The Great Disney Blogathon: The Rescuers (1977)
|April 1, 2015||Posted by Jess under Cartoons, Disney, Movies, The Great Disney Blogathon|
John Grant calls The Rescuers “a transitional movie,” and though I disagree with almost everything he has to say about this particular picture, I have to agree with him there. Many of the Nine Old Men, Walt’s favorite animators who had guided the studio’s output since the 40s, were retiring or had already done so; meanwhile, names like Glen Keane and Ron Clements pop up in the credits, little hints of the glories to come. (Unfortunately, they’re about the only such hints in this otherwise lackluster film.)
But for me, The Rescuers is transitional in part because it’s the first Disney movie that really feels modern to me. Even though it came out seven years before I was born, it looks and feels like the contemporary movies and TV shows of my early childhood. It also opens in a modern New York City – at the United Nations, no less. It no longs feels current, but it feels like something that could’ve happened within my lifetime (that, of course, being the most important measure of time possible).
In some respects, though, The Rescuers is infuriatingly retrograde – but even more frustratingly, its particular gender dynamics are still very much with us in today’s movies. But we’ll get there.
(Note: The Rescuers is the first animated Disney movie to have a sequel, if you don’t count The Three Caballeros. However, The Rescuers Down Under is considered to be part of the official Disney animated canon rather than just a sequel, so I’ll be covering that in its spot between The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast rather than in the next installment.)
The Rescuers is based on a children’s series by the same name by Margery Sharp, particularly the first two books, The Rescuers and Miss Bianca. In development since the early 60s, it went through all sorts of crazy treatments (including some Cold War-era political commentary that Walt eventually nixed) before settling into what it is: a relatively gentle, small-scale B-movie that let some of the studio’s younger animators at the drawing board.
I had a book of the Disney adaptation as a kid, so I’ve always known the story and the basic gist of the characters, but I don’t think I actually saw the movie until a couple years ago, unless I was too young to really remember it. And I saw The Rescuers Down Under in theaters, so I had seen Bernard and Bianca in action before, although not for many years. Still, I had a strong sense of liking them, and a dim memory of rooting for Bernard to successfully propose to Bianca.
That’s why, upon finally watching the movie as an adult, I was so disappointed to find The Rescuers to be maddeningly sexist and Bernard to be a patronizing pain in the neck. And unfortunately, at least for me, the movie doesn’t really have many other charms to counterbalance this.
If you’ve never seen The Rescuers, or haven’t encountered it since childhood, the basic setup is that the Rescue Aid Society, an international organization of mice located in the UN, finds a message in a bottle – a plea for help written by a kidnapped orphan named Penny. Miss Bianca, the charming and glamorous delegate from Hungary, volunteers to undertake a rescue mission. When it’s suggested that she bring a co-agent, she chooses Bernard, the timid and superstitious janitor who is clearly infatuated with her. (To be fair, everyone is infatuated with her, yours truly included.)1
From there, Bianca, the highly trained and confident jetsetting international agent, spends the rest of the movie being lectured and scolded by the cowardly Bernard, as the movie contorts itself in an attempt to portray him as the hero. It reminds me quite a bit of this comic, although thankfully it’s not quite that infuriating. But he fusses at her every step of the way – in fact, he’s the one who suggests that it’s too dangerous for Bianca to go on this mission, leading to her taking him as a co-agent. (I suspect she chooses Bernard because she knows she can basically make him do what she wants, whereas an actual agent would be harder to manage.) He complains about how long it takes her to pack, going so far as to explain to Orville, a total stranger, that their lateness is all her fault, even though Orville was even later and they haven’t missed their flight so there’s absolutely no reason to mention it except to shame her; then, once they’re seated on Orville’s back, he reminds her to put her seatbelt on, like she’s three. Later, when Medusa’s pet gators Brutus and Nero2 catch their scent, Bernard blames it on Bianca’s perfume and not the fact that Brutus and Nero are highly-evolved predators and they are prey, and even though Bernard is the one they actually catch. (And once they do, Bianca charges in to fight these enormous beasts and rescue Bernard. #TEAMBIANCA) For someone who is in love with Bianca because she is beautiful and glamorous, Bernard sure does treat her beauty and glamour like it’s some kind of strain on him.
It’s Bianca who drives the plot and whose innate compassion for a fellow creature in peril sets everything in motion, and it’s Bianca and Penny who come up with the extremely convoluted plan to escape Medusa and her various goons in the climax (and it’s Evinrude who has the most physically taxing and perilous jobs, by far)…but it’s Bernard who is framed as the film’s hero, who Bianca embraces and declares “wonderful” at the end even though he has done very little. I am confident that Penny would have wound up rescued had Bianca been allowed to go alone; I’m not so confident in Bernard. But Bianca’s fearlessness and heroism are never highlighted by the movie, to the point that Grant describes her thusly: “Yet for all her airs and graces, Bianca is unafraid of danger. Whether this is due to straightforward courage is a matter open to some doubt: it seems more likely that Bianca is one of those individuals who simply assume that, no matter how parlous the situation, they will emerge unscathed and all will be well.”
Or, I don’t know, she assumes that things will work out because she knows perfectly well that she is good at her job? But sure, Grant, call her dumb because she doesn’t spend hours dithering over every decision like Bernard does.
The other two major figures in the movie are Penny, the little girl our heroes are Rescuer-ing, and Madame Medusa, our villain. Penny is perfectly fine, as “relatively bland children at the center of Disney movies” go. She’s very cute, although her voice seems almost too young for her. Like Bianca, she’s resourceful and fearless in ways that go unacknowledged, but there you go, I guess.
