Remembering Rescue Rangers

by Wade Sampson, staff writer

“Sometimes some crimes go slipping through the cracks
“But these two gumshoes are picking up the slack
“There’s no case too big, no case too small
“When you need help just call
“Ch-ch-ch- Chip ‘n’ Dale, Rescue Rangers”

—Chip ‘n’ Dale’s Rescue Rangers theme song by Mark Mueller who also composed the theme song for Duck Tales.

I’ve always loved that theme song and have fond memories of babysitting my niece and watching the Disney Afternoon shows while waiting for my brother or his wife to come by and pick up their daughter after they got off work.

The concept of a block of syndicated Disney animation programming known as the "Disney Afternoon” didn’t become official until Tale Spin premiered but the success of Duck Tales on television prompted the Disney Company to look at other possible original animated television shows to produce.

I have just finished writing an article for a Japanese magazine about the animated feature The Rescuers and in the process rediscovered what a charming, warm-hearted film it was.

It also reminded me that, after Duck Tales, Disney was seriously considering producing a syndicated television series based on The Rescuers. However, when Jeffrey Katzenberg also re-discovered the simple delights of The Rescuers and that Disney still retained the rights to the stories, he green-lit the production of the first Disney animated film sequel The Rescuers Down Under and then some adjustments had to be made to the development of the property for television.

Supervising Story Editor Tad Stones and his team, including co-creator Alan Zaslove, took the core premise of small animals as heroes in the world of humans and came up with a program titled Metro Mice, a take-off on the title of the detective television series, Miami Vice.

The main characters would have been Kit Colby (a mouse wearing an Indiana Jones jacket and hat who was the adventurous leader of the team), Colt Chedderson (a burly Australian kangaroo rat and explosives expert), Gadget (a blonde female mouse who was an inventor), Chirp Sing (an Oriental cricket who loved baseball and martial arts), Camilla (a chameleon and the team secretary) and Eagle Eye (a near-sighted eagle who was the team’s lookout).

In an excellent three-part 2004 career interview with John Strike for Animation World Network (link), Stones remembered the pitch meeting for the show to Michael Eisner and  Katzenberg.

“They went: 'We love the idea of the show, but your main character doesn't have it.’ The meeting went on a little longer and we're saying Duck Tales is a big success, what other Disney characters can we work with? You don't want to do Mickey or Goofy, but there's Pluto and all that. Finally, I said, ‘There's Chip and Dale.’ Eisner said, ‘Great — put those guys in that show,’ and Jeffrey says ‘home run.’ That's why Chip and Dale's Rescue Rangers’got done. It changed our development, because now instead of one hero you have this dynamic, which was well established and gave us lots of stories about how they interacted with other characters. “

Chip inherited Kit Colby’s Indiana Jones attire and love of adventure and Dale, who was to be more lighthearted when it came to danger, was given a Hawaiian shirt—perhaps influenced by the then-popular television detective show Magnum, P.I. Colt Chedderson transformed into the cheese addicted Monterey Jack. Gadget was retained while the other animal characters were abandoned. Zipper the housefly inspired by Evinrude the dragonfly in the original animated film The Rescuers was added to perform similar functions such as flight and a power source.

There is a huge fandom for the series of the Disney Afternoon block and in particular, Chip and Dale’s Rescue Rangers A good place to start for more information about the show and its fannish culture would be at the Ranger Wiki (link).

On August 2, 1988, a movie-length version, Chip’n’Dale’s Rescue Rangers to the Rescue, was aired on the Disney Channel. It was structured so the film could be broken up into five episodes on the regular series, although when that did happen there were changes made so there were scenes both added and cut in the five episodes. “To the Rescue” is an “origin” story of how the Rescue Rangers were first formed and got their name and some backstory information on the characters, including the fact that Gadget was the daughter of one of Monty’s old friends who had died a year earlier.

On March 5, 1989, Season One of the show premiered on the Disney Channel with “Piratsy Under the Seas” as the first episode. Beginning September 1989, the series was added to The Disney Afternoon syndicated line-up.

On November 19, 1990, “They Shoot Dogs, Don't They?” was the last original episode to have its premiere with the show going into reruns of its 65 produced episodes for the next few years. In 1993, the show was taken off The Disney Afternoon block and replaced by Bonkers, an attempt by the Disney Company to create a Roger Rabbit-like character that was fully owned by Disney.

According to the original press release from 1989:

“‘Chip ’n’ Dale’s Rescue Rangers’ is a half-hour of broad comedy and adventure with large doses of mystery, featuring two of Disney’s most popular primary characters. Chip and Dale head a small, eccentric group of animal characters who monitor not only the ‘human’ world, but the animal community as well, solving mysteries wherever they may be. Although those cases may see small to start with, they invariably lead to crimes and mysteries of much greater proportions. The local police are either too busy for problems like these or they are out of police jurisdiction.”

As a writer, I am well aware that each animated cartoon series of the 1980s had a “story bible” and I have several in my personal collection since I occasionally submitted treatments for some non-Disney shows and even sold a few but not enough to make a living at doing so.

In that document, there was usually a description of the characters’ personalities, the elaboration of the premise of the series emphasizing what was and wasn’t appropriate and acceptable to that particular world, sample story concepts and more that would help a writer better understand the limitations in crafting a story for the series.

