Directed by Wolfgang Reitherman, John Lounsbery, Art Stevens
Written by Larry Clemmons, Vance Gerry, Ken Anderson, Frank Thomas, Burny Mattinson, Fred Lucky, Dick Sebast, Dave Michener
Starring Bob Newhart, Eva Gabor, Geraldine Page, Pat Buttram, George Lindsey
One of the most fascinating aspects of our podcast is watching the struggle within the Walt Disney Company to blend reality and fantasy. From the beginning, Disney had stated that he wanted movies like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to be perceived as films for adults, as opposed to films for children or families. I’m always heartened to see that comment brought up in modern conversation, because the stigma that animation is specifically for children hasn’t ever dissipated in popular culture. What frustrates me is the film Disney refers to, and how it became a template of sorts for the animators and filmmakers who work at the Walt Disney Company. For all its ambitions, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs has a decidedly juvenile tone, even as it tries to balance realism and the supernatural.
That battle, trying to ground animated features in the tangible while sending its characters onto various flights of fancy, has appeared in pretty much everything Disney has ever done. I would argue that the stories that put reality first are those with more of a difficult road ahead of them. I wouldn’t say these films are automatically more successful than those that begin more fantastically, mind you. (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs arguably falls in the latter camp, as we’re forced to suspend our disbelief that a grown woman would interact with a talking mirror.) But I think these are the movies that can sometimes falter a bit more, because when they introduce fantasy elements, it’s tougher to reconcile those elements with the realistic.
Whatever problems I have with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, for example, the notion of the Queen talking with the Magic Mirror is rooted in realism without actually being something that could happen in the real world. The concept of a human having some kind of conversation—even a one-note kind—with a household object is ridiculous. But the idea that a person would be so vain about their looks that they’d need to have their physical appearance validated by everyone in their path…well, that’s timeless. Disney’s greatest animated film, Pinocchio, may be an outrageous, outlandish and nightmarish rite of youthful passage, but the title character wanting to be more mature, to be a “real boy,” is something every child goes through. A child trying to hide one lie by telling another, a child trying to impress adults through any means possible, and a child trying to act like an adult by indulging in vice are all common actions. But the way they’re presented in such an unreal way somehow make them more relatable. In these films, Disney and his animators preyed on our visceral, elemental fears that being too vain will destroy us from within, that illicit substances will turn us into a misshapen wretch, and so on.
But movies like The Rescuers shoot themselves in the foot from the word go. I mentioned on the show my distaste for so-called “orphan stories,” because of their inherent sadness. I suppose I should attempt to justify that response, if only because I don’t consider myself the kind of person who doesn’t like any sad movie. (I work with someone who’s said this in passing, and you probably know someone like that, too. Or maybe you are that person.) Maybe it’s simply that, more than most problems in our world, children being orphaned is so immensely depressing because they have less of a chance than anyone else, if they’re not adopted at the right age or by the right people or in the right circumstances. Certainly, the portrayal of orphans in popular culture is to emphasize their puckish, undying spirit. We have Little Orphan Annie, who never gives up and is almost sickeningly cheerful and enthusiastic. We have Oliver Twist as translated on the stage, an open-faced and open-minded young boy who falls in with a crowd of rowdy pickpocket orphans who might get a slap on the head for trying to yank your wallet, but they’ll also tug on your heartstrings in the process.
Penny, the little girl at the center of The Rescuers, is perhaps not as scrappy as Annie or The Artful Dodger, but she’s not the most passive character. (I know this caused a bit of debate on the show—I still hold that Penny is not nearly as active as other great Disney characters. I’m tempted to say, off the top of my head, that the more passive the Disney character, the less memorable they are to me. Penny may attempt to have some power, some agency in being retrieved, but sending a note and daring to pull off a feeble escape does not make her extraordinarily active.) If anything, this movie depresses me more because Penny isn’t Dodger or Annie, she doesn’t have those similarly tough elements. Penny is, for all intents and purposes, a scared little girl. Though her specific predicament—being held in a houseboat on the bayou by a crazed pawn-shop owner, her obese sidekick, and two crocodiles—isn’t realistic, it feels too close to serious. The frustratingly contrived particulars of why Penny has been kidnapped may be a bit too flamboyant, but the basic idea of a child who’s been kidnapped by a fearsome adult, a child who had been languishing in an orphanage for years with no hope of being saved, is almost criminally depressing.
