13 July 2012

Disney Daze: Week 23: The Rescuers

In 2012, this intrepid reporter plans to watch, in chronological order, all of Walt Disney Studios' 52 theatrically-released animated features, one per week.

Bring on the blandness. Welcome boys and girls to the 1970s, where all of the wondrous, exotic colors of the rainbow are watered down and dull. Were the seventies a chromatic response to the vibrant psychedelic kaleidoscope of the sixties? In 1974's The Rescuers we'll see our fair share of muted greens and drab reds, however brown and grey are the predominant shades of the picture. Overall an uglier looking film I cannot recall coming through the Disney pipeline. It is shocking how unpleasant this feature looks. And it is not just the color scheme that is responsible for The Rescuers homeliness. The animation serves an all-too crucial role as well. Some of the most transparently crude animation is on display in the film, many moments of it galling in its cheapness. One such example occurs almost at the onset of the feature. After the credit sequence--which is done in a novel method of slightly animating muted pastel drawings to tell the prologue, which involves the travels of the orphan Penny's message in a bottle--we enter the film at the United Nations, which is hustling and bustling with some of the most egregious uses of rotoscoping imaginable. The drawings are stiff and anonymous, with no sense of style or fluidity. Faceless figures move to and fro in almost robotic fashion. Luckily the film soon turns its attention to the animal world and all later appearances of humans show a little more life.

Admittedly there are the occasional flashes of style in the animation. The drawing and movement of two secondary characters, the old orphan cat Rufus and the albatross pilot Orville, are well-conceived and a joy to watch. The essences of their respective species are captured nicely and show some of the spark used to bring classic characters such Bambi and Lady to life. No wonder, Rufus was designed and animated by the superb Ollie Johnston, whose forty-year career at the studio ended with this picture. Rufus moves with the slightly diminished grace of a cat long in the tooth. However, the best bit of physical movement in the film involves the avian aviator Orville and the take-off from his rooftop airport. (side note: the titular mice Bianca and Bernard enter what looks like an airport for humans in downtown Manhattan but they climb an escalator and end up on the roof of a tenement building. Where are the humans flying out of?) Orville, beak to the ground, builds up momentum as he stumbles towards the roof's edge before plummeting down to the chaotic city streets below cresting on the wind just before he hits the pavement. The wind-up is such a great moment that the filmmakers decide to use it not once, but twice more later on in the picture. Unfortunately the novelty by that point has worn off.

The story is based on a pair of novels by Margery Sharp and involves two mice who are members of a rodent organization dedicated to helping creatures in need. They receive the aforementioned message in a bottle sent by an orphan who has been kidnapped by a pale Cruella de Vil-impersonator named Medusa. She is using the child to retrieve a prized diamond from a treacherous cave. The mice track the child down in a swampy bayou and help her escape from the woman, her corpulent henchman, and two menacing alligators. That description sounds like an action-packed romp and it appears that the filmmakers had hopes of achieving something of the kind but like the color scheme, it is all so dull. This viewer attempted two screenings before actually completing the feature, both viewings were interrupted by naps. Not only did I fall asleep but both times it was during a chase scene. 

Another accomplice in this mediocre affair is the voice talent. Eva Gabor is adequate as the refined mouse Bianca, she's basically playing the same character as her role in The Aristocats, namely herself. The difference is in the previous picture she had the boisterous Phil Harris to bounce off of. Here she is shackled to the tentative mumbling of Bob Newhart. (This begs the question: how many filmgoers were salivating at a chance to see the pairing of Gabor and Newhart onscreen? Was that a selling point?) Newhart's whole shtick is his low-key demeanor but in an animated film where he's the ostensible hero it works about as well as well, umm, gee, I don't know...this sentence. Another weak spot in the cast is the performance by Michelle Stacy as the orphan Penny. Stacy plays the child with an ingratiating preciousness, drawing out her words in a pouty, woe-is-me manner. It doesn't help that she is given some serious treacle to force down our throats, with lines like "a man and lady came and looked at me, but they choosed a little redhead girl. She was prettier than me." (She probably had more self-confidence too whiny-pants.) Some secondary characters shine however with the most welcome appearance being that of Pat "The Sheriff of Nottingham" Buttram as Luke, a moonshine-swilling backwoods muskrat.

Fairly or not, Disney is often pegged as a studio that promotes the insistence of impossible dreams. They tell us to wish upon a star and have no worries. The thing is the studio was once capable of selling us such facile fantasy because they were absolute masters of their medium. We want to believe Jiminy Cricket because the breathtaking animation, superb storytelling, and gorgeously orchestrated melodies convince us so. Rarely are the aphorisms handled so poorly than in The Rescuers. The aforementioned pastel prologue is ultimately unsuccessful because the godawful tune playing over it ruins the proceedings. The film is flush with mild, folky ballads that are offensive in their inoffensiveness. The worst of the lot is "Someone is Waiting for You" which doubles down on a faith-based pep talk given by Rufus to the unwanted Penny earlier in the picture. The lyrical drivel includes the line "always keep a prayer in your pocket and you're sure to see the light". It all adds up to an unconvincing and empty message. Penny's plight feels completely hopeless, not in spite of the songs and encouragement, but because of them.

Part of the pain inherent in The Rescuers is the fact that it was a transitional picture at the studio. It was the first film to feature two generations of Disney animators working together side by side. This was when stalwarts like Ollie Johnston and his best friend Frank Thomas, artists of the highest order, responsible for such iconic moments as the spaghetti scene in Lady and the Tramp and the meeting of Thumper and Bambi, were writing the epilogues to their storied careers. The Rescuers is an unfortunate swan song for such talented individuals. Meanwhile, working alongside these masters were a crop of newcomers like Don Bluth and Glen Keane, both talented men who would be integral forces in the world of animation in the next decade. The DNA of later works like The Black Cauldron and The Secret of NIMH can be traced back to this mild, mediocre, misfire of a picture. The Rescuers gives us no reason for its existence, it has no purpose. It is just quiet, mild, and brown. Oh so very brown.


  1. Yeah, that sounds right: boring and ugly.

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