As all good things must, Wolfgang Reitherman’s time directing at Disney came to an end with The Rescuers and The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, both of which were released in 1977. To release two films of such a high calibre in the same year is a testament to the director’s gift as an animator and director. The Rescuers is a great film to end on, as it encompasses many of his trademarks: adventure; children; a familiar voice cast; animals; fun. He’s worthy of a checklist himself. What makes The Rescuers particularly appealing is that, unlike most of his films where the characters are unwillingly thrust into danger, here the two protagonists choose to embark on a mission for the sake of rescuing someone other than themselves. As such, there’s an irrepressibly adventurous spirit to his final film in the Disney canon that makes it one of the most exciting films in the 52.
I am definitely not an expert in the films of Alfred Hitchcock (only seen five of his films, shockingly), but the plot of The Rescuers seems very Hitchcockian in my limited understanding of what that means. A good hearted American man teams up with glamorous European woman on a cross country journey to rescue a kidnapped girl and thwart the scheme of a greedy woman to get a giant diamond. There is a Maguffin, a mismatched central pair and a hefty dose of intrigue and danger, much like The 39 Steps, Secret Agent or North By Northwest. Admittedly, Hitch’s heroes were never mice, but they were often little guys facing something much bigger, fighting for a good cause or against nefarious schemes. I won’t take this comparison any further as I don’t know nearly enough about The Master of Suspense, but perhaps this is Disney’s version of a Hitchcockian adventure thriller, a nice thought considering this was the released a year after the auteur’s last film The Family Plot.
Children watching it are unlikely, however, to be drawn to parallels with The Man Who Knew Too Much, and there is so much to enjoy regardless of any arbitrary comparisons. The strongest feature of The Rescuers, as with most of Reitherman’s films, are the characters. The film opens with a little girl throwing a bottle into the sea with a message asking for help. She is watched by two giant crocodiles and is clearly not there by her own will – an intimidating prospect. The bottle finds its way to the Rescue Aid Society, a U.N.-alike group of mice who seemingly go around the world rescuing anyone in need. This, in itself, is a brilliant concept – a group of international mice (spot the baffling representative from ‘Africa’ as just one place, yet one from Austria and one from Vienna) dedicated to doing good in the world. Yet, brilliantly, the story chooses to focus on one of these illustrious Rescuers, the charming Hungarian Miss Bianca (voiced excellently by Eva Gabor) and the society’s janitor, Bernard (Bob Newhart, bumbling and winning). It could have chosen any of the international politico-mice, but pushes the humble caretaker front and centre, making a tale about globe-hopping rodents somehow relatable.
Miss Bianca, like many Disney women, is kind, gentle and, apparently, something of a looker in the murinaean community. In short, entirely unrealistic. Yet Bianca’s charm lies in her confidence – unlike the shrinking violets of the early princesses, Bianca is entirely aware of her appeal and glamour, yet still charges headlong into adventure – baffling the largely male Rescue Aid Society. Bernard, meanwhile is like Jack McBrayer’s character from 30 Rock – he has no important position within the society and is seen as a bit of a joke, yet he is probably the most enthusiastic person there. He’s scared of a lot of things, but steps out nonetheless and does them, and his courage makes him one of the studio’s best heroes.
Surrounding these two are a collection of great supporting characters, and a little girl who, although not the main character, gives the film a powerful emotional resonance. There’s Evinrude, the determined dragonfly who powers a leaf boat through the bayou, and Rufus, a cat who is too old and lazy to chase mice. The villain is great, too; Madame Medusa is a ginger Cruella de Vil, driven by greed (this time diamonds, not fur) and prepared to just about anything evil to achieve her ends. She has two giant crocodiles to ensure that things go her way. Then there is Sophie, an orphaned girl kidnapped my Medusa and forced to go diamond mining. There’s a heartbreaking moment when she explains to Rufus that another, prettier girl got adopted instead of her that shows the emotional impact Disney can achieve when at their best.
With this collection of characters, everything else in the film works perfectly. The story veers from wondrous exploration as the mice fly across American landscapes to heart-stopping action when they are following (and then fleeing) Nero and Brutus, the villainous crocodiles that guard Sophie. That scene is as thrilling as Disney gets, the crocs cutting menacing lines through the water as the mice follow at a distance before cutting in front of them and getting caught up in the waves they throw up in their wake. There is a palpable fear to the sequence – the reptiles feel like a genuine threat to the safety of Bernard and Bianca. Yet the audience’s investment in the scene follows on naturally from our investment in the characters. The Rescuers demonstrates what so many big budget blockbusters miss: for action scenes to thrill and scare, we need to care about the people at risk first.
The Rescuers shows why Disney can be so entertaining, moving and uplifting when they are at their best: when they create loveable, interesting characters, the other elements – action, plot, emotional moments, musical numbers – work because of the characters that take part in them. I’m glad that I’ll get the chance to go on an adventure with Bernard and Bianca again in The Rescuers Down Under.