Saturday, February 6, 2010

#23: The Rescuers (1977)

This period between Walt's death and the Disney Renaissance of the 90s is kind of interesting to see in sequence, as the Disney crew is clearly trying to find its footing, seeing exactly what tone they wish to strike with their films. Well with "The Rescuers," they choose to divert from cutesy and go into dour and serious. Unusually, this took off, and I think this film started the trend of animated melodramas of the 80s and 90s. By this, I mean all the Don Bluth films ("The Secret of NIMH," "All Dogs Go to Heaven"), and those done by Steven Spielberg's Amblimation studio ("An American Tail," "We're Back: A Dinosaur Story"): films that may have cute characters, but are very serious business when it comes to tragic events or heavy plots. But I'm not even going to touch any of those movies; it just seems the success of this film sort of got the ball rolling for this type of film. But let's talk about it, shall we.
"The Rescuers" opens with a meeting in the U.N. building in New York, except it's a meeting of mice in the Rescue Aid Society. They have just received a mysterious message in a bottle calling for help, and want to send an ambassador to assist. Up for the job is elegant Hungarian Miss Bianca, who chooses the hesitant but well-meaning janitor Bernard to come along with her. As the mystery of the message unfolds, they end up on a rickety old boat on Devil's Bayou, where they must rescue a kidnapped orphan Penny who's being used by an insane would-be criminal Madame Medusa to uncover an extremely rare diamond from an old pirate's cave. And she has pet alligators and a bumbling henchman who does nothing.
So as I said, this film is clearly trying to be more serious and dramatic, which is all well and good, but that doesn't make it the more interesting to watch. Our two heroes are only mildly engaging, as is their quest to uncover the plot behind the kidnapping. A choice good moments are sprinkled throughout, such as the albatross acting as aircraft to the two mice to take them to the bayou, but they're few and far between, and most of their comedic air doesn't mesh with the rest of the film. It's almost as if they got a bit nervous making it all drama, so we get the bumbling bird and these country bumpkin bayou critters, but when they help out in the final fight, the continuous slapstick really stands out against everything that came prior. The character of Penny is so sad, cloying and pathetic that you almost laugh at her amplified sorrow. Which is of course emphasized in a song. She doesn't sing; all the songs in the film are sung by Shelby Flint, and HOLY shit are they terrible. They exist only as padding, and are a pain to listen to. Just think of the worst 70s ballad you can think of, then tell me what it is so I can listen to it instead of these songs. Man, oh, man...
So your main cast is generally quite boring, so what about the villain? Can she save the movie? Well... no. Madame Medusa might be the most heartless villain in a Disney film yet, but she seems almost too crazy and over-the-top. She's essentially a complete monster, berating and yelling at this poor girl, forcing her to get the diamond, which she nearly drowns getting, and then holding her and her assistant at gunpoint as she makes her escape. Compare her to, say, Cruella de Ville (who was actually going to make a return appearance here as the villain at one point); she may be insane and so cold-hearted that she would demand puppies killed, but her false air dealing with Anita and her flamboyant appearance made her an interesting and likable character. Medusa on the other hand is such a disdainful character that it's hard to even like to hate her, as with most Disney villains. She's a truly ugly human being.
Ugly is right, by the way. Supposedly Disney came up with a new xerographic process to help smooth the lines out and make the transfer process better for the line drawings, allowing for different outline colors other than black. We see this on Bianca and Bernard's clothes, and the rendering on the small animal characters looks pretty good, I suppose, but with Medusa, the line work is out of control. Perhaps it's due to her quick rapid movements and ugly character design, but she looks like she's a mangled bunch of sketches put onto the finished film. As for the rest of the movie's appearance, it's alright; backgrounds are muddled and dark to fit the tone of the film, but nothing that I feel is going to stick with me.

Verdict? I'm all for reinvigorating the Disney drama, but not when the result is so downtrodden and over-sentimental. With this and all the movies I mentioned at the beginning, they go WAY too far with kicking their victims around and making their villains so over-the-top, when if you look back at the Disney classics, your heroes are treated with dignity, and your villains are at least human on some level. "The Rescuers" goes too far in its mission to be serious and different, I feel, and in the end is a real forgettable bummer.

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