Our review of The Rescuers / The Rescuers Down Under (Blu-ray), published August 31st, 2012, is also available.
Two tiny heroes. One big adventure!
When it comes to Disney mice, stick to Mickey and Minnie.
Facts of the Case
When an orphan named Penny falls into the evil clutches of jewel thief Madame Medusa (voiced by Geraldine Page, winner of the Best Actress Oscar for The Trip to Bountiful) and her henchman Mr. Snoops (voiced by Joe Flynn, Captain Binghamton from McHale's Navy), the Rescue Aid Society—a United Nations adjunct secretly run by mice—dispatches its top agent Miss Bianca (Eva Gabor from Green Acres) and the nervous Bernard (Bob Newhart, from all those TV shows with his name in them) to accomplish the girl's deliverance.
Enlisting the aid of an albatross aviator named Orville (Jim Jordan, star of the classic radio comedy Fibber McGee and Molly), our intrepid rodent heroes set out to snatch Penny away from Medusa before the orphan becomes an unwilling accomplice in a scheme to hijack the world's most valuable diamond, the Devil's Eye.
Are two minuscule mice up to so monumental a challenge? Come on. This is Disney. Mice run the place, remember?
The 1970s were not kind to Walt Disney Studios. Perhaps it was reciprocal, because Disney wasn't all that kind to the '70s either. Throughout the Polyester Decade, Disney's Feature Animation department continued the slow agonizing slide into moribundity that began with the studio's last major release during Walt Disney's lifetime, 1963's The Sword in the Stone, and trickled on through such lackluster post-Uncle Walt efforts as The Jungle Book (weak but redeemed somewhat by Phil Harris' boisterous vocal characterization as Baloo the bear), The Aristocats (retread Lady and the Tramp in feline drag), and Robin Hood (so uninspired and flat you'd think Kevin Costner was in it).
Was there a common thread linking all these mediocre pictures? Indeed there was: director Wolfgang "Woolie" Reitherman, one of Walt Disney's original gang of front-line animators—the so-called "Nine Old Men." Reitherman, who dominated Disney Feature Animation during Walt's later years and following his death in 1966, elevated economy above quality—a philosophy alien to the legacy of the man who spent a fortune making an animated feature when everyone in Hollywood claimed it was foolhardy (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs) and who mortgaged his company's future building a "theme park" in an Anaheim orchard. Don Bluth, the master animator who abandoned the Mouse House in the late 1970s to make his own features (including The Secret of NIMH and An American Tail), has stated in interviews that Reitherman ruined feature animation at Disney through his corporate focus and eagerness to cut corners. It's no accident that the first Disney feature to veer away from the studio's trademark lush artistic style toward a less detailed, more cursory approach—101 Dalmatians (1961)—was Reitherman's debut feature as co-director.
The Rescuers, on which Reitherman shared directorial responsibilities with longtime Disney stalwarts John Lounsbery (The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh) and Art Stevens (The Fox and the Hound), is typical of Woolie's leadership. It looks cheap, lacks character development, and slogs along through a tedious storyline that makes its relatively brief 76-minute runtime crawl past like a lecture on particle physics. Everything about The Rescuers feels recycled, from its recycled star (Eva Gabor, whose Miss Bianca sounds exactly like her portrayal of Duchess, the female lead in The Aristocats) to its recycled villain. (In the film's early stages, 101 Dalmatians' Cruella DeVil was slated to make a return appearance as the baddie in The Rescuers. As production began, the decision was made to introduce a new character, Madame Medusa, who is little more than a retooled Cruella with a smattering of Madame Mim from The Sword in the Stone pasted on.)
There's certainly considerable artistic talent on display here, but none of it helps. Bluth was one of the supervising animators, and such familiar names as Andy Gaskill (later art director on The Lion King, Hercules, and Treasure Planet) and Ron Clements (who would go on to spark Disney's animation revival as co-director of The Little Mermaid and Aladdin) contributed their pens as well. But the cheapjack production values and inconsistent animation constitute serious and sad disappointments.
