Sticking to its core formula of warm-hearted stories about anthropomorphized animals, the Walt Disney Company offered The Rescuers as its last animated feature of the ’70s. Since the feature-length ’toons Disney released in the following decade all fell short of commercial and critical expectations—until 1989’s The Little Mermaid began a mega-successful renaissance—it’s possible to look at The Rescuers as the end of the classic era for Disney animated features. And, indeed, the film is made with the studio’s customary care, combining clear plotting, intricate comedy, smooth onscreen movement, and tearjerker story elements into something that vaguely resembles the earlier peaks of, say, Lady and the Tramp (1955) and 101 Dalmatians (1961). Alas, whereas those pictures earned iconic status through the combination of ingenious stories and vivid characterizations, The Rescuers represents style in search of substance. The narrative is inherently diffuse because the lead characters are merely bystanders to the emotional core of the tale—they’re the rescuers, after all, not the rescued—and far too many aspects of the picture feel recycled from previous Disney fare.
Adapted from a book series by Margery Sharp, the picture concerns an organization called the Rescue Aid Society, comprised entirely of mice from around the globe; the group’s mission involves saving people who’ve been kidnapped. Whatever. When the story opens in New York City, posh lady mouse Miss Bianca (voiced by Eva Gabor) recruits the group’s shy janitor, Bernard (voiced by Bob Newhart), for help in responding to a message in a bottle sent by an abducted young girl. The mice hitch a ride on an albatross, make their way to bayou country, and tangle with evil human woman Madame Medusa (voiced by Geraldine Page), who swiped young orphan Penny (voiced by Michelle Stacy) as part of a scheme to find a massive diamond. There’s also a lot of business involving Madame Medusa’s pet alligators and a perky dragonfly.
Nothing in The Rescuers is objectionable, in the sense that everything is presented with professionalism and a measure of artistry. However, there’s not a lot of meat on the bone. The banter between Bernard and Miss Bianca is fine, with Newhart doing his usual stammering bit and Gabor breathing her lines with aristocratic flair, but the story’s only nominally about their characters, so the Bernard/Bianca scenes don’t command much attention. The Madame Medusa bits, meanwhile, feels like lukewarm riffs on Cruella DeVil. Still, one point in The Rescuers’ favor is that the characters don’t sing. Instead, moody songs about loneliness appear on the soundtrack to accentuate scenes. Combined with lush background paintings, the music conveys a sense of atmosphere, particularly during the bayou sequences. Given such admirable components, The Rescuers isn’t bad by any measure, and in fact it was a significant hit, eventually generating a sequel, The Rescuers Down Under, in 1990. Nonetheless, one would encounter difficulty arguing that this picture represents Disney animation at its best, except perhaps on a technical level.
The Rescuers: FUNKY