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The Rescuers


After receiving a panicked plea for help (in the form of an old fashioned message in a bottle) from an orphan named Penny (Michelle Stacy), The Rescue Aid Society, a tiny, mouse-run multi-country organization beneath the United Nations, springs into action. Hungarian representative Miss Bianca (Eva Gabor) volunteers herself and a shy assistant named Bernard (Bob Newhart) to journey to ‘The Devil's Bayou’ to solve the case. Soon they find the kidnapped girl in the evil clutches of Madame Medusa (Geraldine Page), her clumsy business partner Mr. Snoops (Joe Flynn) and her loyal alligator henchmen, Brutus and Nero.

 Rescuers and The Rescuers Down Under, The
The Rescuers gets my vote for the most undervalued animated feature in the Disney canon. It’s not exactly ‘underrated,’ as I’ve never heard a particularly negative reaction to it in my life, it’s just easily forgotten by the mainstream in favour of the original classics, like Snow White and Cinderella, or flashy, modern classics, like The Little Mermaid and The Lion King. Disney historians and a relatively small gang of fans (myself included) tend to be the only people that really recognize the archival value of the film. The Rescuers was released in the middle of a very dark period in Disney’s history, both in terms of popularity and quality of animated output. Following the success of The Jungle Book in 1967, the last film to have personal input from Walt Disney himself, they released two of their worst and cheapest productions – The Aristocats (1970) and Robin Hood (1973). History has been kinder to both films than expected, but for some time they were considered massive failures (neither is really very good). The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh was generally better received, but The Rescuers was 1977’s bigger animated release (including a huge opening weekend box-office take) and, briefly, Disney was back on the rise. But The Rescuers proved instead to be only an island, not a true return to form and the following decade-plus was pocked with more money-losing mediocrities like, The Fox and the Hound (1981), The Black Cauldron (1985), The Great Mouse Detective (1986), and Oliver & Company (1988). Finally, in 1989, The Little Mermaid was released and started a second Golden Age of Disney animation.

I understand the criticism occasionally levied against the film’s darker tone and frightening bits with the serious threat of child abuse. There are definitely some things about the film that mark it as more adult-oriented than most Disney animated features; but that’s not really a problem, considering the constant growth of Disney’s audience and the fact that adults continue watching them into their older age. Lady and the Tramp and 101 Dalmatians are the only other two movies in the studio’s Silver Age that match it  in terms of ‘adult’ drama, themes, and relationships. Bernard and Bianca are, at their base, still talking mice in adorably tiny clothes, but their interactions aren’t entirely simplified for a younger audience and their dialogue is refreshingly natural, almost as if it hasn’t even been scripted. Their budding relationship is among the most endearing in film animation, without sacrificing the major plotline, or the taut time period allotted for an animated feature. The character work benefits from some unexpected, but not overstated, quirk as well. Bernard’s nebbish, superstitious attitude, Bianca’s flirty nature (both trademarks of the Bob Newhart and Eva Gabor, respectfully), and the fact that Penny isn’t really afraid of the giant alligators (she even calls them by name) are all examples of unexpected twists on very Disney-esque character tropes.

 Rescuers and The Rescuers Down Under, The
The Rescuers was co-directed by Wolfgang Reitherman (better known as Woolie) and John Lounsbery, both member of the studio’s famed ‘Nine Old Men.’ This gives it a certain animation pedigree that started to die off (literally) at the onset of the 1980s. The animation shows signs of technical frailty, thanks to kinks in the still relatively new Xerographic process, but the characterizations aren’t lost in the sketchy lines or minor painting artefacts. To the contrary, Bernard, Bianca, Medusa, and Mr. Snoops are among the most expressive and dramatic characters in the studio’s repertoire. The action set pieces are more hit-and-miss, especially when the animators are aiming more for serious danger; the more comedy-laced action, like the bit where the alligators force Bernard out of a pipe organ by smashing the instrument’s keys, hold up quite well. The hippy-dippy original songs – written by Sammy Fain, Carol Connors and Ayn Robbins, and performed by Shelby Flint – haven’t aged too well, but mostly date the film in a positive, nostalgic manner, rather than invoking eye-rolls.

The Rescuers Down Under


While adventuring in the Australian Outback, a young boy named Cody (Adam Ryen) rescues and befriends a rare golden eagle named Marahute (a non-speaking role, for some reason), who returns the favour by showing him her nest and eggs. Later, Cody falls into an animal trap set by an evil poacher named Percival C. McLeach (George C. Scott). McLeach finds one of the eagle's feathers attached to the boy's backpack and reveals that he has already killed Marahute’s mate. Excited to capture another valuable golden eagle, McLeach kidnaps Cody and tosses his backpack to the crocodiles in hopes of tricking the local Rangers into assuming he was eaten. However, the mouse Cody was trying to save from McLeach’s trap witnesses the kidnapping and runs off to alert the Rescue Aid Society, who employs their top agents, Bernard and Miss Bianca (once again voiced by Bob Newhart and Eva Gabor).

 Rescuers and The Rescuers Down Under, The
The Rescuers Down Under started the now long-running tradition of sequelizing the studio’s biggest hits. It remains a rarity, however, because it had a huge budget and was theatrically released. If memory serves, the only other directed animated sequels to see a theatrical release were Return to Never Land in 2002 and The Jungle Book II in 2003. It’s probably no coincidence that the included behind-the-scenes featurette on this disc sees the filmmakers putting huge emphasis on the film’s technical achievements. The Rescuers Down Under is a big technical achievement for sure, especially for being the first traditionally animated feature to be entirely digitally coloured and composited. The effect has become the mainstay, but was super new and super exciting at the time of release. Even apart from the technological additions, the basic animation is fantastic throughout. The characters are full of life, both in natural and caricatured terms, and they all blend with their backgrounds quite smoothly. The scale of the film is especially impressive, as scene after scene, tiny critters are set against backdrops that would dwarf a full-sized human. Sadly, the bevy of entirely digitally-created set pieces aren’t nearly as successful as they’d be in future CG-enhanced animated productions or even 1986’s The Great Mouse Detective[I]. These are the one animation element that still dates the film.

