I was hesitant to pop in the 35th Anniversary Edition of “The Rescuers,” because, as fans of the 1977 Disney animated film know, it’s always been a little rough-looking: heavy grain, indistinct edges, some flecks and flickers of dirt here and there. Would the studio’s restoration team be able to clean this one up so that it looked respectable in 1080p?
Surprisingly, the answer is “yes,” making it a must-upgrade for family home theater collections.
“The Rescuers” (1977)
While “The Rescuers” came out during a period that no one has yet found an adequate metal to describe—not silver, and certainly not gold—it’s still a film that has its charms, along with one of the more peculiarly conceived Disney villains.
Madame Medusa (voiced by Geraldine Page) is a pawnshop owner who dresses like a fire-red-haired boozy floozy from a Tennessee Williams play or one of Paul Newman’s early films. She applies too much eye make-up—blue shadow ringing them, and fake lashes as active as anemone tentacles—has overlarge, asymmetrical teeth, and wears a low-backed, low-front loose-fitting one-piece dress that reveals she’s not wearing a bra. And judging by how low they’re hanging, she ought to be. With her affected mannerisms, faux-sweet-and-nasty mood swings, henchmen, poor driving and road rage, Medusa will remind Disneyphiles a little of Cruela De Vil. Except that Cruela covered up a little more and had sophisticated props, like a cigarette holder.
Though Medusa is a New York City pawnbroker, her dress (including low-riding stockings and no shoes) seems more in keeping with the backwater bayous that provide the main setting for “The Rescuers.”
For those who haven’t seen it, “The Rescuers” begins in New York City, where we see mouse delegates from all over the world meeting in a steamer trunk inside the United Nations building. They’re members of the Rescue Aid Society, whose founder was that little mouse who pulled the thorn from a lion’s paw in classical Greece. When they find a message in a bottle from a child named Penny (Michelle Stacy) asking to be rescued, the delegate from Hungary, Miss Bianca (Eva Gabor) quickly volunteers. All of the male delegates want to team up with her, but she chooses the janitor, Bernard (Bob Newhart), who had been asked to go inside the bottle and fetch the note.
The pair follows their only clue to a New York City orphanage and then the pawn shop, where they realize that Penny is being held in Black Bayou because Medusa needed someone small to be lowered into a pirate’s cave, where the exceptionally large Devil’s Eye diamond is rumored to be.
The voice cast is like a reunion of accomplished character actors. Frequent Disney flyer Joe Flynn (“McHale’s Navy”) plays Mr. Snoops, Medusa’s accountant-slash-assistant, while Jeanette Nolan (“The Real McCoys,” “Gunsmoke”) and Pat Buttram (“The Aristocats”) as swamp mice, John Fiedler (“The Bob Newhart Show”) as an owl, Bernard Fox the Chairman of the RAS, George Lindsey (“The Andy Griffith Show”) a swamp rabbit, and Jim Jordan (“Fibber McGee”) the albatross who flies the two adventurers to the bayou.
The pairing of the introverted, stammering Newhart with the flamboyant Gabor was as inspired as having a dragonfly named Evinrude (as in the outboard motor brand) for a boatman and two swamp gators, Brutus and Caesar, as Medusa’s henchmen.
The backgrounds, while less impressive than those from Disney’s precious metal periods, really grow on you now that the film has been cleaned up. “The Rescuers” was the first film in which Don Bluth (who would leave Disney to start his own company) was listed as a directing animator, and, along with “The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh,” one of Wolfgang Reitherman’s last animated features. Reitherman, of course, was one of Disney’s Nine Old Men, and fellow “old men” Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston thought that their work on “The Rescuers” was the best since Disney died 10 years earlier. “The Rescuers” also has the distinction of being the first Disney animated feature to spawn a sequel.
“The Rescuers Down Under” (1990)
The sequel, which was shown in 3D in select theaters when it opened, was a milestone in Disney animation. Though the backgrounds and characters were drawn and animated traditionally, all of the post-production work was digital, produced using Disney’s CAPS system. And rather than offer a rehash of the first film, the way too many direct-to-video sequels do, “The Rescuers Down Under” went with a different visual style and a completely new location and cast of characters, with a few exceptions. Back again are Miss Bianca (Gabor) and Bernard (Newhart), as well as the Chairman (Bernard Fox) and the albatross who flies them to their new challenge—though that character is now voiced by John Candy.
There’s an eco-bent to the sequel, as the young hero-in-trouble is a boy named Cody (Adam Ryen) who tries to save animals in trouble and hates poachers. He rescues a rare eagle, who shows appreciation by giving him the ride of his life (think Soarin’), lets him see her eggs, and gives him a feather.
“The Rescuers Down Under” offers a storyline, characters, and animation that are at least as strong as in the original—and some might say they’re stronger. The animated Australian landscape, with all its flora and fauna, provide a great deal of interest. But it can be a more intense movie for small children. While the villain in “The Rescuers” was seriocomic, it’s all drama and tension with the poacher McLeach, menacingly voiced by George C. Scott in a rare animated film appearance. Medusa may have threatened Penny’s teddy bear, this guy throws knives at Cody and shoots at him. There’s even more menace, tonally speaking, in the monitor lizard sidekick (voiced by none other than Frank Welker, of “Scooby-Do” fame), who’s also used for comic relief. A hint of competition is also introduced this time, with an Australian mouse named Jake (Tristan Rogers) smitten with Miss Bianca and vying for her attention in subtle ways.
It’s nice to have both of these G-rated films on one Blu-ray. However, as with other Disney animation releases this week, you have to know where to look for the second film. To get to it, when you see a Play Movie option on the menu screen you need to hit your right directional arrow key to get a screen that offers both films. If you hit enter, the default first film begins to play.
Both films come to 50GB Blu-ray disc via an AVC/MPEG-4 encode, and the restored and newly transferred films look better than ever. There’s a longer-than-usual pause in the shift between the first and second layers, but both films have been cleaned up in rather remarkable fashion. Although there are still blemishes to be seen, the constant parade of flicks and flecks and scratches is gone—reduced to what can only be described as “occasional imperfections,” not constant. That’s a huge improvement, and enough reason for Disney fans to donate their DVDs to local schools and upgrade to 1080p. The original art design and look of each film is faithfully preserved, with the sequel running brighter and with less saturated colors.
Disney went with an English DTS-HD MA 5.1 for both titles, though both films were originally released in mono. That means that without additional effects added—the way George Lucas would tinker with a film—both features have a largely front-and-center presence. But the dialogue is nicely prioritized, and the schmaltzy ‘70s music is mostly free of crackle.
What extras? Okay, I exaggerate, but there’s not much here. One nice add-on is “Water Birds: A True Life Adventure,” presented here in HD. The 1952 Oscar-winner reportedly influenced artists in their rendering of Orville, the albatross. But I’m not sure what the “Three Blind Mouseketeers” Silly Symphony cartoon from the ‘30s has to do with either release. That’s also included.
The only other bonus features are the deleted song “Peoplitis” (introduced by Ron Clements and presented in HD with storyboard visuals), a sing-along version of “Someone’s Waiting for You,” and a period making-of featurette that probably was shown on television. It runs a little over 10 minutes.
“The Rescuers” and “The Rescuers Down Under” are solid, if unspectacular, animated features from the House of Mouse. They always looked a little rough, but now the features are cleaned up, restored and remastered so that they’ll appeal to a whole new generation of Disney lovers.