And then two mice come and shake things up. Yes, because this is a Disney movie, there is light at the end of the tunnel for Penny, in the form of Bernard and Bianca of the Rescue Aid Society. (This group is, by the way, totally useless and probably less helpful than a group of humans doing the same thing. In both this film and the 1990 sequel, The Rescuers Down Under, we not only watch a single mission take place from the point of view of Bernard and Bianca, but it’s alluded to that the Rescue Aid Society convenes every once in a while, and that the missions are passed off to the lead characters. But they can only do so much. I know this is a nitpick, and apparently one that’s not totally present in the Margery Sharp novels upon which the films are inspired, but it frustrated me this time.) In some way, I see Bernard and Bianca as intruding on the real world in a way that can’t be fixed properly by the Disney animators and filmmakers. I can see why Disney himself was interested in adapting Sharp’s stories, but they start at a place that’s almost too real, too sad, for people to relate as opposed to simply empathize.
And I could just say I’m referring to myself, but Gabe and Mike were at least willing to admit that this is a bleak film, or that it starts at a bleak place. If anything, characters like the dragonfly Evinrude or the Hee Haw-esque mice voiced by Jeannette Nolan and Pat Buttram feel like concessions to the younger audience or parents who might be overly concerned that a movie is scaring their kids too much. This isn’t to say that such characters do or don’t appear in Sharp’s books. All I can say is that the translation of the story and the execution of this concept as a film is too grim until it needs to be too goofy. I realize that this was a point Mike took me to task for on the show. Two weeks ago, I bemoaned the ending of One Magic Christmas because it didn’t allow its characters a potentially unrealistic but happily cathartic finale. Now, I’m bemoaning the third act of The Rescuers for doing just that, or so it would seem. I wouldn’t say I want a sad ending for this film, though. On the contrary, I’m happy that the movie ends with Penny not only getting away from the dangerous and deranged Madame Medusa, and that she then is adopted by a loving family. What I’m not happy about is how that ending is achieved.
The seeds, you could argue, are sown early in The Rescuers for an appropriately cartoonish finale. Again, we are dealing with a kidnapper who has, in her arsenal, two crocodiles with human attributes. And the basic plot of two mice coming to the rescue of a human is patently ridiculous. Maybe it’s that in the ending, the filmmakers go too far, disrupting the balance of reality and fantasy. Certainly, we’re familiar with the animal characters who will aid Bernard and Bianca in bringing Penny back home by the climax. And there have been a few faux-edgy jokes beforehand, such as when Bernard is “revived” with moonshine from Luke, the muskrat voiced by Buttram. But the last 10 minutes is where the Disney animators go all in, embracing the cornpone, juvenile humor that’s easily spotted in pretty much every film from the Walt Disney Company during the 1970s, live-action or animated. And if you didn’t think the jokes were funny—some of the gags, like Medusa riding Brutus and Nero like they were water skis, are witty—the banjo being slapped and twanged on the soundtrack is enough of an obnoxious nudge.
Regarding this film, I am perhaps most compelled by how the “Rural Purge” that CBS performed on itself in the early 1970s became Disney’s gain. So many of the actors from those shows, such as Eva Gabor, Buttram, George Lindsey, Ken Berry, Don Knotts, and more, would go on to appear in Disney films. Some only appeared in live-action films, such as Knotts and Tim Conway (who was part of the Carol Burnett Show, not among the rural-themed shows, but an immensely popular CBS program). But some were voiceover mainstays, especially Buttram, Lindsey, and Gabor, for Disney. What I’m repelled by in the majority of the films Disney released in the two-decade period between The Jungle Book and The Great Mouse Detective is a kind of laid-back attitude that manifests itself as laziness, something that these voiceover performers were, it seems, cast expressly for. While not every film Disney made in this fallow period falls under that category, a good chunk of them, from The Rescuers to Robin Hood to The Aristocats, feels like the animators just aren’t trying very hard. Even the best vocal performers—Phil Harris comes to mind—are so laid-back, they might fall asleep from being so cool.
Because of the low-key mentality, the stakes automatically are driven lower in these films, or are perceived as such. A story about a sweet, innocent orphaned girl who’s been kidnapped for nefarious purposes can’t have low stakes, and can’t be treated as if it does. To me, The Rescuers is a film that presents a grim, high-stakes situation at the outset, and then pretends there’s nothing serious going on until the raucous finale. It’s enough to give one cognitive whiplash. Whatever problems I have with The Aristocats and Robin Hood (the former, you could say, has somewhat higher stakes because who would want to see some adorable cats kicked out on the street?), they don’t try and fail to tug on the heartstrings so baldly. For me, The Rescuers is a messy film because it can’t balance the high and the low, the serious and the laid-back. The animation, outside of how Madame Medusa and Mr. Snoops are presented, is fairly clean if dark. But the story is a mishmash of downbeat melancholy and stereotypical jokes about Midwesterners. Comparing it, just quickly, to its sequel, The Rescuers and The Rescuers Down Under have unique issues; the follow-up doesn’t have the same problems the original does, and vice versa. Each has its own set, but the grimness of this one makes it awfully difficult to like.