It’s been a scarily long time since I saw The Rescuers when it was released back in 1977. And over the years this film has stayed with me. I’d not have been able to tell you who was in it, or what it was about, but I had images – particularly one of two little mice being tossed about in a boat – or just memories of something exciting, and something sinister.
Watching The Rescuers again, it’s easy to see why it has resonated over the years. It’s a fantastic wee film. Yes, the animation seems clunky by today’s standards, with static backgrounds overlaid by sketchily drawn characters, but the absence of realism means the filmmakers have had to rely on creating atmosphere, and we can fill in the rest.
The film opens right away with a landscape of scary malevolence – an old abandoned riverboat in a southern bayou at night. Almost literally dripping with darkness and malice, it’s truly, properly creepy. Ominous and omnipresent, the bayou at night is one of the bad guys in this film, and impressions of it stick around long after the film is over…
We see the silhouette of a small girl dropping a bottle into the river, and as the opening credits roll and the film’s rather lovely (and very seventies) soundtrack begins, we watch the bottle making its way out to sea before washing up on the shores of New York.
Plot-wise, so much has happened before the bottle even hits the water. So as viewers we’re washed up halfway into the story. It’s a clever way of introducing us to the Rescuers, and means we can enjoy the discovery of what happened before we showed up before heading off on our adventure.
We meet Miss Bianca, the Hungarian agent of a mouse organisation called the Rescue Aid Society. She deciphers the note, discovers it’s from an orphan called Penny who needs help, and decides to take Bernard – a bumbling mouse janitor who has obviously caught her eye – with her on her rescue mission. And off we go. We follow the two as they unravel the mystery of who Penny is and why she’s trapped in the deepest, darkest south and then set out to find her.
It’s an exciting ride, full of movement and pace. Combined with the spookiness of the bayou it could all have been a bit much, but the overall feeling is lighthearted. It’s often funny, and always fun.
Some of the film’s humour is derived from the oft-used device of the mouse as very small human – inept albatrosses instead of planes, for example, or unfit dragonflies as outboard motors on boats. But most of it comes from the characters – the relationship between Miss Bianca and Bernard, and all the oddbods the two meet along the way.
Despite being made in the late seventies, this film has the feel of a 1950s black and white romantic comedy. Perhaps it’s the vocal presence of Eva Gabor, who plays Miss Bianca. Or the character herself, who’s sassy and adventurous but very much the elegant, high-maintenance lady. Watching the romance develop between Miss Bianca and Bernard is like watching scenes from Roman Holiday.
Or perhaps it’s because Disney’s films always seem to depict a society that’s about ten years behind everyone else, relying on rather outdated stereotypes to build characters. It seems you can’t be a working class New Yorker without being a bit bumbling and superstitious. Or live in the bayou with being half-witted and/or addicted to moonshine… In 2010, you’ll need to watch The Rescuers with that sense of tolerant condescension you reserve for watching quaint old films.
Penny is a pleasure of a character though, plucky and assertive, never giving up, making repeated attempts to escape her captors and always defending her teddy bear. She’s adorable without being sickly sweet. She’s introduced to us in a particularly lovely way, through the reminisces of an old cat called Rufus in Penny’s orphanage, who recalls cheering her up when she was feeling blue, and telling her to have faith.
That, of course, is the moral of this story – having faith. And the determination of the two little mice to complete their mission, throughout hair-raising journeys by albatross, facing two brutes of alligators and being tossed about in a tiny boat on the waters on the bayou, is unfaltering. When combined with Penny’s refusal to give up, it’s all really rather cool. One might even say inspirational. And I think that’s what has stayed with me over the years – that uplifting feeling you get when you see the little guys triumph over adversity.