Disney By the Numbers: The Rescuers (1977)

One Man, One Woman, Eight Decades of Disney Animated Features watched in order, and the overly complex system they invented to grade them. These are our thoughts, rants, and observations.

This is Disney By The Numbers.

therescuers


Disney has “A” movies and “B” movies.

This isn’t a letter grade. And the idea of a “B Movie” in normal cinematic terms doesn’t apply either; i.e. a low budget secondary film to support the better one in a double feature. Or at least it doesn’t fully apply in the context of Disney films.

therescuersbee
Also no.

In the world of Disney Animation, the “A” movie is the primary project the company is focusing on. All the top, most senior animators are assigned to it, and usually pitched for it. It gets the most scrutiny and the most love.

The “B” movie was the one that the less experienced animators were put on. It was meant to fill a schedule so Disney could be releasing films in a timely basis. This sometimes led to the secondary film to be the more forgettable of the two or at least the one that didn’t quite shine as much.

But sometimes it meant that a better product emerged. It sometimes led to the “B Movie” being the far superior one. Need an example?

Can you guess which one of these is the “B-Movie”?

If you guessed it was the inaccurate retelling of a probably made up account from a colonizer and not Furry Hamlet, then you are very wrong.

Pocahontas was very much the “A” movie, while it and The Lion King, were in production. Pocahontas was viewed as the hot, important film the lead animators got to work on. This not only meant it had top talent, but it also had the most scrutiny from the higher ups. The Lion King, on the other hand was left alone and the creative team were able to make a much stronger statement and film.

While that might be an argument as that the B-movie actually has an advantage, it isn’t always the case. When Cars was released, the B-Movie was The Wild. Do you remember The Wild? Have you even heard of it? No, because the B-movie’s lack of executive attention doesn’t always mean it’s good.

What does this have to do with The Rescuers? Well, The Rescuers started life as a B-Movie before being turned into an A-Movie, and it has the hallmarks of both. Does this indicate that it might have the strengths of both, but not the weaknesses?

therescuersblade
Like this, but animated.

Let’s find out, by putting together A + B= By the Numbers.

Storytelling

  • Tightness of Script 1
  • Dialogue 2
  • Use of Comedy 1
  • Use of Drama 2

And this is where the idea of it being the B-movie comes into play. An A-movie would have felt more like it was made by committee. It would have felt safe. That’s how you get The Aristocats or Chicken Little. But The Rescuers doesn’t feel safe.

Right away, the film comes in with a completely different feel from other Disney films. It doesn’t have the classic fairy tale beginning with the story book opening. It begins with a thunder crack over a rundown riverboat in a foreboding swamp. The film’s “rescuee” Penny, throws a message in a bottle off the side while being watched by hungry alligators with glowing eyes.

This film has a tone all of its own. It’s dark and melancholy and there is a sense of danger that pervades much of the film. This isn’t the kind of movie you’d find Disney making while “Uncle Walt” was still alive. In fact, it feels like it’s very specifically not made with the idea of wondering what Walt Would have done.

And yet, as I was watching this film. I couldn’t help but feel like it had a very specific voice. The brooding atmosphere, the dangerous situations in sharp contrast with the cute cuddly animals who have gotten into them. All of it felt familiar. It could have been reminiscent of some of the early Golden Age films, but no, it didn’t remind me of Disney… but something else. Someone else. There was a mystery at play.

greatmousedetective
Like this… but a few movies too early.

But beyond the ambiance and the tone, the plot of The Rescuers is… fine. It’s pretty straightforward. A couple of mice have to rescue a little girl that’s been kidnapped. There’s no big twist, most of the comedy feels a little tired, but the drama is a bit higher than normal on a Disney film. So it kind helps the score but only so far.

Total: 6/15

Music

  • Lyrics 1
  • Score 1
  • Number of Songs 0.5
  • Notoriety of Songs 0

I generally try to be kind toward these movies in my analysis as the points speak for themselves and sometimes a film just isn’t my cup of tea. However, The Rescuers really commits a number of Disney film sins in the music department. Not only does it have very few songs, but with one exception it commits the largest music sin any Disney movie can make, and that’s having the songs be incidental rather than sung by the characters.

This robs the film and the characters of much needed emotional connection with the audience. An incidental song here or there in a musical can work, but when it’s almost every one? No, it actually winds up hurting the film far more.

On top of it, with the single exception of Rescue Aide Society, all of the songs feel extremely dated. If you’d never seen the film and heard those songs by themselves, you could be forgiven for wondering if you were listening to a classic hits station.

