Animation Cel-ebration
January 16, 2023 posted by Michael Lyons

It All Started With a Mouse… Or, In This Case, Mice: Looking Back at “The Rescuers”

It had been four years. And, for Disney fans, in 1977, four long years since the last full-length animated feature to come from the studio. That had been 1973’s Robin Hood, and fans were ready for something new. As it turns out, Disney artists were ready for something new, too.

And that was going to be The Rescuers. After four years of production, during an unsure decade following Walt Disney’s death in 1966, a new generation of animators had made a film for a new generation of audiences.

Last summer marked the 45th anniversary of The Rescuers and, sure, it was the same summer as Star Wars, but there was still excitement brewing around the release of this latest Disney animated feature for so many eager Disney enthusiasts.

The film tells the tale of two mice from the Rescue Aid Society, Bernard (Bob Newhart) and Bianca (Eva Gabor), who must travel to the Bayou to rescue a young girl named Penny (Michelle Stacy) who is being held captive by the villainous Madame Medusa (Geraldine Page).

I wrote a blog post on the making of the film just five years ago for the 40th, which can be enjoyed here.

To add to that, and celebrate the film’s 45th, here is a top ten list of some Rescuers facts:

10) Disney’s The Rescuers is based on a series of books by author Margery Sharp. Sharp wrote nine Rescuers books. The first was The Rescuers in 1959, and the last was 1978’s Bernard into Battle.

9) The books were optioned by Walt Disney as far back as 1962, and the studio’s earliest adaptation involved the Rescue Aid Society mice helping a poet escape from The Black Castle. In his book, Disney Lost and Found, author Charles Solomon notes: “The Studio artists added a shootout between the guards and the mice riding a stolen gunboat to punch up the escape from the grim fortress. Artist Burny Mattinson remembers that Walt rejected this version as ‘too much like World War Two.’”

8) 101 Dalmatians’ Cruella DeVil almost made a reappearance in The Rescuers. In their book, The Disney Villain, legendary Disney animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston admit that they decided not to use Cruella as the film’s villain, because they “…preferred not to make a sequel to any of our pictures.”

7) Actor Joe Flynn provided the voice of Mr. Snoops, Madame Medusa’s sidekick. Sadly, by the time The Rescuers came out, Flynn had passed away (in 1974), but he had been no stranger to Disney, as he had played in several live-action films for the studio. Among these were the Kurt Russell “Dexter Riley” comedies, The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes (1969), Now You See Him, Now You Don’t (1972), and The Strongest Man in the World (1975).

6) Another interesting note about Mr. Snoops, the character was designed as a caricature of author and Disney historian John Culhane. Culhane (who passed away in 2015) wrote many articles on Disney and authored the books on the making of Fantasia, Aladdin, and Fantasia 2000. For the latter, he was caricatured, once again, as the character of “Flying John” in the “Rhapsody in Blue” segment.

5) Another caricature? The character of Rufus, the cat, was modeled after Ollie Johnston, who served as the supervising animator for the character. In his book, Walt Disney’s Nine Old Men & The Art of Animation, author John Canemaker writes how Johnston also brought tremendous heart to the character, calling the scene between Penny and Rufus the film’s “emotional high point.”

4) The film’s songs in The Rescuers were written by the songwriting team of Carol Connors and Ayn Robbins. The year before the film’s release, they had a huge hit when they collaborated with composer Bill Conti on the famous “Gonna Fly Now” theme from Rocky.

3) Two other familiar “Disney voices” can be heard in The Rescuers. George Lindsey, who had provided the voice of Lafayette, the dog in The Aristocats (1970), and Trigger the vulture in 1973’s Robin Hood, was the voice of Deadeye, the rabbit. And John Fiedler, the recognizable voice of Piglet in the Winnie the Pooh shorts, was Deacon Owl in The Rescuers.

2) When The Rescuers received its first re-release, it was in December 1983, when it was paired with the then all-new Mickey’s Christmas Carol. The poster for this double bill, at the time, read: “A Dickens of a Package for the Holiday Season.”

1) The Rescuers was a transition film between the generation of animators who had worked with Walt Disney on the studio’s classic movies and a new generation of animators who had joined the studio during a training program. When the film opened on June 22, 1977, many felt that the film signaled a bright future for the studio. Author Leonard Maltin summed this up best in his book, The Disney Films: “The Rescuers was a breath of fresh air for everyone who had been concerned about the future of animation at Walt Disney’s. Here for the first time in years, was a feature film that had the humor and imagination and heart expertly woven into a story structure… with a delightful cast of characters.”


  • Poor Joe Flynn. Disney’s family comedies of the 1960s and ’70s generally eschewed the sort of slapstick shenanigans that could result in someone getting hurt. Getting wet was another matter entirely, and in his usual role as villain or stooge Flynn was very often on the receiving end of such gags. Hardly a scene goes by in which he isn’t drenched by a spilled drink, sprayed with a hose, inundated by an ocean wave, or otherwise waterlogged. In at least one film — I think it’s “Million Dollar Duck” — he gets pushed into a swimming pool. He even hosted the “Water Sports” episode of The Mouse Factory, with predictable results.

    Ever since I found out that Joe Flynn was found dead in his swimming pool at the age of 49, these hijinks have been rather less amusing for me.

    I don’t know if this was done consciously out of respect for the dead, but Flynn’s Mr. Snoops is one of the few characters in “The Rescuers” to go to Devil’s Bayou without ever falling into it, as would normally happen to Joe Flynn in a Disney movie. Well, possibly he did when the riverboat blew up, but we never see it happen.

  • I should mentioned that co-director (and one of the “Nine Old Men”) John Lounsbery also passed away over a year before the movie was released. I thought his co-direction helped the film as there as less side-tracking in plot than the previous two movies (which co-director Wolfgang Reithman directed solo).

  • After the almost rebelliously unexceptional “Robin Hood,” just about anything would have been a step up. And of course in those days a new Disney animated feature was still a big deal since they came along one every three or four years and everyone hoped for vestiges of the old magic.

  • I remember first seeing this when it came out on VHS following it’s early 1990s reissue (I think it was next in line after the Jungle Book in 1990/91). I particuarly remembered the cold opening with the thunderclap under the Buena Vista title card and the slow build to the first of the opening credits (what animal makes that sound we hear right when we first see the riverboat?) and then that haunting song as the credits roll. Almost more than anything else in the film, that opening hooks you.

  • The Rescurers is my favorite non-Golden Age animated film. A masterpiece.

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