Disney spent the 1970s in the doldrums, both financially and creatively. The passing of Walt Disney, and the retirement of Golden Age directors like Clyde Geronomi, Wilfred Jackson and Hamilton Luske, had left it in the hands of a new generation, who were taking on an established brand rather than blazing a trail of their own.
This new generation of animators and managers were faced with a dilemma. Should they try something radically different, and move the Disney brand forward at the risk of losing their current audience? Or should they seek to consolidate the symbols and motifs that had brought the company success, at the cost of blatantly re-treading old ground? Unsurprisingly, they opted for the latter - and The Rescuers is one of the more mediocre fruits of their decision.
From a technical standpoint, The Rescuers is a subtle improvement on the style of animation first utilised on 101 Dalmatians. In the sixteen years between the two films, the Xeroxing technique had been refined to pick up greater detail in the original drawings, as well as enabling multiple colours to be replicated. From an aesthetic point of view this allows for a smoother style of animation, which suits the characters particularly when it comes to their movement.
But despite this incremental improvement, the animation as a whole still looks tired. Despite the very best intentions of John Lounsbery, Wolfgang Reitherman and Art Stevens, the colours still look pale and faded, and characters such as Madame Medusa aren't drawn with believable proportions. The opening credits could have been effective if they showed Penny's message in a bottle floating all the way across the world. But instead we get a series of matte paintings, decently drawn in their own right but with no sense of urgency to them.
What's equally depressing is how derivative the film is. We have gotten used to Disney using the same voice actors on multiple productions - for instance, Betty Lou Gerson voices both Cruella DeVil and Madame Mim (The Sword in the Stone). But like its predecessor Robin Hood, this film is replete with examples of the company shamelessly ripping itself off, raiding its back catalogue of recognisable scenes and characters, and attempting unsuccessfully to pass them off as something new.
The most obvious example of this blatant rehashing is Medusa, who is essentially a badly-drawn version of Cruella DeVil. Her motivation is slightly different, but she's still essentially an over-the-top pantomime bad guy who delights in the pain of others. Snoops and the alligators fill in for Horace and Jasper, while on the heroes' side the community of yokels are effectively standing in for the Colonel, Sergeant Tibbs and the other dogs along the Twilight Bark.
The imagery in The Rescuers borrows just as obviously from past glories. The shot of the star shining over the characters is taken from the ending of Pinocchio, and the wide shots of the deer roaming seem to have been lifted straight from Bambi. There are also clear nods to Snow White in the use of bluebirds and in particular the retrieving of the Devil's Eye from the skull. The animators were clearly trying to replicate the brief scare involving the raven hiding in the skull, and then proceeding to drag it out for as long as possible.
In my review of The Pirates! In An Adventure with Scientists!, I commented that "the difference between a convention and a cliché is the emotional response that surrounds it: if we are enjoying ourselves, it's a convention, and if not, it's a cliché." You'd have good cause for defending The Rescuers, up to a point, if it was sufficiently entertaining to overcome its overly familiar nature. Unfortunately, on this occasion we are dealing with cliché, since the story of The Rescuers is deeply underwhelming.
The best way to illuminate the problem is to compare the film to one of its contemporaries, The Great Mouse Detective. Both films follow in the Disney tradition of having mice as protagonists, and both imagine a mouse world running in parallel to humans with broadly the same social structures. The difference is that The Great Mouse Detective lays down the rules very early on about the relationship and level of interaction between the mouse world and human world: just as in Lady and the Tramp, the most we encounter of the humans is their lower limbs, voice or silhouette.
The mouse world that The Rescuers creates simply doesn't feel as authentic or as well thought-out. You might argue that since The Great Mouse Detective was drawing on both the stories and the reputation of Sherlock Holmes, there was more room for manoeuvre when it came to imagine his mouse equivalent. But even with all the effort made to adapt Margery Sharp's novels, the rules are never laid down to such a degree that we accept them enough to engage with the story.
We can accept that the Rescue Aid Society exists, and that mice come from all over the world to attend its meetings. We can also accept that different animals would interact to some extent, such as an albatross offering to fly the mice to their destination. But the extent of communication between mice and humans isn't really established. Considering how depressed Penny has been in her search for the diamond, she reacts surprisingly well to the prospect of talking mice, and the film is never clear as to whether the adults can understand them too.
Because the plot is so thin, a great deal of The Rescuers feels like desperate and obvious padding. The supporting cast of animal yokels don't have enough to do in order to warrant so many of them; as in Robin Hood, you feel that most of them are there to fill out the frame. The banter between Snoops and Medusa is very repetitive, and Penny's aborted escape attempts feel like filler since she is so easily recaptured.
In terms of the performances, they're all pretty standard or forgettable. Eva Gabor (sister of the socialite Zsa Zsa Gabor) is a little unintelligible, but her character is sympathetic enough to sustain our interest. Bob Newhart shambles through most of his lines, as does Joe Flynn in his final film role. As for Geraldine Page, she's passingly decent as Medusa, if only to see how far over-the-top she chooses to go.
The only memorable moments in The Rescuers are a few pockets of welcome yet bizarrely out-of-place energy. Like the last 20 minutes of 101 Dalmatians, these are moments in which the film appears to go into overdrive as the colours brighten and the pace picks up. The best of these are Evinrude the dragonfly being chased by bats, and the running joke about the characters drinking moonshine (or whatever the animal equivalent is). These moments may be the product of Don Bluth's involvement, since they resemble the more appealingly ramshackle nature of his characters and stories.
For the most part, however, The Rescuers is a deeply dull disappointment. It epitomises all the problems with Disney before the Renaissance, skimping on genuine creativity and pushing the envelope in favour of recycling what was successful in the past. Even with its improved technical aspects and a handful of memorable moments, it still looks and feels so pale and weary. You won't need to be rescued from its content, but the company that produced it would soon next a rescue of their own.