And that single song I mentioned? “Rescue Aide Society”, which doesn’t feel like it came from the seventies and is sung by the characters? Unfortunately, it’s nothing really special. It’s cute enough but no one would ever put it next to “Part Of Your World” or “Be Our Guest”.  There’s plenty to love in the Rescuers, but the music isn’t one of them.

Total: 2.5/15

Animation

  • Quality of Animation 1
  • Use Of Color 1
  • House Style 1
  • Character Design 1.5
  • Breaks New Ground 1

*Sigh*…. You guys… I just need a minute. Just give me a second.

snow-white-21-1

pinocchiostrings

ichabodcinderella

Okay… Okay. That’s better. I needed that.

It’s just been a long time since I’ve been able to say anything truly complimentary about Disney Animation in these reviews. I don’t even think the animation here in The Rescuers is the worst of its era. That dubious honor still goes to The Aristocats. But it’s just been a minute since Disney had really delivered on it’s signature brand of stunning animation that transports you to another place.

For the most part the animation is fine. There’s the usual flaws of the xerography and the character designs are decent, Bernard and Bianca’s fit this style particularly well. But then there’s Madame Medusa and Mr. Snoops. They’re sufficiently cartoonish, but there’s also an underlying ugliness to them that doesn’t quite work, a certain meanness, that feels out of place somehow.

Is this another example of that mystery I was wondering about earlier coming back into play?

Well… no. One of the lead animators Milt Kahl admitted, point blank, that Madame Medusa was modeled after his wife, who he divorced a year after this film was released so…

threscuersmedusa
Mystery Solved… and apparently not all Disney Animators are Princes.

But there’s another character that bears mentioning. That would be little orphan Penny…

therescuerspenny

So at first glance I’m sure you’re thinking that there’s nothing off here. She’s just your typical Disney little girl with the oversized eyes and bean shaped face.  But Penny and her cat friend Rufus really triggered that almost deja-vu feeling in me as I was watching it. I felt like I’d seen them before and not just because I watched this movie a couple of times as a kid. No… there is an obvious influence at play here… if only I could put my finger on it.

thegreatmousedetectiverescuers
No! It’s not the Great Mouse Detective!

Total: 5.5/15

Love Story

  • Character Interaction 3
  • Importance To Overall Plot 1
  • Complexity 1
  • Pulls At Heartstrings 0
  • Overcomes Obstacles 1

Think of your great Disney love stories.  Odds are you can tell anyone their story.

You can tell about how Ariel rescues Eric then loses her voice for him and how he murders the crap out of Ursula for her.

Or you could tell the tale of how Flynn and Rapunzel go on a wacky adventure together each of them looking for something else, only to realize that they were what the other was looking for and she saves his life and her lizard murders her mom.

Or the tale as old as time where Bernard thinks Miss Bianca is pretty and she likes him to and then they fly across the country with a… romantic-ish song playing… and then they’re a couple?

What I’m trying to say that their love story isn’t exactly the strongest one.

That said… Bernard and Bianca are actually one of the better Disney couples.

And I’ll tell you why…

therescuersdownunder
In about six films when that actually happens in a far superior movie.

Total: 6/15

Hero

  • Sidekick 2
  • Charm 2
  • Goodness 2
  • Emotional Transformation 1
  • Comedy 1

We had a bit of back and forth in this one.

Ostensibly, the Rescuers has two leads. After all, the film is called The Rescuers, so clearly there’s a plural there. But when watching the film, really, one character seemed to outweigh the other in driving the plot.

therescuersbianca
Luckily for us, she’s fabulous.

Bernard may have the closest thing to a character arc that this film has, but he doesn’t really drive the plot. He only volunteers to go on the mission to save Penny after Bianca does. He’s ready to give up and head home… well more than once throughout the adventure while Bianca forges ahead and pushes him to man… um… pushes him to Mouse Up!

And while Bernard has a certain shy charm to him… she has regular charm coming out of her ears. She shows empathy when it will help but also proper gumption when the going gets tough. We’re not saying she couldn’t have pulled this rescue off without Bernard… but we’re also not not saying that.

Total: 8/10

Villain

  • Evilness 1.5
  • Comedy 0
  • Sophistication 0
  • Henchmen 1
  • Poses A Threat 1.5

You know the funhouse mirrors? You know, the ones that distort features so people’s proportions are different? Even if you’ve never seen one of those in person, you’ve been exposed to them in media. And for all intents and purposes, The Rescuers does the same thing. Because she…

therescuersmadammedusa

Is just the Bizarro version of her…

101dalmatianscruella1

And this isn’t even me pointing out similarities that are actually just coincidences. When The Rescuers was originally being developed by Disney Animation, they’d intended to make the villain Cruella De Vil.

therescuerscruella
They even did concept art for it!