As do the characters. Disney has had numerous successes with colorless protagonists—quick, name one distinctive personality trait of any of the following: Snow White, Princess Aurora (Sleeping Beauty), any of the 101 Dalmatians—but Bernard and Bianca, the hero and heroine of The Rescuers, are as weak as any lead characters the Imagineers ever co-opted. The fact that the little cheese-eaters are voiced by the nebbishy Bob Newhart and the grating Ms. Gabor is part of the problem, but the drab story simply doesn't lift the two mice to star status. The character of Penny the orphan (Disney films eat parents like potato chips) is so sketchily drawn that we hardly care whether she gets rescued or not—apparently the filmmakers thought the "orphan damsel in distress" angle was sufficient to make Penny sympathetic, so it wasn't necessary to make her interesting too. The supporting cast, usually a Disney highlight, is populated here by mostly forgettable creatures, with the possible exception of a hyperactive mosquito named Evinrude (perhaps the first blatant product placement in a Disney film). Medusa as a villain is simply a waste of celluloid. As is the entire movie, come to think of it.
Sad to say, The Rescuers hasn't improved any with time, or with its long-in-coming (though not particularly long-anticipated) DVD unveiling. The print from which the disc was generated looks like it spent time kicking around on the floor of Vault Disney—it's filled with scratches, dirt, and other blemishes, and is grainier than a loaf of pumpernickel. The transfer is also unusually dark in tone, which blurs shadows and makes brighter hues—especially reds and bright blues—appear artificially garish. This color imbalance was typical of transfers of Technicolor films in the early years of the DVD revolution, but most studios—Disney included, at least on other discs—have learned to correct it.
The audio aspect of the presentation yields similarly poor results. Although the soundtrack has been remastered in Dolby Digital 5.1, it retains the shallow, trebly quality of what once was presumably a vanilla stereo source track. Volume was apparently substituted for depth in the equalization process, as the audio cranks up plenty loud in the film's few moments of would-be excitement, but stays tinny and hard-edged. Because of the overabundance of high end, tape hiss buzzes and crackles along in the background, even at low gain.
As has become Disney's signature, the viewer gets to wade through a bucketload of (okay, six) trailers ranging from the sublime (The Lion King: Platinum Edition, Sleeping Beauty: Special Edition) to the ridiculous (Air Bud Spikes Back, Stitch! The Movie) before arriving at the main DVD menu. (Oh, sure, you can opt out of the trailer stream by punching the MENU button, but you wouldn't want to miss that plug for Piglet's Big Movie, now would you?) It's clear these previews are strictly for promotional purposes and not for the film collector, as there's no theatrical trailer for The Rescuers to be found anywhere.
When at last the commercials are finished, the first supplemental offering continues the pattern of underwhelm begun by the main feature. It's a find-the-object game dubbed The Ultimate Case played using the DVD remote. Even the most electronically inept child will dispense with the embarrassingly simple treasure hunt in less time than that raft of trailers consumed.
From the game, we move on to something promising a modicum of entertainment value: the 1936 Silly Symphony cartoon The Three Mouseketeers. I'm not certain, but I'm guessing this is the first—but heaven knows, not the last—time the word "Mouseketeer" would be unleashed on an unsuspecting world. Fortunately, this nine-minute slapstick short does not involve the adventures of Annette Funicello, Britney Spears, and—dare I say it—Lisa Whelchel, but rather a trio of cheerful rodents in musketeer garb thwarting the attempts of a feline pirate to capture and devour them. This delightful short is nicely restored—more so, in fact, than The Rescuers—though the colors evidence some bleed and breakup in spots. If only the mice in the featured movie had been as much fun.
Next up is one of those True-Life Adventure documentaries that became Disney staples in the early days of television. This 30-minute installment, called Water Birds, is about—you were waiting for this—water birds. Winner of the 1953 Oscar for Best Short Subject, Water Birds pales in comparison to the myriad Discovery Channel documentaries of the modern era, and the fact that it's derived from a mangled print that has seen better decades makes for a distracting and eye-exhausting viewing experience. For nostalgia buffs and amateur ornithologists only.
