Friday, May 22, 2020

Walt Disney, part XXVIII: Who will rescue me?


Directed by Wolfgang Reitherman, John Lounsbery, and Art Stevens

Spoiler alert: moderate

The Rescuers, I suppose, lived up to its name: four years after Robin Hood's lukewarm reception had once again called into question the persistence of an animation studio at Walt Disney Productions, The Rescuers opened in 1977 to critical acclaim, commercial success, and even an Oscar nomination (for a song, like that's some badge of honor, and not even for its good song—but they'd take it).  The "commercial success" was the important part, obviously; it even wound up being the third highest grossing film of the year.

In spite of this, I'd say that The Rescuers has become obscure in the years since its release—the fate of a lot of post-Silver Age, pre-Renaissance Disney, to be fair—but amongst animation nerds, at least, it's maintained a stronger reputation than you'd guess.  As the usual Disney encomium goes, it's a bright spot in the second-darkest period of Disney history, after the brutal austerity of the Package Film Era (and, of course, you could make a strong argument that the long interregnum that stretched from Walt's death till the '89 Renaissance was actually the very worst of all, for not only did it bear the same marks of creative malaise and reduced resources, it did so with even more choleric aimlessness—half of the Nine Old Men had gone on to other things, and the other half were starting to feel how old they truly were, and now that the company had finally been overtaken by rational businesspeople, there was nobody like Walt still in charge, willing to take the big risks in order to bring the good times back).

This being the case, you can sort of see why The Rescuers continues to attract praise: it didn't just keep the art form alive, it was the occasion to inject some real new blood into the wavering studio for the first time in forever, and some of that new blood would go on to earn even bigger names than the Nine Old Men had—men like Don Bluth, John Pomeroy, Ron Clements, Glen Keane.  But then, maybe more than a rising phoenix, it represents a swan song, for it was the final film for the generation of Disney animators who had helped defined the medium, still represented at the studio in 1977 by the promethean figures of Ollie Johnston, Milt Kahl, John Lounsbery, and Wolfgang Reitherman.  After The Rescuers, only Reitherman would remain in any real creative capacity, and by the time the last film to bear his name as a producer finally came out, it wasn't much of one.  The passing of the torch is always an attractive narrative, I realize, and it's a narrative helped along since 1977 by a lot of solid contemporary reviews (that are often more backhanded and patronizing than the phrase "critical acclaim" might suggest), as well as by more recent retrospectives that, by the time they arrive at the late 1970s, are (somewhat) justifiably half-crazed in their desire for something at least modestly stimulating to come along.

But here we go: I don't get it.  To my mind, the original features on either side of The Rescuers, both Robin Hood and The Fox and the Hound (or even the package of Winnie the Pooh shorts that had been released just a few months prior)--all of these are hugely more suggestive of an organization in recovery than The Rescuers, which looks a lot more like backsliding than so much as a step (let alone a leap) into the future.  None of those films are flawless masterpieces, not even close, but The Rescuers has more in common with the worst parts of Disney during Walt's inattention and after his death than the best parts of that two-decade span during which the studio finally learned to get along without him.  And so, of course we have the usual elements: the celebrity voices and the contemporary music and the tiresome efforts to be "hip," which never, ever sounds right, yet I assure you, this was the goal.  The nicest thing I can say about it is that it was important: it began to help prepare a new generation of animators (something that, to hear Bluth and others tell it, the remaining Nine Old Men were somewhat loath to do); it gave Ron Miller, Diane Disney's husband and Walt's son-in-law, his first executive producer credit on an animated film; and, most intriguingly of all, it gave the studio an opportunity to fiddle with the xerographic process itself, which is great, because God knows the beastly process needed fiddling with, yet even this is an effort that only pays off with other movies.  Other than that, The Rescuers itself is largely what you'd expect if you were told that it was the final work of creators whose glory days were twenty or thirty years in the past.

Hence it feels less like the follow-up to Robin Hood than the product of an alternate universe where Walt hadn't canceled the early development done after buying the rights to Margery Sharp's books in 1962.  If it had taken the place of, say, The Aristocats (with whom, after all, it shares a star), would you notice the difference?  Not that it's as bad as The Aristocats, because practically no Disney film is as bad as The Aristocats—it has something you'd rest easy describing as "a story," it has some action and adventure, it has something approaching a proper villain, and it has some noticeable personality—but it's certainly closer to The Aristocats than it is to good, and, like The Aristocats, it's an avowedly-contemporary kid's movie that comes off flat as well as radically out-of-touch.  (This is the Disney classic with the electronic music in it, alongside a lot of singer-songwritery showstopping.)

Likewise, it's done sloppily, and even for a Xerography Era feature, you'd describe it as such: The Rescuers was innovative, I said, 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; but it's not necessarily even as successful as "testbed" makes it sound.  It wasn't even that cheap (there's a lot less blatant recycling this time around), but it still comes off as the cheapest-looking feature Disney had so far done: there's a sequence of flight over a city street that just sort of rattles the camera toward a background painting, and it's stuck in my mind for years now as one of the single lowest points in Disney's history.  Like The Aristocats, it's brazenly derivative of prior successes: it too started off as a sort of oblique follow-up to One Hundred and One Dalmatians, and Christ, does that show.  Above all, it mashes up zany, unfunny 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 Sharp, though it's been subject to rampant reimagination; 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 may well 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?) 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 (Michelle Stacy)—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 maritime-themed 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.

Anyway, Penny's an orphan, and she's been kidnapped from her orphanage by a certain Madame Medusa (Geraldine Page), who needs Penny's little hands in order to pursue an evil plot involving an enormous hidden diamond.  However, as of yet, the RAS agent who volunteers for the assignment, Miss Bianca of Hungary (Eva Gabor), 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's very sexiest lady-mouse; whereas Bernard (Bob Newhart), 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 this 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 RAS movie, which is "agents Bernard and Bianca go to the bayou with the help of an albatross named Orville (Jim Jordan), and once there they 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 (Joe Flynn), and her two hungry crocodiles."  Still, if I wanted to be slightly more detailed, I could 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 smaller than 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 my heritage.

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! yet any resemblance to Mitch McConnell is coincidental!) 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 still boasts of Disney's traditionally-good water animation.

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

Nevertheless, there are two bright spots in The Rescuers, and one of them is its villain.  While in no sense do I 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 they 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 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 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, who, with Gabor and Newhart, represent some of the best celebrity casting of the period, and who are at least a bit enjoyable in how they bring their opposed extrinsic personas together without a hint of conflict: in Newhart's case, the mumbling, complaining neurotic, goaded into action by a goal (namely, a hot lady); and, in Gabor's, the personification of elegant, affectionate sexiness in total command of any room she's in, with just a hint of na├»ve 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 actually in this movie, because, however randomly, The Rescuers was the first Disney film to spawn a sequel, 1990's The Rescuers Down Under, which exceeds this film in so many ways that we'd be here all day recounting them.  As for the movie at hand, it's gobsmackingly hesitant to actually foreground Bianca and Bernard's cute little mismatched romance; the animators get it, yes, but I don't if know if the eighty storymen who worked on it ever did.  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 that by far the best thing about The Rescuers is that, thirteen years later, it had a sequel that did.

Score: 4/10

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