“R-E-S-C-U-E/Rescue Aid Society/Heads held high, touch the sky/You mean everything to me.”
The Scoop: 1977 G, directed by John Lounsbery, Wolfgang Reitherman and Art Stevens and starring Eva Gabor, Bob Newhart, Geraldine Page, Joe Flynn, Michelle Stacy, Jim Jordan, Pat Buttram, Jeanette Nolan and Bernard Fox.
Tagline: Two tiny heroes, one big adventure!
Summary Capsule: Two delegates from the mouse UN set out to rescue a little girl from a diamond-obsessed hag and her bumbling sidekick.
Deneb’s reviews: Those of you who’ve been following my reviews may have noticed that I seem to have a bit of a penchant for Disney flicks. And it’s true, I do. There are plenty of ‘em that are cult enough to qualify for inclusion here – they can’t all be Snow White, after all – and what the hey, I like the things.
That being said, it’s not like I think about Disney 24/7 or anything – it’s just that in this case, one thing kind of led to another. While working on my Top Five Disney Films That Should Get TV Spinoffs article, I had to do a good deal of looking around to find an appropriate picture for the entry on The Rescuers/Rescuers Down Under. That led to me going through a lot of Rescuers-related stuff before I found it, and in the manner of such things, it got me thinking. “Y’know,” I thought, “it’s been a long time since I’ve seen those. I wonder if I’d still like ‘em?”
So naturally, that led to a review – this one, in fact. RDU will get its own review before too very long, but in the meantime, let’s look at the original, shall we?
The story starts out in a dingy swamp, on the deck of an old derelict riverboat. A young girl sneaks outside and drops a bottle with a message in it into the water. Miraculously, it somehow makes its way to the ocean, where it ultimately washes up on the shores of New York City.
As it turns out, it couldn’t have chosen a more convenient location. (If bottles could choose – oh, you know what I mean.) See, deep in the bowels of the UN Building, hidden away where none can see, there exists a similar organization, one which is somewhat more… squeaky.
This is the Rescue Aid Society, made up of mice from around the world. They are dedicated to aiding those in need however they can – not countries or populations, mind you, just individual people who need some help. Anywhere, anytime – they’re there.
As it happens, this particular meeting of the RAS has been convened due to the discovery of the bottle by some local mice. Fishing out the message, they find it largely indecipherable due to water damage, but a few things are clear – one, that the message is intended for a certain orphanage there in the city, two, that it was sent by a little girl named Penny (Michelle Stacy), and three, that she desperately needs help.
Among the various international delegates is Miss Bianca (Eva Gabor), an elegant Hungarian mouse who up to this point has clearly been an inactive part of the organization. Moved by the letter, she appeals to the Society Chairman (Bernard Fox) to let her be the one to carry out this mission. The Chairman agrees, as long as she has a co-agent accompany her. To everyone’s surprise, she chooses Bernard (Bob Newhart), the Society’s jittery janitor – perhaps because she sees some hidden quality in him, perhaps because she thinks he’s cute, or perhaps (and this is my theory) because he’s the only male in the room who didn’t immediately start going “me, me, me!” when the sexy female mouse needed a companion. Bunch of horndogs. (Hornmice?)
After a quick bit of detective work, the two discover that Penny is in the clutches of one Madame Medusa (Geraldine Page), a horrible woman who intends to use Penny to find something called the Devil’s Eye in a place called Devil’s Bayou – i.e, the swamp that we saw in the beginning.
Well, naturally, our heroes have to get down there. So after enlisting the services of Orville (Jim Jordan), the proprietor of “Albatross Air” (which is exactly what it sounds like), they head down south to save the day.
Once they’ve actually reached the Bayou, however, they find that their task is a difficult one. It seems that the Devil’s Eye is an enormous diamond that Madame Medusa is obsessed with obtaining. However, it’s located somewhere in an old pirate’s cave, with an entrance small enough that only a little kid like Penny could make her way in. This is particularly dangerous because the cave floods at high tide, so there’s only a relatively short amount of time each day that she can search for it in.
Under the supervision of Medusa’s bungling flunky Mr. Snoops (Joe Flynn) and her pet alligators Brutus and Nero, Penny has so far managed to bring up a host of smaller treasures, but no Devil’s Eye. This is not enough for the raving harridan, however – she wants the Eye or nothing, and she’s fed up with pussyfooting around. Penny is going to find that diamond, no matter what, or she’ll know the reason why.