Kids with microscopic attention spans may dig Under the Hat: Villains, one of those innumerable Toon Disney filler pieces the Disney cable channel crams into the spaces in its programs where product ads would otherwise go. Narrated with preadolescent alacrity by a mousse-tressed young chap named Beau, the spot lasts a blessedly brief minute and a half, during which the Beaumeister prattles over percussively edited images of various Mouse House evildoers. Disney animators Andreas Deja (who drew Jafar in Aladdin) and Randy Haycock (Clayton in Tarzan) lost the office football pool that week and thus got shanghaied into contributing pithy interview clips.
A stills gallery entitled Rescuers Scrapbook may be the most frustrating DVD extra I've seen. Not because of any problem with the content—it's jam-packed with pre-production sketches and paintings, snapshots taken during the making of the film, and promotional art—but because the navigation system flat-out stinks. Faint, hard-to-read indicators and an obtuse, non-intuitive interface drove me batty trying to move from one screen to the next. Kids raised on PlayStation2 probably will sail through it like ginzu knives through warm bacon fat, but I needed Xanax after my wrestle with the darn thing.
The film's Academy Award-nominated song (and it must have been a spotty year for movie songs for this turkey to see Oscar night), Someone's Waiting For You, turns up in one of Disney's karaoke-style Sing-along Song segments. From the miserable condition of the source material, the DVD transfer may well have been struck from my daughter's decade-old, incessantly played VHS tape. Someone obviously wasn't waiting for the day they'd need to use this master reel again, or they wouldn't have let ferrets nest in it.
Lastly, the viewer is offered the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity (yeah, right—and mice might rescue me from the evil Madame Medusa) to pop the disc into a Web-connected computer and register the copy with Big Brother at Disney. If you don't think Mickey and his friends already know too much about what's going on at your house, knock yourself out.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As insipid and inept as The Rescuers is, the film inexplicably turned out to be a box office bonanza for Disney, scoring boffo business both domestically and in Europe. (To paraphrase H.L. Mencken, Disney never lost money underestimating the taste of the ticket-buying public.) As a result, it became the first Disney animated feature to spawn a theatrical sequel—The Rescuers Down Under, released in 1990.
Born on the cusp of the Disney renaissance ignited the previous year by The Little Mermaid, The Rescuers Down Under is a modest upgrade from its forebear. It suffers from the same uninvolving leads and a similar story arc, but is far superior to the original artistically—the first Disney feature to be processed and printed using digital technology, and the one of the first to contain computer-generated backgrounds, The Rescuers Down Under boasts a unique and striking look unlike any previous masterpiece from Mickey and Co.—and benefits from one of the most realistically frightening villains in the Disney pantheon, Australian poacher Percival McLeish, voiced by George C. Scott.
The Rescuers Down Under also became a commercial landmark in Disney history: released on VHS the year after its theatrical release (instead of at the Neanderthal pace usually employed by the Mouse House in those days, and to some extent even still), the movie was Disney's first to enjoy greater success on home video than in the multiplex.
Along with the dismal Aristocats and Robin Hood, The Rescuers represents the nadir of Disney's storied history as the world leader in feature animation. Aside from the fact that it's a relatively innocuous means of throwing 76 minutes of a child's precious developmental years away, and that laboratory tests have yet to identify a causative link between Eva Gabor's nasal whine and permanent brain damage, there's no real reason to recommend The Rescuers to anyone except obsessive schlubs like yours truly who absolutely must own every film the Castle That Walt Built ever churned out. Kids younger than eight, though, will probably eat it up.
The Court finds the Rescue Aid Society guilty of failing to rescue the Judge from boredom. The Rescuers are hereby sentenced to scrubbing the albatross guano off that big rock in the middle of Devil's Bayou. We're in recess.
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Scales of Justice
• Animated Short Subject: The Three Mouseketeers
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