For example in the “World of the Rescue Rangers” story bible, here are three of the concepts that potential writers needed to understand before they could produce a story for consideration:

Human-Animal Relations: Both humans and animals play a part in the stories of the Rescue Rangers but the interaction is somewhat tricky. Many animals wear clothes and live in homes furnished by the castoff junk of the human world. They talk to one another and can understand human speech. But for the most part, they don’t talk to people. There could be exceptions: In a given story, a child might communicate with them but only in those episodes in which the child is included in much of the action. Most of the time humans just treat them as animals. This means if a man sees Chip running across a table, he’d say ‘Look, a chipmunk!’ not ‘Look, a chipmunk wearing a leather jacket and hat’. You’re right, it doesn’t make sense, but it works.

Animal Society: The animal community parallels the human world in many ways. They have their own bakers, toymakers and restaurant owners (most likely living in some niche in a human-sized bakery, toy store and restaurant). However, as Emerson said, ‘Foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds’. So there are also alley cats who eat out of garbage cans and animals who eat other animals for food. Animals live their lives by general common sense laws. Generally, there are no politicians or bureaucracies to deal with in the animal community. There are natural leaders and individuals who have built a power base for themselves, but their authority wouldn’t stretch past their immediate group of followers. And there is definitely no ‘King of the Beasts’ who all animals defer to. Of course, this doesn’t mean there aren’t individuals who aspire to such a position.

Habitats: An oak tree in the park across the street from the Police Station serves as home and headquarters for the Rescue Rangers. It has a conference room with a periscope, radio and telephone tap, a workshop which is large enough for Gadget to work on an assortment of crazy vehicles, a kitchen, a treetop, launchpad, and bedrooms for everyone. The place has a warm, cozy feel to it, even though it’s furnished by adapting human sized junk to animal needs. The utilization of humanity’s cast-offs is a trademark in all animal homes. Unless the story makes a special point of it, the various species of animals in our show live in the locales where you’d expect them to. City animals are mice, rats, birds and domesticated pets for the most part. Beavers, elk and black bears are not likely to be the next door neighbors of Chip and Dale unless the boys are on vacation. But the Rescue Rangers have adventures all over the world, so many stories could deal with the more exotic animals and geography.”

Of course, understanding the world is important but it is also important to understand the personalities of the characters and how they interact with this world. Here are some short excerpts from those character descriptions:

“The chipmunks run the group as a team. Chip is definitely the more organized and pragmatic chipmunk with a clear sense of duty. He dresses the part of an adventurer. He’s the braver of the two, if only because he usually recognizes the danger he’s facing, while Dale is more oblivious. Dale is more of the free spirit with a sense of wackiness that’s somewhere between Curly of the Three Stooges and Harpo Marx. Dale is not stupid but very gullible. Reality seems to warp around Dale. Dale focuses on the actions of the moment and not their consequences.”

“Monterey Jack is the raucous, backslapping muscle mouse of the Rescue Rangers, a gung-ho guy not fond of subtle tactics and strategies. Monterey has a touch of an Australian accent but really has an international background. His culinary weakness is cheese. Unfortunately, many times his ‘cheesetooth’ works against him.

“Somewhere on Monterey Jack’s travels he met Zipper, the definitely uncommon housefly. This little guy has the enthusiasm and energy of 10 men packed into his tiny frame and his loyalty is equaled only by Lassie and Rin Tin Tin. He also provides the power for some of Gadget’s tools and inventions. Between his frantic buzzing and pantomime, he has no trouble making his thoughts known.

“Gadget is a likeable chatterbox with the biggest intellect and warmest heart of all the Rescue Rangers. She is basically a shy person and only becomes extroverted when she’s working on or talking about one of her inventions. Her inventions are always constructed of human scaled components and are mechanical in nature. She doesn’t build anti-gravity machines, invisibility rays, shrinking beams, etc. She works more on the order of gliders, elevator shoes, climbing equipment, and soap box racers. Chip and Dale are crazy about Gadget and constantly compete for her attention. She doesn’t realize how cute she is, and blatant compliments make her blush. She joined because she sincerely wanted to use her talents to help people.

“Fat Cat, a felonious feline who has his claws into every scam and racket in town is the kingpin of animal criminals. He rarely partakes in violence himself but has no reservations about consigning someone to an excruciating fate at the hands of another. He constantly whines that fate is stacked against him; he’s plagued by incompetent underlings, shoddy workmanship and low grade caviar. But it’s all a cunning façade. Although Fat Cat schemes to steal objects valuable in the human world, he never deals with humans. He is strictly a criminal of the animal world.”

Again, these are only brief excerpts. The actual character descriptions for each character run to two or more pages but I thought readers would enjoy a “taste” of how these characters were perceived by those who worked on the series.

Growing up in Southern California, I was lucky enough in 1991 to see the very short-lived “Disney Afternoon Avenue” that was in the area in front of “it’s a small world” attraction at Disneyland and to see the live-action Videopolis Plane Crazy stage show where Rescue Rangers Chip and Dale, Launchpad McQuack, and Talespin Baloo try to retrieve a secret plane stolen by Don Karnage and Fat Cat. At the time, it never occurred to me that these simple joys would last only about a year and then disappear into the realm of yesterland. Yes, I took my niece with me to watch her animated heroes come alive although she was a little intimidated at first by their size and insisted on watching them from a safe distance.

My little niece is now in college and those carefree days of being babysat by her uncle who loved cartoons are long forgotten. However, when I hear that familiar theme song, I immediately remember those afternoons when it was truly a Disney Afternoon.