Overall, a desperately dangerous situation for a little girl to be in. Bernard and Bianca have to get her out of there now. But even with the help of the local swamp critters, how can two little mice save the day – especially since it seems that there’s no way to avoid going down in that cave one more time…
The Rescuers, it seems to me, occupies a rather odd place in Disney fandom. It’s not often promoted or talked about, but people generally know what it is – if they’re not actually talking about The Rescuers Down Under, which may be one of the few sequels to be better-known than the original. (Seriously, do a Rescuers search on Google. Something like two-thirds of the results you’ll get are actually for RDU.)
This strikes me as rather odd, given that the film was quite a hit at the time – I mean, it held its own against Star Wars, and everyone seemed to love it. And yet now, if it has a reputation at all, it tends to be that of the weaker entry in the Rescuers series, overshadowed by its sequel.
I won’t go into the ‘which is better’ argument here – I’ll save that for later – but I will say that, though I certainly see where some of this film’s detractors are coming from, I personally rather like The Rescuers, and I’m not afraid to say so.
Let’s start with some of the bad stuff first, though. One of the main issues that people seem to have with it is the pacing, and there I have to say I’m in agreement. This movie moves slooooowly in parts, far more slowly than is the general standard for a Disney flick. The first half is the most guilty of this, with several scenes that don’t technically add much of anything. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that they serve no purpose – they do, to some degree, showcase the relationship between the two main characters, and most of them are fairly well-done – they just don’t really contribute much to the overall story, which I believe is one of those cardinal storytelling no-no’s.
Besides that? Well, the character of Penny seems to draw an awful lot of flack for being a bit on the cutesy side, and again, I can see where they’re coming from. I personally don’t think she’s all that bad (more on that in a bit), but there’s no denying that for people who have a terminal allergy to schmaltz (and there seem to be an awful lot of those on the Internet), she may prove to be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.
Those two elements are really all I can think of that’s wrong with the story, and for some, those alone are more than enough. But now come the good parts, and as far as I’m concerned, those are many and manifold enough to elevate this film to the storied ranks of “not half bad”.
First and foremost would be the primary theme of the movie, which is basically that of keeping your chin up and never throwing in the towel despite impossible odds. It’s a pretty standard theme for a children’s movie, true, but it’s illustrated really well here, at least in part due to the basic concept.
Think about this – the two main characters are mice. Now, there are plenty of movies that have mice as the protagonists, but few of them succeed as well as this one in terms of setting up the incredible obstacles that such small creatures have to face. They live in a world many sizes too big, one that seems specifically designed to thwart them. The wake of a boat becomes a devastating tidal wave; the insides of a musical instrument turn into a harrowing amusement park ride of doom, the traversing of a few city blocks that for any of us would take five minutes is to them a hard slog to be accompanied by much careful examination of maps. There’s a little background detail I noticed in one scene that sums this up nicely – Bernard pauses briefly beside a cigar stub on the pavement, which to him is about the size of an ottoman. The issues of scale here are literally enormous – these two are going up against fully-grown adult human beings who are thousands of times bigger than they are and could squash them with a well-placed foot. Their triumph is ultimately one of sheer endurance – they go through hell and back to rescue that little (“little” – ha!) girl, who they can’t even physically defend, having to trust to luck, brains, and a little help from their friends.
This is helped to no small degree by the film’s overall atmosphere, which is not exactly dark so much as dangerous. The film has too much lightness and comedy in it to count as dark, but danger is all over the place in this movie. It may be smoothed out by the occasional bit of cartoon slapstick, but that makes it no less effective – especially since it’s generally not so much the exaggerated cliffhanger sort of danger as the regular everyday sort. Take the bit in the pirate cave, for instance, probably the most intense part of the entire film. That whole sequence is freakin’ scary – and why? Not because of the threat of an enemy’s gun or some horror-movie monster; because the tide’s coming in, and they risk being drowned. That’s real danger, the sort that you risk every time you go to the beach, the sort that your average kid is lectured about by their parents. True, one doesn’t generally risk said danger while hunting around in a pirate’s cave for a whopping big diamond, but that’s the stuff that makes it interesting. The tide coming in is what makes it seem real, even if it does involve little talking mice.
Like I said, though, “dangerous” does not mean “dark”. This film does have some very funny bits in it, and is just very fun and creative in its overall set-up. I mean, seriously, what kid has seen Medusa’s old riverboat and hasn’t thought “wow, what an awesome clubhouse that would make!” (Kid, heck – I still think that.) For that matter, the “Swampmobile” that the villains get around the swamp in is still one of the coolest fictional vehicles I’ve ever seen. Sure, it’s noisy, smoky and inefficient, but man alive, I’d like to have one of those things. Screw speedboats, the Swampmobile is where it’s at, baby!
