First Theatrical Release: June 22, 1977
First Home Viewing Release: September 18, 1992
My Rating: 4/5 stars
Where I Found It: My library’s DVD collection.
Bechdel Test Score: Passed with flying colors. Female characters include Miss Bianca, Ellie Mae, Penny, and Madam Medusa. They have lots of non-man-related discussions between themselves, talking instead about diamonds, plans for escape, etc.
My initial approach to The Rescuers was a bit tinged with resentment. I was annoyed that my prep for watching it would entail reading not one, but two books, just like my prep for The Jungle Book and Winnie the Pooh. Why did Disney have to base its movies on multiple books when only a smidge of those books (mostly in the form of character names) would make it into the movie, anyway?
But I dutifully read The Rescuers and Miss Bianca by Margery Sharp. Never being a huge fan of “animal fantasy,” I found the source books for this movie to be unexpectedly delightful. My experience of the movie, which I hadn’t seen since its video release in the early 90s, echoed that.
But first we’ll get a couple gripes out of the way.
In Which Disney Changes Female Leadership to Male Leadership for No Particular Reason
In The Rescuers books, the Rescue Aid Society is headed by a “chairwoman,” first a rather generic one, and then by Miss Bianca.
This seems to have been done to emphasize the “novelty” of sending a female agent on this important rescue mission. When Bianca is first to volunteer, the chairman is visibly flustered. He says something to the effect of how “times are changing” and it’s “not just the menfolk” going on rescue missions anymore, etc. But he insists that Miss Bianca not go alone — which is good practice for any dangerous mission, but it’s clear that what he means is that she mustn’t go without a male partner. In a delightful upending of the chairman’s expectations, she chooses the janitor (Bernard) as her co-agent rather than one of the eager delegates. (I also have to wonder: why ARE there so many female delegates at the meeting of the Rescue Aid Society if it’s unusual for them to go on missions? Are they just there to give input?)
While the original book was written in 1959, this movie premiered in 1977. Times WERE certainly changing, and had recently undergone the upheaval of the sexual revolution, so I imagine Disney thought it was doing something empowering here: “Look, despite skepticism about sending a woman on this mission, she’ll do great!”
Unfortunately, calling attention to Miss Bianca’s sex when selecting her for the mission is less progressive than just assuming she can do it all along. Which, by the way, is what the 1959 book does. In the book, it is not her femininity that makes her an unusual candidate, but her class — she is a pampered and sheltered pet, unaccustomed to living by her wits as other mice are. But her femaleness is no big deal. Why would it be? The book has a chairwoman. Which also is not made out to be a big deal. Accepting female participating without comment is far more progressive than calling attention to the fact that, “Wow, women CAN do it!” It seems Disney may have been grappling with some ambivalence around this issue, which we’ll see play out in a lot more movies, I’m sure.
Likewise, Bianca’s few “liabilities” as an agent are tied to her sex, and not her class, as well. For example, one of her liabilities in the book is that she is not afraid of cats, having played with one as a pet. In the movie, she doesn’t buckle her seatbelt tightly enough because it will “wrinkle her dress” and the scent of her perfume alerts the villainous alligators to the agents’ presence on the riverboat. (I don’t know much about alligators’ tracking abilities, but I found it unlikely that they’d be more inclined to seek out the artificial scent of perfume than the real sent of live flesh. Jeez, Bernard, how do you know it’s not your flesh they’re smelling? Perhaps you should BOTH be wearing perfume to mask the tantalizing scent of live bait.)
In Which It Turns Out to Be a Pretty Good Movie Anyway
Despite my quibbles, The Rescuers, while not staying true to the plot details of its source material, stays true, at least, to its essence. It feels as though it could be an additional adventure in the series, like a fan-fiction story, rather than an actual adaptation of the written work.
Bernard and Bianca end up being equal partners on their adventure. Although Bernard is rather protective of her, his superstitions make him the less bold of the two, and the timid man opposite the adventurous woman is a nice reversal. They save each other at various points, and of course, they ultimately save Penny. Who, by the way, may be Disney’s most delightful child character. Yes, she’s adorable, but she’s also got verve and sass. She repeatedly attempts to escape from Madame Medusa, and one of the first things she does when she meets Bianca and Bernard is explain her situation using spot-on impersonations of her captors. She’s abused, but not beaten, and she has more personality than Mowgli or Christopher Robin combined.
And as much as I liked the books, Disney presents a more cohesive storyline than either of them did. In “Miss Bianca,” the little girl has been kidnapped simply because the villain, The Grand Duchess, likes to make people tremble and cry. Madam Medusa, on the other hand, takes Penny so she can fit into a hole where a great diamond is rumored to be hidden.
In Which I Love the Details
As a child, I remember loving Miss Bianca’s Hungarian accent — it was the one part of the movie that remained vivid in my mind in the 20-ish years since I’d last seen it. I still loved it, along with all the other details in the movie — the way that the mice have this whole society that operates beneath the notice of our own, although it is littered with detritus that we recognize — a comb for a ladder, a sardine can for an airplane seat, an airport featuring a bird instead of an airplane that, nonetheless, seems to follow much the same procedure (if in a more slapdash manner) than our own airports. When I first saw this movie, I had never ridden an airplane before — but as someone who has been in the air about 30 times now, I love how the movie captures the thrill and terror of flight. (Also, how accurately it portrays the fear of traveling in such a way — like Bernard, I would much, much rather take the train.)
A few things come up short — I would have liked to see Bernard either overcome his superstitions or use them to advantage, and the final rescue of Penny seemed a little anticlimactic. Still, this is another movie you could plop a kid in front of without reservations about the messages s/he was absorbing — topless woman aside.
Also, it wasn’t until I watched this as an adult that I saw it for the important prologue it was for animation in the years to come. I always think of this phase of Disney films, the few decades before I was born, as kind of forgettable — there was no franchise to keep The Rescuers alive a la the Disney Princess line or Pooh merchandise. But in the expressive animation of the mice, I saw the hints of Don Bluth‘s first solo feature film, The Secret of NIMH. The scene where Bianca and Bernard are being tossed about in the wind from the pipe organ on the Riverboat strongly calls to mind the scene with the mice and rats in the air vents in The Secret of NIMH. And perhaps it isn’t a coincidence that Penny reminded me so strongly of AnneMarie from All Dogs Go to Heaven. (Not to mention the alligator or New Orleans connections.)
When I was growing up, I only knew Don Bluth as a competitor to Disney — so I remember being astonished the first time I noticed his name in the credits of Disney films. Now, it breaks my heart that neither Disney nor any of its top competitors — Don Bluth Productions, Fox Animation Studios — are making traditionally animated films at all. In fact, Disney’s traditionally animated films won’t even last long enough to finish out the year. Frozen is one of my favorites, but I tend to agree with my sister, that it should have been hand-drawn.
Maybe I’ll feel differently when I finally arrive at that evolution this winter. But I doubt it. Luckily, I still have about 30 years to go.