There’s a sense that [I]Rescuers Down Under
was put into production for the sake of experimenting with this technology and that the plot is secondary. Storytelling can be quite effective within the confines of a single scene, working best when words aren’t even being spoken (the sequence where word of Cody’s kidnapping reaches the Rescue Aid Society is wonderful), but, as a whole, the narrative momentum and merging is off. Bianca and Bernard’s relationship isn’t sacrificed too much for the sake of more action, but bumps in the road are mostly made up of forgotten side plots, like an extended sequence where Cody hangs out with some of McLeach’s captured animals, only to be released anyway as a ruse on the poacher’s part. None of the animals he meets are ever seen again. Other good examples of the film working better in parts are found in the funnier moments, like a mid-film subplot involving Wilbur the albatross’ brief stint in a sadistic mouse infirmary. These scenes are quite amusing, thanks in no small part to John Candy’s performance, but have no bearing on the rest of the story and are quickly forgotten as Wilbur escapes to coincidentally run into our heroes again – only to be forgotten a second time (which pays off in the form of a last minute, pre-credit gag).

 Rescuers and The Rescuers Down Under, The

Video


I was a bit nervous that cramming both films on a single Blu-ray would lead to some compression issues, but there aren’t any major problems with this 1.66:1 transfer. I can’t imagine anyone having major complaints concerning this transfer, unless they’re uncomfortable with the original material showing its age. The Rescuers isn’t one of the studio’s cleanest features, thanks to the sketchy nature of the ‘60s and ‘70s era Xerographic process and a somewhat limited budget (the studio clearly recycled character designs between this and The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh to save a buck). The flaws in the illustration and frame paint are clear for the world to see in 1080p, along with a steady sheen of film grain. The clarity here is so impressive that you can see the shadows occasionally cast by the cells over the painted backgrounds. Occasionally some unintended texture appears in the form of dirt and dust on the frame. Most of these appear to be related to dirt on the animation cells, however, not actual print damage.

The Rescuers Down Under is also presented in 1.66:1, 1080p video and its relatively recent vintage helps ensure it looks a bit more impressive overall than the first film in HD. It’s not an entirely perfect transfer; there are issues with thin haloes on the high contrast edges and some dirty bits of film, but even without a big digital overhaul, the 1080p qualities this film looks sizably better than any DVD release. The then-new digitally assisted colouring process allowed the animators to include more consistent blends and overall hue vibrancy. The clarity of the transfer allows these consistent and vibrant colours better separation and deepens the visual field to the film’s intended, pseudo-3D depths. The sharper details lead to more animation-related artefacts the filmmakers would likely prefer we didn’t notice, like rough cell edges and dirt, but these, along with a basic film of grain, are part of the ‘shot on film’ process and should not be considered a negative against the transfer. Black levels are plenty sharp as well without absorbing too much of the surrounding hues.

 Rescuers and The Rescuers Down Under, The

Audio


There aren’t any specific errors in The Rescuers’ DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix, Disney has just set themselves a high enough bar in the field of audio restoration that minor inconsistencies stand out. Their animated releases are among the only films that have ever been naturally modernized into a 5.1 arena thanks in large part to the studio’s habit of archiving material. The problem here is less in weird stereo and surround effects (of which there are a few) or even dialogue and effects leaking out of the center channel; the problem is almost exclusively an issue of volume consistency. Volume levels bob up and down in a few key places and some of the performances are muddled against effects noise. Directional enhancement is limited mostly to some choice bits of boat noise (both human and mouse size) and gurgling water effects. The musical score is definitely crisp and benefits the most from the 5.1 remix.

The Rescuers Down Under benefits from being made in the digital audio age. This disc’s producers didn’t have to do much of anything to match modern audio surround standards, making this DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1’s uncompressed nature its best quality. The stereo and surround channels are mostly utilized to create an immersive quality (the storm that accompanies the climax, for example), not so much for the sake of directional effects, but ambience is still quite strong for type and the occasional center to left or right movement. The LFE track features some strong creature effect support, especially the snorting razorback Bernard procures for his big rescue. Bruce Broughton’s big, exciting score almost nothing like the original film’s score and carries the film over its massive vistas with genuine majesty. The score cuts through the effects without competing with them and features plenty of stereo and surround endowment.

Extras


The extras, which cover both films, include ‘Peoplitis,’ a deleted Rescuers song sung by Louie Prima (4:40, HD), Three Blind Mouseketeers Silly Symphony short (8:50, SD), Water Birds: A Walt Disney True Life Adventure (30:40, HD), ‘Someone’s Waiting for You’ Sing-Along (2:10, HD), The Making Of The Rescuers Down Under (10:30, SD), and trailers for other Disney releases.

 Rescuers and The Rescuers Down Under, The

Overall


The Rescuers is still among Disney’s most unique and satisfying animated pictures. The animation is a bit rough, but the story is tight and the themes more mature than we’re taught to expect from the studio. The Rescuers Down Under is a bit sloppy in story, but is an underestimated technical achievement for Disney and a pretty good follow-up to the original film. It’s actually quite nice to have both films in one place without paying the usual two-release price. Both films look and sound about as good as can be expected in HD, minus the double film status creating any major compression effects. Extras are lacking, unless, like me, you’re willing to accept the inclusion of the second film as a supplement itself.

* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer. Thanks to Troy at Andersonvision.com for the Blu-ray screen-caps.


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