Anyway. Since the whole movie rests on the shoulders of those little micies, let’s take a look at them, shall we?
Most movies with more than one main character have a single “viewpoint” character through whose eyes we see the film. The Rescuers doesn’t really do that, however, instead switching back and forth as best serves the situation. Hence, it’s difficult to say who the “main” Rescuer is. Sometimes it’s Miss Bianca, sometimes it’s Bernard.
Let’s start with Bianca. Bianca is pretty darn cool. A blog post I read recently referred to her as one of the most admirable female characters that Disney has ever created, and on closer examination, I must say I have to agree. I’ve heard complaints about how female protagonists in these sorts of movies are simply carbon copies of the male heroes, that they can either be strong and active or feminine, but almost never both. Bianca is both.
Granted, she’s not exactly going to be kicking ass and taking names any time soon, but then neither is Bernard – it’s not that kind of movie. She still has what it takes to be a strong female protagonist. As voiced by (and modeled after) Eva Gabor, Bianca is basically the heart and soul of the team. Sure, she’s glamorous and well-dressed and probably rich (however that works for mice), but that makes her willingness to launch off into a completely selfless rescue mission all the more admirable. Despite their different social positions, she is always kind and considerate to Bernard, while simultaneously urging him to have fun, to lighten up a bit and enjoy life. She’s just generally a nice person with a love for adventure, exactly the type you’d want to come and help you out of a jam.
This isn’t to say that Bernard suffers in comparison, as he’s quite a good character, too. Bob Newhart plays him as an extension of his normal stuttering everyman persona, but he’s considerably more than just a nebbish. What he is is nervous – remember, up until the start of the movie he was the RAS janitor and nothing more. It’s made clear that he admires the Society, that he probably has desired a place in their ranks for some time – but now that he’s actually on a mission for them, he finds himself just the teensiest bit overwhelmed.
This does not, however, make him a coward. The key to Bernard’s character is that however far in over his head he gets, he never gives up. Sure, he’s perhaps a bit of a defeatist, and will mutter on worriedly about the number thirteen and “maybe we should take the train” and so forth, but while he may be anxious about an awful lot of things, he never lets that anxiety overwhelm him. There’s never really a “you were brave all along” moment for Bernard, but there doesn’t have to be – it’s a part of his character from the beginning, and if there was a hidden quality that Bianca saw in him while he was fishing that soggy letter out of the bottle, it’s that. At heart, he’s a heroic little fella – he just needs to loosen up a bit.
Before I get on to the villains, I suppose it’s really time to talk about Penny, since though she’s not exactly a hero, she’s far too central to the movie to be relegated to the role of supporting character. Besides, as was previously mentioned, there are… issues with her, so its best that those were cleared up now.
All right – Penny. Some people can’t stand this kid, but personally I never really had a problem with her. I mean, yeah, she’s a cute kid and that cuteness is occasionally exaggerated to an unnecessary level, but there’s more to her than that. Penny is not just a damsel in distress – if anything, she shows nothing but defiance towards her captors, even when they happen to be great big monster alligators. She’s stuck in a terrible situation and genuinely needs the help she’s asking for, but while it’s coming, she’s not going to just sit around; she’s going to find a way out herself. And she comes pretty close to succeeding, too – one of Medusa’s main sources of frustration throughout the film is that the blasted girl keeps running away. Sure, her character can get a bit schmaltzy, but it’s earned schmaltz, if you know what I mean – this kid has had a terrible time of things, and if anyone has the right to have a sappy cheer-up-kid song or two, it’s her. I can’t honestly say that I enjoy Penny’s character, but I do appreciate the fact that she’s played as a real kid with real problems, not some cardboard stereotype.
And speaking of her problems, that brings us to the villains, and we’ve got some pretty strong ones this time around. Madame Medusa makes for a particularly memorable main baddie, quite possibly one of the nastiest in the Disney canon. Her voice actress, Geraldine Page, was noted for her work on Broadway, and you can really hear her sinking her chops into the role – this woman is absolutely heartless, quite possibly crazy, and totally, unrepentantly evil. Sure, she can be amusing with her exaggerated mannerisms and terrible driving, but I was honestly surprised at just how cruel Medusa is. Unlike most Disney villains, she has relatively little actual power – she’s not rich or influential or anything – but what power she does have, she wields like a barbarian wields a club. She bullies the hell out of poor Snoops, and while she tends to put on a sickly-sweet act around Penny, she clearly is not concerned in the slightest with her safety or welfare except as a tool to get the Devil’s Eye. There is one scene (I won’t give it away) where she casually and unthinkingly voices what may be the cruelest thing you could possibly say to a young child, and she doesn’t even notice how deeply her words have cut – and if she had, she wouldn’t care. All she cares about, literally the only thing in the world, is getting her hands on that diamond, and she wouldn’t care if she had to feed the kid to piranhas in order to get it. Basically, this woman is the last person on Earth you would want to come anywhere near a child, and it’s this that makes Penny’s plight so convincingly perilous.