Medusa, meanwhile, is…well, a creation is the best word I have for her. She invariably invokes comparisons to Cruella DeVille, as a crazed, selfish woman exploiting helpless creatures, but motives and temper aside, they inhabit very different spheres. She’s certainly declassé by comparison: Cruella lives in a mansion and her ascetically thin, angular body bears all the markers of old money wealth, while Medusa runs a pawn shop and is animated by Milt Kahl (who supposedly based her on his ex-wife, a dick move if I’ve ever heard one) with a certain indulgent abjectness, all makeup and bralessness and tawdry undulations. The signifiers of her evil are tied up in the signifiers of her gender and class in a way that makes me profoundly uncomfortable.
She also lacks Cruella’s range. Where Cruella can present at the beginning of a scene as in control and reasonably normal, Medusa is almost always cranked up to 11. She’s larger than life in a very petty way…but she’s also strangely inhuman. Her face construction is flat-out bizarre, especially the way her eyes seem almost to be painted on her skull rather than sitting within it. The scene where she removes her makeup is incredibly offputting, and deliberately so. She doesn’t really look like a Disney character at all, to be honest – more like something out of a weird European indie. She absolutely has a jarring, unsettling impact on the screen, and kudos to Kahl for that – but she’s so intense and extreme at all times that I’m not sure she actually works all that well as the central antagonist for a narrative. It doesn’t surprise me at all that she’s one of Disney’s more forgotten villains.
And then there are the swamp critters, who…basically exist on the assumption that hillbillies are hilarious and no further jokes need to be made? They come in late in the movie,3 they have no clear motivation, their sizes are all over the place…they’re a mess. Special mention goes to Evinrude, the dragonfly sporting a sleeveless turtleneck sweater and whose face consists of eyes and hair for reasons I cannot fathom. He gets a ton of screentime for being basically no more than a buzzing sound effect, and he terrifies and bewilders me. My notes for him just say: “Evinrude wtffffffffffffffffff,” and I stand by that.
That failure of the swamp critters to connect emotionally with the plot is echoed throughout the movie. It’s very nice of Bernard and Bianca to rescue a little girl they’ve never met, but it does leave the motivation feeling rather hollow. It’s hard to muster up particularly strong feelings about the events of the plot when none of the characters have particularly strong feelings about it either, or each other. Even the “scary” sequences fail to land, due to a consistent mismatch between buildup and payoff. At one point, for example, Evinrude is fleeing from a swarm of bats, and we see he’s heading straight for a spiderweb. Uh-oh! Evinrude’s a bug, he’s going to be trapped, what will he do? …Well, nothing, it turns out, because he tears through the spiderweb without pausing. So…what was the point? Similarly, there’s a scene where Bernard and Bianca are hiding from the gators in the pipes of an organ, and Brutus and Nero start playing the organ in hopes of using the air moving through the pipes to blow the mice into the open. It’s a very clever concept, but the timing is so awkward and the scene is so poorly staged that the scene loses its impact, because I never know how close the mice are to massive alligator jaws and how worried I should be. These issues were all things that future masters like Keane and Clements would conquer in later movies, but by 1977, they hadn’t quite gotten a handle on them yet.
Speaking of animation, the actual art is…well, it’s fine? The opening credits are absolutely lovely, beautiful oil paint stills, but the rest of it feels…well, almost like the work of the lesser studios that sprang up in the 80s. The color palette is oddly muddle – both New York and the bayou feel very brown and drab. We still have the Xerox look but it’s less sketchy than it has been in the past, in part because of an update to the technique that allowed them to use a soft gray, less obtrusive outline. But again, there’s nothing outstanding to write home about, no real thrilling effects or sequences, except for Orville’s first exciting takeoff and the lovely flight that follows – something that would be echoed and made into one of the most glorious sequences in animation in The Rescuers Down Under with Cody’s flight on Marahute.4
I’m sorry, you guys. I really don’t like to pan these movies, even when I don’t connect with them personally; I know that Disney movies mean a lot to people and I don’t like trashing my friends’ beloved childhood memories. But I found the central conceit of this movie to be frustratingly sexist, and unlike other deeply sexist Disney movies (like, say, Peter Pan), the quality of the rest of it wasn’t enough to outweigh that.
Sorry, mice. Better luck in Australia!
- Bernard and Bianca are voiced, respectively, by Bob Newhart and Eva Gabor. Gabor is once again lovely and charming, but the animators don’t seem to know quite how to manage Newhart’s stammered, messy deliveries, and his drawn-out lines wreak havoc with the movie’s already faltering comedic timing. ↩
- Late 70s/80s Disney seems to be big on pairs of sinister henchanimals with clever/cutesy names – see also Oliver & Company’s Roscoe and DeSoto and The Little Mermaid’s Flotsam and Jetsam. ↩
- Also, the sequence of events in the last 15 minutes of the movie is baffling. Bernard announces that they’re going to escape that night, but they don’t, for no reason. The swamp critters assemble for a rescue attempt even though no one has communicated to them that they will be needed for such a thing, and the mice are unsurprised to see them. It’s like they were cutting scenes, dropped them on the floor, mixed them up, and decided to just go with it. ↩
- Also, at one point we just straight-up see Bambi and his mom grazing in the bayou. It’s just reused footage plopped on a new background. Come on. ↩