Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Who will rescue me?


It's kind of weird to look back and see this as a reversal of Disney's fortunes during some of their darker days, even a modest one, but I suppose it kept the lights on.  Still, I wish I could say something nicer about The Rescuers than that.

Directed by Wolfgang Reitherman, John Lousbery, and Art Stevens
Written by... good Lord, that's a lot of people credited to a 77 minute film (based on the book by Margery Sharp)
With Eva Gabor (Bianca), Bob Newhart (Bernard), Michelle Stacy (Penny), Jim Jordan (Orville), Joe Flynn (Snoops), and Geraldine Page (Medusa)

Spoiler alert: moderate

Later this year, Disney will premiere its 57th animated feature film, Ralph Breaks the Internet, the follow-up to 2012's Wreck-It Ralph—which, if I ever had any read on anything, I would have easily called the least-enduring entry of the whole Second Disney Renaissance so far, outside of the (sadly) nearly-forgotten Big Hero 6—but now that the marketing campaign has begun in earnest, I've found it worth remembering that no. 57 does not represent the first time that Disney's added a sequel to their numbered canon.  In fact, it's not even the first time they looked at one of their older films, saw that it inspired a few warm feelings and no passion whatsoever, and decided that, yes, this should be the one to resurrect.

That brings us to 1977's The Rescuers, right smack dab in the worst period in Disney history, the long wilderness stretching from Walt's death till the Eisner/Katzenberg Renaissance.  Even that seems narrow, since it's reasonably clear that the period of decline began at some point in the late 50s (though it wouldn't produce bad results till later), making it more like "the period after Walt got distracted by theme parks and stopped even trying to care very much about his animation division."  Less accurately, then, we could just say "the Xerography Era," everyone's least favorite Disney era (outside of the collapse of the mid-aughts, which everyone also agrees doesn't really count), an era largely defined by the blatantly cheaper aesthetic of xeroxed pencils and a lot more effort to be... I don't know.  Hip?  I agree, that doesn't sound right.  On the other hand, WDAS is fixing to release a movie called Ralph Breaks the Internet.  So: plus ca change.

It was an era that produced only one really excellent film (The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh) in all the years between its debut in 101 Dalmatians and its final bow in The Little Mermaid (which is excellent, of course, though invested with such tremendous loving care one might only barely recognize it as born of the same technology).  It produced some other, lesser successes, too, but, at least as often, it produced some of the least-worthwhile and most easily-forgettable pieces of animation of the whole Disney main line.  The Rescuers, then, is maybe the definitive film of this era—albeit in the negative sense of the word.

It was the last feature to bear significant input from any of Walt's favored Nine Old Men, who had guided Disney animation over the previous decades, and, alongside Art Stevens (pretty old himself), it was directed by two of them, Wolfgang Reitherman and John Lounsbery, the latter of whom was a man old enough to be dead by the time the movie came out.  For this reason, you would prefer that their swan song not have been so severely off-key.  (In the great Reitherman's case, then, perhaps we can give that honor to 1981's The Fox and the Hound; not exactly a masterpiece either, and really only bearing Reitherman's imprimatur, but he was there, and he helped, and I like it.)

But it does sum up Disney's output over the previous decade and a half, anyway: an avowedly contemporary story that comes off flat, if not out-of-touch (this is the Disney classic with electronic music in it, alongside a lot of singer-songwritery showstopping), done both sloppily (even for a Xerography Era feature, you'd call it sloppy, for The Rescuers was a testbed for a not-quite-there process using colored toner, rather than black, to give the animators some control back over the hue of their lines) and derivatively (it started off as a sort of oblique follow-up to 101 Dalmatians, and boy, it really shows).  Above all, it mashes up zany, unfunny, 70s-style comedy with the kind of all-out, offensive hyper-mawkishness you always see get attributed to Disney, but don't actually often see from Disney, though you surely do see it here.  And I haven't even gotten to the premise yet!  That, of course, belongs mostly to source author Margery Sharp, though it's been changed significantly; and while one is inclined to spot any movie its premise, The Rescuers' is exceptionally bizarre and broken, even for a movie this calculatedly aimed at children.

So: long ago, judging by background details, the loose confederation of worldwide mice established the Rescue Aid Society (again, judging by background details, it must have been established in Classical Latin), and it has grown and evolved along with the creatures it serves—apparently, humankind.  Today, in 1977, they convene in their small (to us) assembly hall in the shadows of the Human United Nations, each little cute (cute? cute) Ethnic Stereotype Mouse greeting his or her fellows as they prepare to debate what to do about a troubling message in a bottle, found recently down by the shore.  (And, as we further scan the background, we realize that, on Mouse Earth, Vienna is an independent city-state, and there are two competing Pakistans—but only one, united Africa.  Power, brother?)

Look, I know they thought Africa was a country and I know they just wanted a Sigmund Freud joke and I know that the two Pakistans might be an artifact of a long development process and the recently-concluded Bangladeshi Liberation War (oh, and also an painter's mistake), but pretending this scenario has internal logic is simply much more fun.

We're ahead of our heroes for now, because we saw a weeping, frightened little girl—we'll learn her name is Penny—throw that bottle into the Gulf of Mexico, hoping against hope it might lead to her rescue.  And we also saw it float to New York, by way of the first time a Disney film's credits sequence came after any narrative material, and also the worst Disney film credits sequence: a succession of oil paintings where the canvas is more prominent than the paint, which seems modestly cool until you realize they don't move, and you might as well just be looking at close-ups of the wall art in a Jimmy Buffet fan's unimaginatively-decorated study.  Only when lightning gets into it, letting the effects animators crack their knuckles, is there the slightest sense of dynamism to the imagery; what dynamism accrues to it otherwise is the most ballady and powerful of those singer-songwriter pieces I was talking about, this being "The Journey (Who Will Rescue Me?)," performed well by Shelby Flint.  Then we get to New York and something does move—a tugboat—though by this point, it's not just too little, too late, it's jarring and obscene.

