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:
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.”