Coming almost in the middle of Disney’s Bronze Age, The Rescuers is one of the brightest spots, in one of the darkest times for Disney. True, it is darker and moodier than a lot of Disney’s lighter fare, but in the years since Disney’s “Dark Age,” The Rescuers has proved itself to be a timeless classic, one that many know and love.
The story follows Bernard and Bianca, two mice employed by the Rescue Aid Society, a league of mice who, unbeknownst to humanity, have tasked themselves with caring for, and rescuing children in danger, or need of help.
As the movie begins, we learn about the plight of a poor little orphan girl named Penny who has been kidnapped by one of the most vile and loathsome villains in Disney’s pantheon of evildoers, Madame Medusa. Medusa is a greedy treasure hunter in search of a fabled diamond called the Devil’s Eye, which has supposedly been lost for centuries in a cave, located somewhere in a swamp called the Devil’s Bayou.
Medusa thinks that she has located the cave but, as she is too big to get down into it herself, she has “recruited” a young girl to hunt for the diamond instead. As Penny is an orphan, she has no one to miss her; therefore Medusa decides to keep her indefinitely, at least as long as it takes to find the Devil’s Eye.
You can watch the original trailer for The Rescuers here:
Production on The Rescuers was actually started in 1962 by Walt Disney himself. The movie was to be based on the book of the same name, and was focused on the rescue of a poet from a totalitarian government. Disney, however, decided against the political overtones that the story was taking on, and shelved the project.
In 1970, the project was restarted by a team of young animators, led by Don Bluth. This version of the story was completely different from the one that Disney had started, and instead of being a direct book-to-film adaptation, it borrowed characters, themes, and ideas from the series, and created a mostly new story.
Before becoming what it is today, the story went through many revisions, not just the political ones that Disney discarded. Some of the eventually abandoned ideas include: a pigeon as the mice’s mode of transportation; an arctic setting for the film, based on the, at the time, most recent book in the series; the arctic setting was to include a singing polar bear voiced by Louis Prima; and the biggest scrapped idea of all was to use the film as a sequel to 101 Dalmatians, by using Cruella De Vil as the lead villain.
The film represented a number of artistic milestones for the company. The Rescuers marked an end to the “sketchy” animation period of the 60’s and 70’s. The xerography process had advanced to the point that they were able to do softer outlines, and even color, giving the film a look that had not been possible before then, without relying solely on hand drawings.
Another interesting thing to note, The Rescuers also marked the first time since Bambi that all the main songs in the film were sung as part of the narrative, and not by any of the characters.
The film also marked a return to the “heart” of older films, as many recent films were relying almost exclusively on comedy. The Rescuers was a lot more dramatic than comedic, and the characters were created just so, to perfectly tug at the heartstrings.
The Rescuers was the Walt Disney company’s first major animated success since The Jungle Book, ten years earlier, and their most successful film to date. This also marked the first successful film that Walt Disney himself didn’t work on. This would also be the last major success for Disney animation for another 12 years, when The Little Mermaid would be released.
The Rescuers broke the world record for largest opening for an animated film, and it held onto that record until 1986, when An American Tail, coincidentally directed by The Rescuers animator Don Bluth, broke its record. In addition to the amazing sales figures, the film was a critical hit, with one critic even going as far to say that it was Disney’s greatest film since Mary Poppins.
The Rescuers is one of my personal favorite Disney films. I love the heinous-ness of Medusa, she’s one of the most awful, horrendous villains that Disney has ever created, and I love her for that. The scenes of her forcing Penny down the hole were some of my favorite scenes to be scared by as a kid, and just made me root for poor Penny to outwit this horrible, shrill, devil woman.
I also love Bernard and Bianca, and their budding romance is kind of adorable to watch, especially knowing that this is not the end of their story, as The Rescuers Down Under was the first sequel, (if you don’t count The Three Caballeros) that Disney ever made.
What do you think of The Rescuers? How does it rank against the other Disney films of this era?
Jonathan North is writer, photographer, video editor, and animation fan from Iowa. He studied advertising and design at Iowa State University, and also has degrees in multimedia and art. His favorite movie is Fantasia, and his favorite cartoon is Gravity Falls. Or maybe Steven Universe. He can’t decide. You can find more of his work on his blog, as well as his Podcast and YouTube channel, where he reviews animation, movies, TV, or whatever else his guests feel like talking about. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, @jonjnorth.