At any rate, that position is certainly not filled by Mr. Snoops. As voiced by Joe Flynn, Snoops is the sort of hapless bungler who can’t do anything right. He’s nominally Medusa’s partner in this little venture, but she so clearly wears the pants in the relationship that it’s not even funny. Really, he’s hardly a villain at all – he’s trying his darnedest to be one, but all the poor guy really wants is a little of the money and power that he’s been denied up ‘til now. He may not be a hero, but he’s hard to really dislike.
Bringing up the heels of the villain parade are Brutus and Nero, Medusa’s pampered alligators. These two are basically just the muscle, of course, but they still tend to steal the show every time they show up – there’s a certain wicked glee that they take in their duties that makes them fun to watch. Their first encounter with the titular duo is priceless.
As for supporting characters, there’s a host of other animals to back our mousy heroes up, one of the more prominent of which is Orville, the irritable albatross pilot. He’s not actually in the film for very long – he basically just gets them to the swamp, then leaves – but he certainly leaves an impression, if for no other reason than the idea of mice using an albatross as an aircraft is both funny and visually spectacular. Plus, he’s voiced by Jim Jordan from Fibber McGee and Molly, so he’s got a good sense of comic timing – the scene where he encounters the Swampmobile is hilarious, and never fails to crack me up. More significant to the story is Evinrude the dragonfly, the Bayou’s local ferryman who gets B&B around the swamp in a leaf-boat using himself as the outboard motor. I really like Evinrude – even more than our two protagonists, he’s the “little guy” in the movie, frequently overextending himself to the point of exhaustion but always finding another wind. I was also rather impressed by just how well his character is delineated despite the fact that he has no lines – he’s basically “voiced” by gasps and wheezes and a varied assortment of buzzing noises. Among the other swamp critters, the one that stood out the most to me was Luke, the moonshine-swilling muskrat. This is partly because (Dumbo aside) you don’t generally expect such things in a Disney flick, but mainly because he’s voiced by Pat Buttram, who also played a prominent role in Robin Hood – hearing the Sheriff of Nottingham’s voice coming out of a good guy’s mouth is just kind of weird.
Getting down to the final wrap-up, the movie also sports some lovely pastel backgrounds over the opening credits, as well as, unusually for a Disney movie, not much in the way of songs. Oh, there are some ‘70’s ballads warbled in the background of a few scenes, but the only real Disney-style song is the RAS anthem – which, to be fair, is excellent, being both infernally catchy and actually sounding like something an organization like that would sing. I always end up replaying it a few times just because it’s fun to listen to.
So having blathered on in my usual way until I’ve nothing more to talk about, would I recommend The Rescuers or not? Well basically, yes. I certainly think it’s a good movie, and one I’ll probably be getting my hands on the next time I see it at a flea market (I got the copy I’m reviewing from Netflix). I can’t give it an unqualified thumbs up simply because the film does have its flaws, as well as its fair share of detractors. If you haven’t seen it, I’d definitely say it’s worth a watch – if you’re anything like me, you’ll probably enjoy it, and even if you don’t, I doubt you’ll hate it.
And seriously, how do you lay your hands on a Swampmobile? I want one, dammit!
- According to the signs at the delegates’ places, the Rescue Aid Society includes members from Hungary (Miss Bianca, of course), Arabia, Germany, Pakistan, Austria, Turkey, Latvia, France, Vienna, Syria, Argentina, Ireland – and Africa. Yes, Africa – all of Africa. What, Vienna – a city – gets a representative of its own, but the entire African continent only gets one? That mouse must be the busiest in the entire world, I tell you.
- One of the initial concepts for the film was to have Louis Prima, who’d been a big hit as King Louie from The Jungle Book, come back as a jazz-singing bear who the Rescuers had to rescue from a zoo and get back home. This version went far enough to produce a few concept sketches and some initial songs, but these plans were halted when Prima fell into a coma due to a tumor on his brain stem, which ultimately killed him.
- During the Society meeting, a number of female mice are visible who are nearly exact copies of the African mouse, with the same clothes, hairstyle, everything. The only difference is in their colors, which show minor variations.
