Last into the video market amidst a flock of better-known animated titles, Disney’s cartoon feature The Rescuers is, like its mouse protagonists, in danger of being trampled. Part of the problem is that it’s arriving in stores so soon after its brassier, higher-tech sequel, The Rescuers Down Under (1990), which sold strongly after its release on tape last fall; this reviewer has heard store chatter from parents wondering, ”The Rescuers — didn’t we buy that already?” In addition, enough other Disney titles have come out in the last year to make a tot’s eyes glaze over: Fantasia last November, 101 Dalmatians in April, and The Great Mouse Detective in July. And there can’t be many families that aren’t primed to add Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, due in October, to their collections. Surely more than a few grown-ups are going to say: ”Put that Rescuers tape back, kid! What am I, made of money?”
That would be a shame, because The Rescuers is nearly perfect entertainment for the under-8 set. It’s a charming, subtly crafted movie, the last Disney cartoon to be shaped by a core of veteran animators who were at the studio for decades and who left or died beginning in the late 1970s. Their greatest gift is stamped all over this movie: knowing how to pose characters in ways that spell out what they’re saying, so even the youngest viewer can follow. Miss Bianca and Bernard, for instance The Rescuers’ button-cute rodents on a volunteer mission to save a kidnapped little girl — are always pointing, gesturing, scratching their heads, furrowing their brows, and generally telegraphing the import of everything that happens.
Not that the plot of The Rescuers is hard to grasp; it’s just nice to have all the elegant little emphases to spur you along. Unlike the choppy, episodic Down Under, the original adventure flows naturally. The mice, who are practically guest stars in the sequel, are the mainspring of all the action here, spending much more time befriending the rescuee. Their journey isn’t played out Indiana Jones-style, either, as in the follow-up. Here the mood is more cuddly than taut.
But not altogether cuddly. Like many of the most memorable Disney features, The Rescuers has a dark side. Until its very last scene, it keeps shy, orphaned Penny in the clutches of the cruel villain Madame Medusa. Determined to force the girl to retrieve a diamond from a dangerous bayou grotto — a spot too cramped for adult frames — Medusa scolds Penny with abusive tirades that strike a note of real danger. The whole movie is keyed to the bad vibes this volatile witch sends out; the sunny sequences are just rest stops between the sorrow, worry, and fear that mark Medusa’s scenes. The whole thing works like a reflex test for your emotional wiring, until Medusa finally gets hers.
As voiced by Geraldine Page (who played exasperating moms in The Trip to Bountiful and Interiors) and drawn by Milt Kahl, who gave Shere Khan an evil air in The Jungle Book, Medusa is Cruella De Vil redux. She’s spindly limbed (but with a bigger tush and saggy skin), she drives a roadster just like De Vil’s, and she tends to shout ”Shut up!” and ”You idiot!” the same way (preschoolers will pick up on those expressions pretty fast, if they don’t know them already). Medusa comes off as an original, though, while many of the other supporting Rescuers characters feel like carbon-copy throwbacks to other Disney movies. There’s no attempt to capture the style that illustrator Garth Williams brought to Miss Bianca and company in Margery Sharp’s original Rescuers books. Two toothy, cross-eyed alligators in the movie are identical to one in Peter Pan. A chorus of hick swamp critters recalls the townspeople in Robin Hood, and Penny is Jungle Book’s Mowgli with braids.
The most appealing mug in the movie belongs to tiny Evinrude, a balding, mustachioed dragonfly in a turtleneck sweater. He’s really buggy, not anthropomorphic, and he has a great repertoire of sputtery wing-buzz sounds. There’s also a senior citizen cat, Rufus, who moves uncannily like a real tabby, and a comically clumsy albatross, Orville. Still, the most thoroughly imagined characters are Bernard and Miss Bianca. Bob Newhart’s voice is perfectly matched to Bernard’s portly, hesitant body language, and Miss Bianca, an inspired takeoff on Eva Gabor (who supplies her voice), is all super-feminine chic. Decked out in smart little neck wraps and hats, she’s always ready with a makeup compact. Yet the strict gender roles seem less sexist than rooted in character; after all, Miss Bianca is far more adventurous than Bernard.
There is one flat-out botched element in The Rescuers, and it’s surprising for a Disney project: the bland, drippy score. The songs feel too much like interruptions, all but one of them sung as voice-overs instead of by a character; they’re completely removed from the action. (The most forgettable of the lot, ”Someone’s Waiting for You,” drew an Oscar nomination in 1978. Go figure.) The lyrics are pretty abstract for kids too, and they crash in just when you want the plot to keep moving forward. But then again, this is video, and there’s always the fast-forward button. As long as you use it whenever the strings well up, Rescuers rates an A-.