The Rescuers, the second Disney Studios animated feature to release the same year as the original Star Wars, is also the first Disney animated movie that didn’t involve Walt Disney on any level. Based on a series of books by British author Margery Sharp, it stars a couple of mice working for the “rescue aid society”. It’s an organization made up of mice from around the world who help rescue people in trouble. Kind of a strange concept, but there are certainly weirder ideas in the world of kids books.
Although The Rescuers started pre-production in 1962, Walt shelved the project when he felt the movie, based on the first Rescuers book, was too political. It focused on rescuing a poet in a Siberia-like stronghold, so I can see that point of view. They eventually brought back the project in the early 70’s, with Don Bluth leading the production for the time being. Don Bluth had worked on previous Disney movies before, and would eventually start his own company that massively outperformed Disney in the 80s. He ended up working as the lead animator for The Rescuers, his biggest ever role for Disney, and it would also be his last time working on a full-length feature for the company.
The movie was a massive success when it released, earning $71 million on a $7.5 million budget. Critics called it the best Disney movie since Marry Poppins. These days it’s considered the brightest point in an otherwise mediocre decade for Disney. It even the first theatrically released sequel in Disney Animation Studio’s history. I enjoyed it as a kid as well. Seeing it again after all these years, I agree that it’s a good movie. It also feels the least like a Disney movie that I’ve watched since I started doing this series. It feels more like an early Don Bluth movie. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.
The movie stars Bernard and Miss Bianca, two mice who are on their first mission for the rescue aid society. Bernard usually works for the society as a janitor, while the group is resistant to send a woman on a rescue mission. Bernard is a bit superstitious and a very cautious man, but he’s smart and he’s a good leader when he needs to be. Bianca is more adventurous and emotionally driven, which helps keep Bernard moving when he starts getting nervous. The two of them balance each other out quite well.
Their mission is to rescue Penny, a young orphan who’s gone missing. There are a couple points where Penny seems to be in very real danger, like when she’s lowered into a cave that’s slowly filling up with water with the tide, and Medusa will leave her in there if she doesn’t find the diamond. The animation in that scene in particular is designed specifically to raise the tension, and it does a fantastic job at that with shadow work and the very angles used. These darker moments are balanced out with a love story between Bernard and Bianca and a climax that’s somewhere between exciting and comedic.
Unlike most previous Disney movies that generally take on a light tone, this one is a fair amount darker and more depressing. The first half of the movie shows the two mice trying to find Penny, and the general atmosphere is slightly creepy. After they find Penny, the mice need to encourage her to step up. The villain, Madame Medusa, is a trashy pawn shop owner who kidnapped Penny to help her find a famous diamond hidden by pirates in a cove years ago.
The soundtrack in this movie enhances the darker, more emotional feel of the movie. The songs also match the tone fairly well, although they also help balance the movie’s tone with the rescue aid society’s jingle style anthem and a calm romantic song that plays while the mice are flying toward Penny’s location. The jingle isn’t all that special on its own. Some of the singing behind it intentionally mediocre. That said, it’s used brilliantly at a point where Bernard and Bianca are losing hope, and the memory of the jingle helps them press on.
When I make an effort to include fun facts about the behind the scenes details with these movies, I would be making a mistake by not mentioning the controversy surrounding the second VHS release. Shortly after it released, Disney announced a recall for more than 3 million copies. Nobody said who, when or why, but someone shoved in an image of a topless women into the background of two non-consecutive frames. It’s almost impossible to notice unless you pause at the exact right time, and that’s never been on any DVD release of the movie, but it’s kind of amusing. I won’t post the image here, but it’s easy to find on google if you really want to.
I was actually kind of worried going into this movie, knowing it released in the middle of Disney’s first Dark Age. Instead of getting a dreary, boring attempt at an adventure movie, I got an emotionally driven adventure movie. Sure, it may feel dated to some with some of the voice over styles and the music, but everything suits the general tone very well. I can see why some people may not enjoy this one, seeing how it doesn’t really feel like a normal Disney movie, but it is a great family film. My only real complaint is that they go a bit overboard with trying to make Penny cute. She’s not in the movie too much so that’s not a huge problem, but still. It’s never too dark or depressing for kids, nor does it get too scary. Is it as good as the best of the Golden Age Disney movies? No, but I’d rank it higher than One Hundred and One Dalmatians, The Sword In the Stone and The Aristocats.
Don Bluth fans should look into this one for sure.
Next up is The Fox and the Hound, followed by Disney’s biggest box office bomb in its animation history, The Black Cauldron. After that, it’s The Great Mouse Detective, the movie that single-handily saved Disney’s animation department when it released. Honestly, I thought it would be a lot harder to get through Disney’s first Dark Age, but it looks like there may only be one or two bad movies at most. Maybe it was mostly the live action movies during that era that dragged the company down towards bankruptcy, as well as their drastically slowed down production. Either way, that’s four posts in as many days, plus I’ve written a novel review that’s probably going up tomorrow night, so I should take a couple days off.