Which would have been wild. And I really wish they’d done this. Just think about what that might have kicked off if we had Disney characters showing up in other movies. A Disney Cinematic Universe well before Pixar Theory or youtubers started obsessing over blink and you miss it cameos in Disney movies.

tanglefrozen
As fun as this is, this isn’t Nick Fury telling Anna she’s part of a larger universe for the first time in forever.

But… the real reason this would have worked better as Cruella vs Medusa is that Cruella is just simply a better villain. Both of these gals are crazy, but Cruella wears it better…. well, Cruella wears everything better.

But Cruella’s level of villainy is just so much greater than Medusas. Cruella’s entire goal was to kidnap and then skin over one hundred puppies all so she could look fashionable. Medusa is just doing child labor for some crummy diamond.

Also, if it had been Cruella, there could have been a moment where she and Bianca face off to see who was the most fabulous. Now that’s a Disney showdown for the ages!

Total: 4/10

Supporting Characters

  • Comedy 1
  • Inventiveness 0.5
  • Clear Help Or Hindrance 1.5
  • Strength of Relationship with Main Character 0

One of the hallmarks of the Disney movies from this era, is the bloated cast of side characters that are largely disconnected from the main characters. While The Rescuers isn’t the worst offender here (those would be the dogs and geese from The Aristocats), it still falls squarely into this trap.

Yeah, Bianca and Bernard are our leads and we thankfully spend most of our time with them… we’re also subjected to a litany of side characters that live in the swamp that are supposed to be entertaining… but the mostly just waste time and contribute only a little to the plot.

Also, for like… the millionth time in a Bronze Age Disney film, we’re supposed to be charmed by the down-to-earth, mostly, Deep South country folk. This isn’t a problem by itself… but when the side characters in 101 Dalmatians, The Aristocats, Robin Hood, all basically follow this trend… it sort of loses that charm.

Now don’t get me wrong. Evinrood is pretty fun and even a little clever, being a dragon fly instead of your usual cuddly critter. We’re not looking at the dregs of Disney sidekicks here. But at this point the usual formula they’d been using was starting to feel tired.

Total: 3.5/10

Disney Magic and Legacy

  • Theme Park Presence 0
  • Timelessness 0
  • Impact On Culture 0
  • Scope of Audience 1
  • Disney Feels (Or Did It Make us Cry?) 0

In spite of technically being Disney’s first animated franchise, you can’t find much of The Rescuers in the Disney parks. Bernard and Bianca might show up in a Disney parade every now and again but they don’t have regular meet and greets and there certainly aren’t any rides surrounding this film.

Similarly, the whole feel of the movie somewhat isolates it.  There’s such a dark, 70s feel to it that in spite of not having much by way of archaic technology to date it… it feels locked in time. It’s a film kids can like, but adults won’t get much out of apart from novelty of it feeling darker than the usual Disney fair… and you’re certainly not going to get “When You Wish Upon A Star” vibes from “Rescue Me.”

Total: 1/10


Grand Total 36.5

None of this, not even the score, is to say that The Rescuers is an out and out failure. It actually made good money in the box office, it even beat Star Wars in France… which just adds to my list of questions for the French. Like… why is France?

But weird geographical digression aside, The Rescuers was even critically received well, even being hailed as Disney’s greatest success since Mary Poppins. Which really only goes to show you how messed up the 70s were that this would be considered on par as the greatest movie ever produced by Walt Disney himself.

But this leads us back to the mystery I’ve been touching on earlier. Arguably the reason Mary Poppins was so successful was because it benefited directly from Walt’s direct influence. Something most of the films from this era don’t have.

But The Rescuers does have a very specific “Walt-like” influence. You can see it in the slightly darker edge. You can see it in the character designs, you can see it in the tiny mice facing the giant human world and winning.

Now that might suggest I’m leading to another Great Mouse Detective reference. But I’m not. No, instead I’m referencing the world’s third most famous cartoon mouse… Fievel Mousekewitz

therescuersfievel
Sorry Mighty Mouse… no one even knows who you are now.

Fievel, is of course, famously the creation of one Don Bluth, who was the lead animator on The Rescuers… and it shows! Seriously, I can’t emphasis enough how distracting it was watching The Rescuers and mistaking it for the Secret of Nymm, or An American Tail, or even All Dogs Go To Heaven. The Rescuers feels unique and so very non-Disney because of all the Bluth-isms running around.

None of this makes it a bad film, but it does clearly mark a turning point for Disney films. As much as we like to criticize this era as one where they repeatedly asked “What Walt Would have Done,” the fact that another artist was able to have such influence over a film goes to show that those days ended with Aristocats. Was Disney ready to go in a bold new direction? If so, where would their newly charted course lead them…

thefoxandthehound
The most depressing movie they ever made.

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