Remembering the Rescuers

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

Madame Medusa: "You must gain their confidence…make them like you."
Snoops: "How do you do that?"
Madame Medusa: "You FORCE them to like you, idiot!"

For many Disney animation fans, The Rescuers released June 22, 1977 is considered a neglected favorite that receives little attention, affection and documentation. Financially, it was more successful in many parts of the world like Germany and France than Star Wars that was also released the same year.

It is actually one of the darker (including the color palette), more melancholy Disney animated features and focuses primarily on the strong female characters like Miss Bianca, Madame Medusa, Penny and Ellie Mae with the male characters being well-intentioned bumblers for the most part.

Certainly after The Aristocats (1970) and Robin Hood (1973), it definitely re-established that the Disney Studio could produce quality animation, especially since it was the last film worked on by many of the fabled Nine Old Men to help train a new generation of animators including Don Bluth, Glen Keane, John Pomeroy, Ron Clements, Andy Gaskill, Andreas Deja and so many others who went on to become stars.

As Glen Keane recalled in 1992, "For most of the artists at Disney we always had the experience of being the best. You were the best artist in your family, the best in school, usually even the best at art school. So I get to Disney and I'm feeling pretty confident.

"My first picture was The Rescuers and I get assigned to Ollie (Johnston). He had me work on the orphan, Penny, drawing a small scene at the beginning of the film.

"I remember thinking that I had tackled all the challenges of drawing Penny so I showed her to Ollie. Now Ollie was always very complimentary. But then he said, 'Let me just make a few suggestions'. He put my drawing down and he put a clean sheet over the top of it.

"Then Ollie drew the most simple, beautiful drawing. He flipped back to my drawing and mine was all contorted and twisted and worked over. It was just painful. You realized you really didn't know much about drawing at all."

The Disney Studio had put in place a plan to do two animated features, one that would include the top animators and be the prestigious film and a second one that would be very simple and used to train new animators.

After Robin Hood (1973), the "A" team was to work on an adaptation of Paul Gallico's book titled Scruffy with Ken Anderson as the director. The story was about the monkeys of Gibraltar during World War II who were threatened by the Nazis.

When that production failed to come together, the top animators were shifted to the "B" production, The Rescuers, as a means to mentor new animators in the Disney approach.

The Rescuers was used to have top Disney animators train a new generation of animators.

For those who haven't viewed the film recently, the story is fairly simple and straight-forward and is filled with some delightful animal characters from the old cat Rufus (based on animator Ollie Johnston who did the animation) to Evinrude (voiced by Jimmy MacDonald who came out of retirement to do the character) to the threatening but occasionally-comical alligators Brutus and Nero.

The Rescue Aid Society, an international organization of mice that meets in the basement of the United Nations building, find a note in a bottle from a girl named Penny in need of help. Hungarian representative Miss Bianca (Eva Gabor) and shy janitor Bernard (Bob Newhart) are given the assignment to go and rescue her.

The girl has been kidnapped by pawn shop owner Madame Medusa and her bumbling henchman Mr. Snoops because of her small size. They hope to use her to retrieve the world's largest diamond known as the Devil's Eye hidden in a dark, narrow underground pirate cave in the southern Black Bayou (according to the map Medusa looks at in the film) that is constantly flooding.

The two mice engage Orville the albatross to fly them to the location where they enlist the help of the local animals including Evinrude the firefly to rescue Penny who is being guarded on an abandoned riverboat by Medusa's two huge pet alligators Brutus and Nero.

Penny and the mice find the diamond but Medusa takes it away and a wild melee ensues. Penny returns safely to New York where she donates the retrieved gem to the Smithsonian Museum and is finally adopted by a loving family. Bianca and Bernard are sent off on another adventure.

However, like most Disney animated features, the story went through many years of convoluted development, constantly changing and evolving.

The film is loosely based on the books The Rescuers and Miss Bianca by Margery Sharp that were just two in a nine book series about the characters that she wrote. When the film was released, all of the books ended up on bestsellers' lists.

The books had been optioned by Walt Disney himself who began development of an animated feature in 1962. Using the storyline from Miss Bianca the story would have involved the protagonists rescuing a Norwegian poet from a vaguely Eastern European prison known as The Black Castle where he had been unfairly imprisoned.

The story was changed so that the mice helped save a poet from a Cuban prison and escaped back to the U.S. under machine gun fire in an exciting boat chase in the Bahamas during a hurricane.