Penny's an orphan, and she's been kidnapped from her orphanage by a certain Madame Medusa, who needs Penny's little hands in order to pursue an evil plot involving an enormous hidden diamond.  But as of yet, the RAS agent who volunteers for the assignment, Miss Bianca of Hungary, doesn't know any of that.  Neither do any of the male mice who leap at the chance of partnering with (it seems) the RAS' very sexiest lady-mouse; whereas Bernard, the anxious American janitor Bianca ultimately chooses as her aide, presumably just because she likes the way his whiskers twitch around her, doesn't seem to know anything about anything.  But Bianca's made her decision, and so off they go to solve the mystery, and do what rescuers do.

The Rescuers is a strange and strangely-made thing.  For example: it relies, heavily, upon a comparatively normal(ized) conceit, namely animals talking to humans (though in The Rescuers' universe, it's strongly implied that only children possess this ability); but it takes this conceit so much as read that it forgets entirely to set it up, so that when Bianca and Bernard investigate Penny's last known location and meet the orphanage's varmint-killing cat (he decides to take the night off, for Penny's sake), and he goes into a flashback that begins "I asked her what was wrong," it's like a slap in the face when the cat holds a conversation with this human in English, simply because it's a half an hour into the film already and nothing like that has happened yet.  Frankly, a lot of this movie is like a slap in the face.

But despite a fair amount of whirling incident, it also doesn't really have much of, well, a plot.  It takes much longer to describe the RAS than it does to describe what happens in the movie, which is "agents Bernard and Bianca go to the bayou with the help of an albatross named Orville, and once there make allies of the local fauna who join their mission to free the child Penny from the clutches of the mad Medusa, her henchman Snoops, and her two hungry crocodiles."  Though I could, if I wanted to be slightly more detailed, add that the "local fauna" includes "a turtle implied to have fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War, and an owl who seems to be a Baptist preacher and is also drawn as the size of a mouse."  If that and the word "bayou" didn't clue you in, The Rescuers is very much engaged in the most baffling of the 70s' many baffling fixations, a sudden surge of interest in "Southern culture" that is largely indistinguishable from "look at these crazy hillbillies, aren't they barely human?"

This is true, but it's rude to remind me of it.

The humor we get out of it is broad even for a cartoon, and not very funny, especially the fourth time they go to the well of a homemade moonshine joke, and, as intimated, the character designs are interesting (a Confederate turtle) without being actually good.  On the other hand, it's an effectively gloomy setting for what amounts to a child slaver who's captured a kid to put her to work in her mine, and Medusa's lair, the hulk of a grounded riverboat sitting over a half-flooded cave full of pirate treasure (and pirate bones), is the kind of good caricatured Southern gothic you wish were more prominent here.  It doesn't hurt that The Rescuers has fantastic water animation.

But nothing much really occurs, and this nothing generally takes the form of shtick from all corners, and Penny lisping and weeping so manipulatively bittersweetly she's basically bathos in human form, and kid's level thrills offering no noticeable sense of peril whatsoever.  (Like so much, that would be corrected by the sequel.)  Also many shots of Penny being held by her underwear, and one with her shirt off (from behind her, but still), for no ascertainable reason.

Nevertheless, there are two bright spots in The Rescuers, and one of them is its villain.  While I in no sense accept Medusa as "dangerous," and therefore a good villain, I will accept Medusa as a top-of-the-line misogynist cartoon.  When you learn that she's a placeholder for Cruella de Vil—whom Disney ultimately chose not to reprise—she's probably a lot easier to get a handle on, inasmuch as she basically is Cruella de Vil, only in a downmarket register, though I mean that in the best way.  And so Medusa has a goal that would be achieved more cheaply and quickly without criminal activity than with it; she shrieks at her beaten-down henchman mercilessly; and not only is Medusa unable to drive a car without endangering others, she has a hovercraft.  If the advantage were already Medusa's, she also has those crocs, plus her design, reputedly based on animator/Nine Old Man Milt Kahl's first ex-wife, and given how much this movie hates the shit out of Medusa, that checks out.  But from a craft perspective, if not a gender-political one, it's awfully exciting: Kahl was so committed to his feature-length insult he animated basically the whole character himself, and it pays off.  Medusa is the very idea of vicious, unappealing femininity made line and color, given voice by Geraldine Page at maximum shrillness while the precise boundaries of her overtly-corporeal being constantly shift with her every bad mood, especially her face and especially the bonfire of red hair atop her head, the one truly unvarnished triumph of that colored toner I mentioned before.

And in what we'll generously assume is a coincidence, Milt Kahl's second marriage dissolved in 1978.

The other bright spot is the rescuers themselves, Bianca and Bernard, voiced by Eva Gabor and Bob Newhart respectively, and both pretty great in how they bring their opposed extrinsic personas together without a hint of conflict: in Newhart's case, the mumbling, complaning neurotic, goaded to action by a goal (namely, a hot lady); in Gabor's, the personification of elegant, affectionate sexiness in total command of any room she's in, with just a hint of naive innocence in her Hungarian accent that is, of course, blatantly performative, and has no wish to actually fool you about it.  But then again, I don't really know if all of this is in this movie, which so rarely foregrounds their cute little romance; the character animators get it, yes, but I don't if know if the movie does.  So maybe the most damning thing of all about The Rescuers is, in fact, that it doesn't know what it has in Gabor and Newhart and Bianca and Bernard.  Which means the single best thing about The Rescuers is that, thirteen years later, it had a sequel that did.

Score: 4/10

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