Building Entertainment: The Animated Films of the Walt Disney Studio. The Rescuers

Welcome to my weekly discussion of the animated films of the Walt Disney Studio. I’m proceeding mostly chronologically. The title comes from a quote from Walt, “I never called my work an ‘art’ It’s part of show business, the business of building entertainment.”

Title: The Rescuers

Year: 1977

Source materials : a series of books by Margery Sharp, most notably The Rescuers and Miss Bianca.

Budget: $7.5 million

Box office: $71.2 million

Plot: In an abandoned river boat in Devil’s Bayou, a young orphan named Penny drops a message in a bottle, containing a plea for help. The bottle is found by the Rescue Aid Society, an international mouse organization inside the United Nations. The Hungarian representative, Miss Bianca, volunteers to accept the case and chooses Bernard, a stammering janitor, as her co-agent.


The two visit Morningside Orphanage, where Penny lived, and meet an old cat named Rufus. He tells them about a woman named Madame Medusa who once tried to lure Penny into her car and may have succeeded in abducting Penny.


The mice travel to Medusa’s pawn shop, where they discover that she and her partner, Mr. Snoops, are on a quest to find the world’s largest diamond, the Devil’s Eye. The mice learn that Medusa and Mr. Snoops are currently at the Devil’s Bayou with Penny, whom they have indeed kidnapped and placed under the guard of two trained alligators, Brutus and Nero.


With the help of an albatross named Orville and a dragonfly named Evinrude, 1 the mice follow Medusa to the bayou. There, they learn that Medusa plans to force Penny to enter a small hole that leads down into a pirates’ cave where the Devil’s Eye is located. Bernard and Miss Bianca find Penny and devise a plan of escape.


They send Evinrude to alert the local animals, who loathe Medusa, but Evinrude is delayed when he is forced to take shelter from a flock of bats. The following morning, Medusa and Mr. Snoops send Penny down into the cave to find the gem.


Unbeknownst to Medusa, Miss Bianca and Bernard are hiding in Penny’s skirt pocket. The three soon find the Devil’s Eye within a pirate skull. As Penny pries the mouth open with a sword, the mice push it out from within, but soon the oceanic tide rises and floods the cave. The three barely manage to retrieve the diamond and escape.

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Medusa hides it in Penny’s teddy bear while holding Penny and Snoops at gunpoint. When she trips over a cable set as a trap by Bernard and Bianca, Medusa loses the bear to Penny, who runs away with it. The local animals arrive at the riverboat and aid Bernard and Bianca in trapping Brutus and Nero, then set off Snoops’s fireworks to create more chaos.

Meanwhile, Penny and the mice commandeer Medusa’s swamp-mobile, a makeshift airboat. Medusa unsuccessfully pursues them, using Brutus and Nero as water-skis, and is left clinging to the boat’s smoke stacks as Snoops escapes on a raft and laughs at Medusa, while the irritated Brutus and Nero turn on her and circle below.

Back in New York, the Rescue Aid Society watch a news report of how Penny found the Devil’s Eye, which has been given to the Smithsonian Institution, and how she has been adopted. The meeting is interrupted when Evinrude arrives with a call for help, sending Bernard and Bianca on a new adventure.

Background: In 1962, the film began development with its initial treatment developed from the first book. However, Walt Disney shelved the project as he was unhappy with the political overtones. The project was revived in the early 1970s as a project for the young animators, led by Don Bluth, as the studio would alternate between full-scale “A pictures” and smaller, scaled-back “B pictures” with simpler animation. Jazz singer Louis Prima 2 was to voice the character named Louis the Bear, and this version was to feature six songs sung by Prima. However, in 1975, following headaches and episodes of memory loss, Prima discovered he had a stem brain tumor, and the project was scrapped.


The writers had considered developing Bernard and Bianca into married professional detectives, though they decided that leaving the characters as unmarried novices was more romantic. For the supporting characters, a pint-sized swampmobile for the mice – a leaf powered by a dragonfly – was created. As they developed the comedic potential of displaying his exhaustion through buzzing, the dragonfly grew from an incidental into a major character. Also, the local swamp creatures were organized into a dedicated home guard that drilled and marched incessantly. However, the writers evolved them into a volunteer group of helpful little bayou creatures.

Changes from the Source Material: The first book centered on a poet held captive by a totalitarian government. The second book, Miss Bianca takes place in the Antarctic, with its story focusing on a captured polar bear forced into performing in shows Penny was inspired by Patience, the orphan in the novel. The character, Mandrake was adapted into Mr. Snoops 3 Brutus and Nero are based on the two bloodhounds, Tyrant and Torment in the novels.

