Tuesday, September 4, 2012

1977 - The Rescuers

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. Literally. The ’boss’ from the last several years is still in charge. But there is an unstoppable charge of newness about the place. The people under the boss are very different, though. While most of the lead and supervising animators are the same guys we’ve had, there are some fresh names coming underneath them. Don Bluth and Gary Goldman, who would go on to form their own studio and be Disney’s major competition in the 1980s. John Musker and Ron Clements who would go on to direct Disney’s great successes of the 1990s through to the present. Glen Kean and Andreas Deja, who would make great new advances in character animation. Tim Burton, who… Oh, come on, I don’t have to tell you who that is. While you may not recognize most of these names, you can still see the significance. There’s a big change underway, and while the new guys might be on the lower rungs now, things are still shaking up. Feeling the sweeping winds of change rush o’er yon vista or something? So am I. So get yourself some jambalaya and moonshine and let’s talk about The Rescuers.

First off, let’s go through the frankly bonkers script development. This is based on the books “The Rescuers” and “Miss Bianca” by Margery Sharp, making this the first movie we’ve done here where I’ve been completely unfamiliar with the source material. However, the production team took a very fast and loose approach to the adaptation. The first draft was about the titular Rescuers rescuing a polar bear from a penguin. Yeah, I had to double check the order on that, too. Another draft had them freeing a revolutionary poet from prison, apparently the plot of the first book. Eventually they settled on an approach mostly based on the second book, where a cruel woman is forcing an orphan to go cave diving to retrieve pirate treasure, which is actually a lot less silly than it sounds. But even then, they actually wanted to make said cruel woman Cruella DeVil, until it was decided that was overly confusing.

The one thing they knew was that they wanted a more adventurous, less comedic film than they had been doing. And boy did they succeed. While the film has its comic relief characters and moments of levity, the overall tone is far more serious. The villain they made to replace Cruella, one Madame Medusa, is frankly disturbing. She’s as hideous, intense, and abusive as Cruella, but without even a pretense of class over it. She kidnaps an orphan and forces her to go into a tiny cave twice a day in the very small time period where it’s not filled with water so that she can search for pirate treasure. And she tells the kid that no one was going to adopt her anyway, because she’s ugly.

So maybe you’re unfamiliar with the story, and you’re now thinking, okay, girl kidnapped and abused, so these Rescuers, what are they, private detectives? A nonprofit organization? Just a pair of nice people swept up in the story? No, they’re mice. Mice who work for the Rescue Aid Society, a multinational organization of mice, who are devoted to assisting humans in need of rescuing. MICE who do so by interviewing a cat and then flying to Louisiana on an albatross with no real plan. MICE MICE MICE.

I know it probably seems weird to be complaining about this given some of the things I’ve accepted without question, but it really is a problem. See, these mice, they have an office in the UN building. They have signs up in the lobby that say things like “Meeting of the Rescue Aid Society this way”. They can talk to the little girl, as can the orphanage’s cat. The albatross is a commercial air service, with a rooftop building, sign and all. So why don’t they just tell the police? “Hey, we got this letter from a kidnapped kid. Use your detective skills to find her so we don’t have to sneak around being freaking mice.” But oh ho ho, dear readers. At the end of the movie, the girl is talking to a reporter and the reporter is amazed and confused that the child claims mice talk to her. But… the signs! The clothes! She’s holding onto a cat who wears a scarf and glasses, but that’s not odd? I spent an entire movie laboring under the impression that everybody could hear these sign-posting, house-building, clothes-wearing, intelligent rodents, and it made the plot make no sense. So then I find out that animals are not widely known to be intelligent in this world, and it makes even less sense. What’s with the signs, then? This isn’t The Borrowers, where the tiny civilization attempts to remain hidden, they’re quite blatant. Maybe this is set in a world where everyone is stupid. And this makes the actions of the Rescue Aid Society even more inexplicable. What good can they possibly do to help people if they’re just regular mice? Why not leave the note the led them to Penny where the police can find it? Why help humans at all if they’re not part of a shared civilization? Why not help other mice, who the humans wouldn’t be aware needed help? Why doesn’t anyone notice that the mice are wearing pants?

That most of them are wearing pants.
Of course, it’s only after the movie that this stuff began to bother me. When I was merely confused about their intelligence, it was more like a random bother that I accepted as a necessary plot contrivance. Then came that one line at the end, and suddenly it threw the whole movie out of whack. It takes a powerful throwaway ending moment to ruin the entire film that came before it, but it can happen. That’s why Identity isn’t on my top ten movies of all time. It’s got three twist endings, and the last one turns the entire movie from a tight, well-plotted thriller into a muddled mess with some good actors in it.

Seriously. Watch the movie and just press stop when you see this. It's for the best.
And that’s unfortunate, because I more or less enjoyed this movie while I was watching it. The story, leaving aside the problematic premise is really tight and well-done. There’s less padding in this than I’ve grown accustomed to, but it’s not noticeably short, either. And the actors are excellent. Reliable Disney mainstays fill the supporting cast, with Eva Gabor again taking a lead. Only this time she’s playing an explicitly Hungarian character, so I don’t have to get annoyed by that. The other lead is played by Bob Newhart, whose trademark mannerisms could have proven irritating had the writing not used them very well. Chief among the supporting cast is Pat Buttram again, this time playing a full-blown hillbilly - or swampbilly, I guess - and continuing to impress me with the nuances of performance he can work out from his extremely distinctive voice.

The animation got a HUGE bump in quality this time, too. A revamped xerographic process led to reduced guide lines, smoother movements, and the ability to copy colors other than black, leading to milder gray or purple outlines when it would better suit a scene’s color palette. It’s the biggest animation achievement since One Hundred and One Dalmatians, and will remain the biggest until this movie gets a sequel in 1991.


And I’m not surprised it got a sequel. As baffling as the way they handled the premise was, the movie was still really good. The return to a more adventurous film and the addition of a darker tone made for an excellent movie. And they keep it up. The next movie they release is as known for being depressing as Bambi, then their first PG-rated work, albeit one of dubious quality. The two that follow lighten up a lot, but are still a damn sight grittier than average, and pave the way for the mature yet lighthearted musicals of the famous Disney Renaissance. It’s going to be an interesting few weeks.


* Technically, there’s a photo of a topless woman in this movie. Some wag of an animator snuck it in Tyler Durden-style and it wasn’t discovered until the advent of home media. It has, of course, been removed.

* There is music.

* Okay, fine, I’ll talk about it. It’s horrendous ‘70s easy listening crap sung by Joni Mitchell’s annoying understudy over pointless filler animation and I hate it all. One of the songs was nominated for an Oscar, but it lost to “You Light Up My Life” and I think that’s all you need to know about music in the ‘70s.

* This was the last film for animation legend Milt Kahl, who was the lead character animator for Madam Medusa. He based her on his ex-wife, and was so particular about the animation that he wound up doing pretty much all of it himself.

* Two firsts for me here, as I have neither seen this movie at all before now nor read the source material, neither of which can be said about any other movie on this blog so far.

Ah, screw you, ten seconds worth of film.
* If you’d like the experience of having a few seconds of a movie ruin the rest of it for you, but don’t want to have to wait for the ending, may I recommend Dark City? There’s a bit of opening narration that describes the twist ending in detail. And for bonus fun, the information is given to us by William Hurt, who plays the only character that has no way of knowing it.

* Oh, the bulk of the film takes place in the backwoods of Louisiana. Hence the jambalaya and moonshine comment.

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