- In Medusa’s pawn shop, there is a sign reading “Loan Money ½ rates on Diamonds”. Hmm… foreshadowing, much? (She also has an NRA button up, which makes sense, given her frequent use of firearms.)
- Despite the focus on Bernard and Bianca putting on their seatbelts as Orville prepares to take off, neither of them are wearing them in later scenes.
- Madame Medusa’s character design was based on animator Mort Kahl’s ex-wife, who, according to Wikipedia, he “didn’t particularly like”. (No kidding…) As it was Kahl’s last film for the studio, he wanted the last character he animated to be his best, so he wound up animating Medusa almost single-handedly.
- Bernard’s coloring is a bit inconsistent. While his fur is generally gray, in a few scenes it appears to be as pure white as Bianca’s.
- Just how does Orville communicate with the control tower, anyway? We hear him doing it, but he’s not wearing any sort of microphone.
- In the movie, Miss Bianca is a member of the Rescue Aid Society who persuades Bernard, a non-member, to accompany her. This is exactly the reverse of what happens in the original Rescuers book, where Bernard is a member (albeit a low-ranking one) of the Society, and has to persuade Miss Bianca to help him in order for a dangerous mission to succeed.
- Evinrude’s name is a reference to Evinrude outboard motors.
- It’s implied that the Swampmobile may include the motor from Medusa’s car, as both backfire and belch smoke in exactly the same way.
- At one point it was planned to make the villain be a returning Cruella De Vil from 101 Dalmatians, but this was ultimately scrapped as Disney, at the time, “didn’t do” sequels. (Oh, those halcyon days…) Cruella’s influence is still felt, however, as Madame Medusa is conceptually a cross between her and the Diamond Duchess from Miss Bianca, the second Rescuers book. Similarly, Mr. Snoops is a highly-altered version of the Duchess’ butler Mandrake, while Nero and Brutus are species-changed versions of Tyrant and Torment, the Duchess’ two merciless bloodhounds.
Song lyrics: R-E-S-C-U-E/Rescue Aid Society/Heads held high, touch the sky/You mean everything to me.
Bernard and Bianca: Cat!
Madame Medusa: You don’t have a way with children. You must gain their confidence, make them like you…
Mr. Snoops: Yeah? How d’you do that?
Madame Medusa: You force them to like you, IDIOT!
Bernard: G.O Hassafrass!
Luke: Shucks, Ellie-May, I was just a-waitin’ for someone to holler ‘charge!’
Miss Bianca: What did he say, Mr. Bernard?
Bernard: I wouldn’t dare repeat it.
Madame Medusa (repeated line): SNOOOPS! What’s wrong?
Bernard: He just went through a red light.
Miss Bianca: I do that all the time, darling.
Rufus: Faith is a bluebird you see from afar. It’s for real, and as sure as the first evening star. You can’t touch it or buy it or wrap it up tight, but it’s there just the same, making things turn out right.
Miss Bianca: She’s insane! Utterly mad!
Madame Medusa: If either of you try to follow me, you’ll get blasted!
Bernard: Well, if I was a pirate, that’s just where I’d hide the Devil’s Eye. I’ll, uh, I’ll go over and check it out.
(He does so. He is not pleased.)
Uh, come… c-come to think of it, if I was a pirate, I wouldn’t hide anything back there.
Orville: Sufferin’ Sassafras! My rudder’s on fire!
Miss Bianca: Poor Evinrude! Your carburetor is all pooped out.
Mr. Snoops: Boss, you’ve really got a way with kids.
Orville (over radio): Albatross Flight 13 to tower. Albatross Flight 13.
Miss Bianca: Now what did I tell you? We are lucky, Mr. Bernard!
Bernard: ‘Luck’? ‘Flight 13’? Maybe we’d better take the train.
Luke: Wow-wee! This new batch really packs a wallop!
Madame Medusa: You get down there and find the big diamond or you will never see the teddy again!
Miss Bianca: She tried to kill us, that, that… that horrible woman! Oh, if I was only a ten-foot mouse, I’d show her!
Penny: Didn’t you bring somebody big with you? Like the police?
Miss Bianca: And you wanted to take the train, you fraidy-cat!
Bernard: ‘Fraidy-cat’? I, er, it’s just that, uh… You know, I, I like trains. I mean, they serve, uh, Roquefort…
Digger: We is gonna have us a rip-snortin’ fight!
Madame Medusa: SNOOOOOOOPS!
The Society Pledge: Through storm and rain and dark of night,
Never fail to do what’s right.
If you liked this movie, try these:
- The Rescuers Down Under
- Robin Hood
- The Great Mouse Detective