kids watching.
There is so much this film offers for both children and adults but no one says it better than Bianca in the end to Bernard. “Oh Bernard, adventure, thrills, intrigue, travel, exotic places! Oh come on darling, let’s go!”
Yes, indeed. Let’s go.