[24 August 2012]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
In the annals of Disney’s animated tradition, there are two distinct eras - BM (before Mermaid) and AM (after). Actually, there are a couple of critical subsections as well. There’s BJ (before Jungle Book) and another AM (after Mulan). In fact, it’s often impossible to pinpoint when the House of Mouse went belly up, classic cartoon wise. Some argue that everything from the ‘30s through the ‘60s was stellar (they’re wrong). Others champion select titles within the ‘70s framework as examples of the studio struggling for a precise post-modern phase. Not everything after the ‘80s renaissance was great. Not all titles post Peace were awful. In fact, one of the studios best remains buried between a slight Robin Hood revamp and the overly maudlin Fox and the Hound.
The Rescuers is indeed a forgotten bit of House of Mouse wonder. It takes a terrific premise (mice as action heroes) and tweaks it with enough old fashioned Disney glitz to make it soar. We get the typical ancillary characters, but this time around, they don’t distract from the main narrative. Instead, the inclusion of Orville the albatross, Evinrude the dragonfly, and the bayou bumpkin animals enhances the story’s many strengths.
The main plot has two members of the anthropomorphic rodent based Rescue Aid Society, janitor turned agent Bernard (Bob Newhart) and his comely cohort, Miss Bianca (Eva Gabor)tracking down a poor orphan named Penny (Michelle Stacey). She’s been kidnapped by Madame Medusa (Geraldine Page) an evil pawnshop owner who has plans for her small stature. Apparently, Penny is the only person who can make her way through a perilous rock formation to find a missing pirate’s treasure. Our villain wants the massive diamond rumored among the booty and will stop at nothing to get it. Naturally, our tiny talents must try and stop her.
With their focus on comedies showing little actual return, the House of Mouse wanted The Rescuers to reintroduce audiences to their far more dramatic, thrill-oriented efforts. They hoped that the books of Margery Sharp would provide a wealth of potential material, though founding father Walt Disney didn’t think the tomes held much promise. Still, after the slight titles the company produced near the beginning of the decade, The Rescuers became one of the studio’s bigger ‘70s hits…so much so that they eventually commissioned a sequel in the mid ‘80s.
Released in 1990, The Rescuers Down Under is oft considered one of the least successful entries in the Disney “renaissance.” The truth is a bit more complicated than that. Yes, the film failed to fulfill the commercial dream of the flush with cash corporate bean counters, but it remains a favorite among fans. More important still, it marked a giant step in the company’s embracing of technology. It is one of the first times the animators had used the CAPS (Computer Animation Production System) process for digital pen and ink rendering.
The story mirrors the original in several ways. Bernard and Miss Bianca are now well honored members of the RAS, he hopes she will accept his offer of marriage. Their plans are interrupted when a call comes from Australia. A little boy named Cody (Adam Ryen), known for his ability with animals, is kidnapped by a greedy poacher named McLeach (George C. Scott) who wants to capture a giant eagle. Apparently, the child knows where the bird and her eggs can be found. With the help of a local mouse named Jake (Tristan Rogers) and a menagerie of captured critters, our diminutive heroes hope to stop McLeach before he destroys one of the Outback’s greatest treasures.
The Rescuers and its sensational sequel reminds us of what Walt Disney and his animation devotees do best - action, adventure, and broad, sweeping cartoon canvases. Though the heroes may be diminutive, the stories and settings are epic in scope. It’s the preeminent positive of the artform overall - the ability to transport the viewer to somewhere they can’t quite visit themselves to see images they’d never be privy to otherwise. Take the opening of Rescuers Down Under, when Cody takes a trip on the giant eagle’s back. We are surrounded by sweeping vistas and hurtled through spaces that, today, would translate into an automatic 3D upgrade. Something similar happens in the first film, when Orville has difficulty negotiating the busy streets of Manhattan.
Even better, the need to concentrate on action beats removes the emphasis on ancillary antics. Yes, the first film finds a bunch of slack jawed critters claiming significant time, but they have to help in the goal, not crack jokes in spite of same. Similarly, Down Under delivers a dashing rival for Ms. Bianca, helping to bolster Bernard’s lagging affections. It’s the difference between showcasing and support. There are plenty of examples of the House of Mouse going overboard with sidekick shtick. The Aristocats is one of the most obvious. Yes, John Candy’s take on Wilbur (Orville’s bird brother) is clearly geared around his status as an ‘80s/‘90s comedy stalwart, but we tolerate it. It doesn’t stick out like some star turns. In fact, one can safely say that both The Rescuers and The Rescuers Down Under are some of the best complementary casting efforts in the Disney archive.
Of course, the main question will be how jaded, modern audiences respond to such old fashioned fun. The company’s claim to fame, followed by its fall from grace, made every release an event at the time. Naturally, with such hype, there will always be mixed responses. Still, for the child overwhelmed by famous voice work, dated pop culture quips, and ADHD level movement, something like The Rescuers films may feel ancient. That doesn’t mean they’re not good, just geared to a different demo. So the next time someone tells you that Disney did nothing worthwhile during the ‘70s, you can offer up The Rescuers as a sound rebuttal. And if they throw in The Rescuers Down Under as another slam on the studio’s otherwise argued brilliance, you can refute that as well. Both remain fine family fare.