Animation: Ever since One Hundred and One Dalmatians, animation for theatrical Disney animated films was done by xerography, which had only been able to produce black outlines, but had been improved for the cel artists to use a medium-grey toner in order to create a softer-looking line. At the end of production, it marked the last joint effort by veterans Milt Kahl, Ollie Johnston, and Frank Thomas, and the first Disney film worked on by Don Bluth as an animator, instead of an assistant animator. Other animators who stepped up during production were Glen Keane, Ron Clements, and Andy Gaskill.

Don Bluth worked as an assistant animator on  Sleeping Beauty  and  The Sword in the Stone. He worked on Robin Hood  and  The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh  and became a directing animator on  The Rescuers, Pete’s Dragon, and  The Fox and the Hound. After leaving Disney, he created  The Secret of NIMH. This led to creating An American Tail, the first animated feature to out-gross a Disney film for Steven Spielberg . He followed it up two years later with The Land Before Time. All Dogs Go to Heaven, and  Rock-A-Doodle followed. 20th Century Fox offered him the director’s chair for  Anastasia.



Madame Medusa’s appearance was based on animator Milt Kahl’s ex-wife, whom he did not particularly like. This was Kahl’s last film for the studio, and he wanted his final character to be his best; he was so insistent on perfecting Madame Medusa that he ended up doing almost all the animation for the character himself.

Songs: The songs were written by Sammy Fain, Carol Connors, and Ayn Robbins, and performed by Shelby Flint.

  • “The Journey” (also known as “Who Will Rescue Me?”) – Sung during the film’s opening credits
  • “Rescue Aid Society” – Sung by the Chairman during the R.A.S. meeting. It’ss the only song sung by the characters
  • “Faith is a Bluebird” – a poem recited by Rufus and partially by Penny in a flashback the old cat has to when he last saw the small orphan girl.
  • “Tomorrow is Another Day” – Sung as Bernard and Bianca travel to Devil’s Bayou upon Orville’s back.
  • “Someone’s Waiting for You” – Sung as Penny begins to lose her faith, after Medusa cruelly speaks to her.

Voice Cast: Bob Newhart as Bernard. Stand up commedian and the star of two well-recieved television sitcoms. 4 He appeared in Elf and won an Emmy for The Big Bang Theory. Eva Gabor as Miss Bianca. She was Duchess in The Aristocats, and starred on Green Acres.

Geraldine Page as Madame Medusa. She was a multiple Tony nominee, a Golden Globe and Emmy winner, and an eight-time Oscar nominee, 5 before winning the Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance as Carrie Watts in The Trip to Bountiful.


Joe Flynn as Mr. Snoops. He was best known for his role in the television show McHale’s Navy.6 Jim Jordan, who starred as Fibber McGee, as Orville, and John McIntire as Rufus. Pat Buttram and Jeanette Nolan play Luke and Ellie Mae.

Veteran sound effects master James MacDonald came out of retirement to create Evinrude the dragonfly.7


Critical Reception: The Rescuers was successful upon its original theatrical release earning $48 million at the box office and becoming Disney’s most successful film to that date. In his book, The Disney Films, film historian Leonard Maltin refers to The Rescuers as “a breath of fresh air for everyone who had been concerned about the future of animation at Walt Disney’s,” praises its “humor and imagination and [that it is] expertly woven into a solid story structure […] with a delightful cast of characters.” Finally, he declares the film “the most satisfying animated feature to come from the studio since 101 Dalmatians.” He also briefly mentions the ease with which the film surpassed other animated films of its time.

The film’s own animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston stated in their website that The Rescuers had been their return to a film with heart and also considered it their best film without Walt Disney.

Legacy: The Rescuers was the first Disney animated film to have a sequel. After three successful theatrical releases of the original film, The Rescuers Down Under was released theatrically on November 16, 1990.

My take: I have said before that I like the idea of an animal society coexisting alongside our society. I like the drawings used for the opening credits. One of the things I like is that the main characters are written with the personalities of the voice actors in mind, to the point that you can’t imagine anyone other than Newhart and Gabor in the roles. I was disappointed to see rotoscoping in the UN sequence, live action fireworks, and recycled animation (Orville’s take off). Madame Medusa may not be the most evil villian, but she’s certainly the trashiest. There are some fun sequences, such as the organ scene, and the final escape.

Next Week: The Fox and the Hound