Suspended Animation #372
For many Disney animation fans, The Rescuers (1977) is considered a neglected favorite that receives little attention, affection and documentation.
It is actually one of the darker (including the color palette), more melancholy Disney animated features and focuses primarily on the strong female characters like Miss Bianca, Madame Medusa, Penny and Ellie Mae with the male characters being well-intentioned bumblers for the most part.
Certainly after The Aristocats (1970) and Robin Hood (1973), it definitely re-established that the Disney Studio could produce quality animation, especially since it was the last film where the fabled Nine Old Men worked on it to train a new generation of animators including Don Bluth, Glen Keane, John Musker, Ron Clements, Andreas Deja and so many others.
However, like most Disney animated features, the story went through many years of convoluted development, constantly changing and evolving.
The film is loosely based on the books The Rescuers and Miss Bianca by Margery Sharp that were just two in a nine book series about the characters that she wrote.
The books had been optioned by Walt Disney himself who began development of an animated feature in 1962. Using the storyline from Miss Bianca the story would have involved the protagonists rescuing a Norwegian human poet from a gloomy, vaguely Eastern European prison where he had been unfairly imprisoned.
The story was changed so that the mice helped save a poet from a Cuban prison and escaped back to the U.S. under machine gun fire in an exciting boat chase in the Bahamas during a hurricane.
Walt was uncomfortable with the political implications in these versions. Storyman Burny Mattinson recalled, “Walt looked at it and said, ‘Geez, it’s too dark’. So the whole thing was shelved.”
Director Wolfgang Reitherman remembered that a few years after Walt’s death, the studio came up with another approach. “We had a premise where a penguin came up from the South Pole and was dumped in the zoo. In the zoo, he met a performing bear named Willie.
“The penguin conned the bear into escaping and going with him down to the South Pole where the penguin had an old wreck that he used as a showplace. He charged all the penguins to come in and see the show.
“The bear was unhappy with being forced to perform and he sent a message in a bottle that the mice found. They were going to come down and try to rescue the bear.”
Animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston once said they didn’t want to “Draw all those white-and-black penguins especially against a stark Antarctic background.”
Mattinson said, “Our problem was that the penguin wasn’t formidable or evil enough for the audience to believe he would dominate the big bear. We struggled with that for a year or so. We changed the locale to somewhere in America and it was now a regular zoo and we tried to come up with something with the bear in the zoo and needing to be rescued but that didn’t work either.”
Storyman Vance Gerry said that Reitherman finally complained, “I just want something like a kidnap like the Dalmatians were kidnapped. That’s a simple story. That’s what I want, a simple story’. He was frustrated and couldn’t stand all the changes.”
During a lecture at California Institute of the Arts, Reitherman told the audience, “So we went to another (Rescuers) book. In this other book, there’s an old lady who was a very horrible old lady and she had this little girl and these mice rescued the little girl.” That character was the Diamond Duchess from Miss Bianca.
The bear from the South Pole version was retained and renamed “Louie” because his voice was to be performed by Louis Prima who had done King Louie in The Jungle Book (1967). Comedian Redd Foxx would have voiced a lion character. The bear would have been Bernard and Bianca’s connection to Penny.
Gerry said, “We developed the sequence where, while the two mice are searching for clues as to where Penny has been taken, they come across this bear who she had been friends with beause the orphange where Penny lived was near the zoo.”
In the novels, Bernard and Bianca were unmarried but the Disney storymen thought that since they were detectives that perhaps they should be married like famed husband-and-wife sleuths Nick and Nora Charles from The Thin Man franchise. Reitherman told author Bob Thomas, “When the mice started developing, they were married, husband-and-wife detectives….a skilled team.”
However, that concept presented a story problem because since they knew each other so well and had worked successfully many times in the past, there were no problems, no conflict or potential for growth.
So it was decided to make them amateurs who were generally unfamiliar with each other. Being novices, they had to work harder and the audience rooted for them to succeed, especially for Bernard to prove himself to Bianca.
Since there was a need for a stronger villian, character designer Ken Anderson did a series of sketches of Cruella De Vil, now wearing alligator inspired clothing. He felt that audiences loved the character and that she was an experienced kidnapper.
However, others felt it shouldn’t be a sequel and audiences would expect to see the Dalmatians so another cocktail-party sophisticated character who was vain, had a temper, was avaricous and obssessed was developed.
Lead animator Milt Kahl did some sketches based on the vocal performance of actress Geraldine Page. Mattinson said, “Milt loved Geraldine Page. He got such a kick out of her and he started doing these drawings of her and I think everybody was just knocked out by her performance and by what Milt was drawing.”
Page was such a professional that she nailed the script in just one take. Kahl based the design of the character on his wife, Phyllis Bounds who he married in 1968 and divorced January 1978.
Kahl had a cruel, fiery temper and was highly competitive. When Bounds took up tap dancing and piano, he took them up as well and worked hard to be better than she was. Bounds was a strong woman, but got tired of being his wife especially when he became critical of her drinking.
Kahl later claimed that his favorite character to animate was the villainous Madame Medusa in The Rescuers (1977) because he based much of her flamboyance and “aging sexpot attitude” on his wife. He ended up doing almost all the animation for the character himself.
Animator Jane Baer, who knew them both told historian John Canemaker, “Phyllis wore boots. Medusa wore the same boots. In that scene where (Medusa’s) pulling off the eyelashes, I said, ‘That’s Phyllis!’ You just knew.”
However, Kahl did small tributes to Cruella including Medusa’s wild driving in a convertible.
Other changes occurred as well. The swamp critters were originally supposed to be members of the Rescue Aid Society who spent their time marching and drilling instead of just local residents who wanted to help. Their leader was a singing bullfrog to be voiced by Phil Harris who was later cut from the film.
Scenes of young rescue Aid Society mouse scouts working in the Society’s headquarters were reduced to a single scout blowing a fanfare.
Madame Medusa’s hideout was originally going to be a pirate fortress and later a fashionable Art Deco mansion. Gerry said, “I can remember drawing it myself and I thought I was ever so clever.”
Roy Wilson sketched an old riverboat and Ken Anderson liked it so much that he refined it as Medusa’s lair.
After four years of production, Mattinson remembered Reitherman coming to him and saying, “How come after four years this story’s so simple? Why didn’t we think of it before?”