Walt was uncomfortable with the political implications in these versions. Storyman Burny Mattinson recalled, "Walt looked at it and said, 'Geez, it's too dark'. So the whole thing was shelved."

After many location changes, the film was finally set in the Devil's Bayou.

Director Wolfgang Reitherman remembered that a few years after Walt's death, the studio came up with another approach. "We had a premise where a penguin came up from the South Pole and was dumped in the zoo. In the zoo, he met the lighthearted and talented Willie the Bear.

"The penguin conned the bear into escaping and going with him down to the South Pole where the penguin had an old wreck that he used as a showplace. He charged all the penguins to come in and see the show.

"The bear was unhappy with being forced to perform and he sent a message in a bottle that the mice found. They were going to come down and try to rescue the bear."

Animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston once said they didn't want to "Draw all those white and black penguins especially against a stark Antarctic background."

Mattinson said, "Our problem was that the penguin wasn't formidable or evil enough for the audience to believe he would dominate the big bear. We struggled with that for a year or so. We changed the locale to somewhere in America and it was now a regular zoo and we tried to come up with something with the bear in the zoo and needing to be rescued but that didn't work either."

Storyman Vance Gerry said that Reitherman finally said, "I just want something like a kidnap like the Dalmatians were kidnapped. That's a simple story. That's what I want, a simple story'. He was frustrated and couldn't stand all the changes."

During a lecture at California Institute of the Arts, Reitherman told the audience, "So we went to another (Rescuers) book. In this other book, there's an old lady who was a very horrible old lady and she had this little girl and these mice rescued the little girl."

That character was the Diamond Duchess from Miss Bianca. Madame Medusa's pet alligators, Brutus and Nero, are based on the two bloodhounds, Tyrant and Torment in the same novel.

The bear from the South Pole version was retained and named "Louie" because his voice was to be performed by Louis Prima who had done King Louie in The Jungle Book (1967). Comedian Redd Foxx was cast as the voice of a lion. Phyllis Diller would have been some type of villainess.

Prima had recorded four songs written by Floyd Huddleston and much of his character's dialogue for the film, but he suffered a heart attack in 1973 and underwent surgery for a brain tumor in 1975, and never regained consciousness. The bear would have been Bernard and Bianca's connection to Penny.

Gerry said, "We developed the sequence where, while the two mice are searching for clues as to where Penny has been taken, they come across this bear who she had been friends with because the orphanage where Penny was living was near the zoo." In the final film, there is a quick scene where Bernard enters the zoo and hears a lion's roar that scares him away.

In the novels, Bernard and Bianca were unmarried but the Disney storymen thought that since they were detectives that perhaps they should be married like famed husband-and-wife sleuths Nick and Nora Charles from The Thin Man franchise. Reitherman told author Bob Thomas, "When the mice started developing, they were married, husband-and-wife detectives…a skilled team."

However, that concept presented a problem because since they knew each other so well and had worked successfully many times in the past, there were no problems, no conflict or potential for growth.

So it was decided to make them amateurs who were generally unfamiliar with each other. Being novices, they had to work harder and the audience rooted for them to succeed, especially for Bernard to prove himself to Bianca.

Since there was a need for a stronger villain, character designer Ken Anderson did a series of sketches of Cruella De Vil, now wearing alligator inspired clothing.

He felt that audiences loved the character and that she was an experienced kidnapper. However, others felt it was the wrong type of sequel for the character and audiences would expect to see the Dalmatians.

Character designer Ken Anderson did a series of sketches of Cruella De Vil as a possible villain for the film.

So a similar cocktail-party sophisticate character was developed who was avaricious, vain, obsessive and would stop at nothing to get what she wanted.

Lead animator Milt Kahl did some sketches based on the vocal performance of actress Geraldine Page for the character. Mattinson said, "Milt loved Geraldine Page. He got such a kick out of her and he started doing these drawings of her and I think everybody was just knocked out by her performance and by what Milt was drawing."

Page was such a professional that she was able to do all her lines in a single take. Kahl based the design of the character on his then wife, Phyllis Bounds, Walt's niece. They married in 1968, constantly fought and got divorced in January 1978.

Kahl had a cruel, fiery temper and was highly competitive. When Bounds took up tap dancing and piano, he took them up as well and worked hard to be better than she was. Bounds was a strong woman, but got tired of being his wife especially when he became critical of her excessive drinking so they were estranged when Kahl worked on Medusa.

Kahl later claimed that his favorite character to animate was the villainous Madame Medusa because he based much of her flamboyance and "aging sexpot attitude," as he stated, on his wife. He ended up doing almost all the animation for the character himself.

Animator Jane Baer, who knew both of them, told historian John Canemaker, "Phyllis wore boots. Medusa wore the same boots. In that scene where (Medusa's) pulling off the eyelashes, I said, 'That's Phyllis!' You just knew."

However, Kahl did small tributes to Cruella including Medusa's wild driving in a convertible, her constant belittling of her minion, explosive temper and more.

Other changes occurred as well. The swamp critters were originally supposed to be members of the Rescue Aid Society who constantly marched and drilled instead of just local residents who wanted to help. Their leader was supposed to be a singing bull frog voiced by Phil Harris but the character was cut from the story.

Scenes of young rescue Aid Society mouse scouts working in the Society's headquarters were reduced to a single scout blowing a fanfare.

Madame Medusa's hideout was originally going to be a pirate fortress and later a fashionable Art Deco mansion. Gerry said, "I can remember drawing it myself and I thought I was ever so clever."

Roy Wilson sketched an old riverboat and Ken Anderson liked it so much that he refined it and it seemed perfect for the island off the coast of Florida.

After four years of production, Mattinson remembered Reitherman coming to him and saying, "How come after four years this story's so simple? Why didn't we think of it before?"

The film was four years in the making, with the combined talents of 250 people, including 40 animators who produced approximately 330,000 drawings; there were 14 sequences with 1,039 separate scenes and 750 backgrounds.

The film was re-released in theaters in 1983 and 1989. It was first released on video in 1992. Nearly three and a half million copies of the VHS version of the film were recalled by Disney in 1999 due to the discovery of a post production addition of a brief blurry nonconsecutive two frame (out of 110,000 frames in the film) inserted image of a topless woman in a window, which appears about 28 minutes into the movie as Bernard and Bianca fly through the city with Orville.

The film was so popular it was almost made into a television series but was replaced by Chip'n'Dale's Rescue Rangers instead in 1989 when Jeffrey Katzenberg decided to use the options on the book series to produce the very first Disney theatrical animated feature to have a sequel, The Rescuers Down Under (1990).

The Rescuers won a Special Citation Award from the National Board of Review in the United States "for restoring and upgrading the art of animation."

The film was nominated for an Oscar for Someone's Waiting for You as Best Song, written by Sammy Fain, Carol Connors, and Ayn Robbins. It was the last time a Disney animated feature would be nominated for any Oscar until The Little Mermaid (1989).

Composer Sammy Fain had written a song for the film entitled The Need to Be Loved. When Ayn Robbins and Carol Connors were brought into the production to do the songs, Reitherman asked them to write new lyrics for the tune since he loved it so much. The original version featured lyrics by Paul Francis Webster. Two demo recordings of Webster's original lyrics still exist.

A calendar on Madame Medusa's back room wall states Thursday the 12th, meaning that finding the diamond and the rescue took place on Friday the 13th.

Mr. Snoops is a caricature of animation historian John Culhane who was affectionately nicknamed "Mr. Snoops" for his investigative work snooping around the studio looking for information for his magazine articles. The animators tricked the always helpful writer into posing and he did not discover that Kahl had caricatured him until he saw the final film and was overjoyed.

In 2016, it was announced that Tom Ford was signed to do a live action remake of The Rescuers to be released in 2018. Like many announced Disney films, this one disappeared quietly, never to be heard about again.

Characters from The Rescuers appeared at the Disney theme parks for a few years after the film debuted.

The Rescuers is not considered a classic, innovative film. It is a modest production that accomplished what it set out to do despite some budget restrictions (e.g. the whites of some characters' eyes are not filled in) and pleased critics and audiences desperate for this type of solid family entertainment.

Some of the costumed characters appeared at Disneyland and Walt Disney World for a few years after the film's release but have not been seen in decades. A small handful of merchandise survives but never sparked the collector mania of other films.

The film was the official transition from the Old Guard of animators to the New Guard that was going to be led by Don Bluth. It is considered the film that changed the approach of Disney animation that eventually led to classics like The Little Mermaid.



  1. By carolinakid

    Great article. I was 17 at the time The Rescuers was originally released and going into my senior year of high school. The film isn’t one of my favorites as the Walt era films are but I always felt Medusa was a fabulous villainess and she’s my favorite character in the film.

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