Monthly Archives: November 2009

November 5, 2009

Disney Canon #23: The Rescuers (1977)


BETH I thought it was great. It was really entertaining.

ADAM Yes, it was very fun. It was totally cheesy and often inadvertently fun, but that doesn’t make it less fun.

BROOM Part of the fun for us is that it embodied all sorts of clichés and tropes and standards that remind us of our childhoods. Not that it was necessarily of high quality. But that’s still fun.

ADAM I think it was overtly of low quality, but still entertaining.

BETH It had a few clever things in it, like the crocodiles playing the organ.

BROOM That was a strong sequence.

ADAM That was eerie.

BROOM I thought that in many places the animation was particularly exuberant compared to what we’ve seen recently.

BETH The expressions on the people — and sometimes the mice — were better than usual.

BROOM The mice seemed a little bland to me, but Madame Medusa and Snoops and the crocodiles were clearly animated with pleasure.

ADAM It seemed like they had accepted the straitened budgets they’re working within, and just decided, “we’re not doing backgrounds.” All the backgrounds were very static, but the things that were animated were lively. The music was the best part for me.

BROOM It was the most period.

ADAM All the pieces were so corn-alicious.

BETH It was like Herb Alpert backing Joni Mitchell.

ADAM I think my single favorite part of the entire movie was the key change in the middle of the rainbow song.

BROOM “Rainy day… [up a half step]… Rainy day!…”

ADAM It reminds me of the way all our choir songs were arranged. We sang “Wind Beneath My Wings” that had a step up like that in the middle, which was my favorite part. I thought it was so dramatic and exciting. “You are the wind beneath my wiiiiiiiii… [up a half step] ….iiiiings!

BROOM Stirring, yes. The movie announced exactly that aesthetic right at the beginning in the opening credit sequence where they panned over those pastel drawings of the message in the bottle out at sea. What did you say it was like?

ADAM I said it was like the “Golden Girls” credits — though I don’t know if it’s exactly “The Golden Girls” I’m thinking of. But I know that at least one of those 80s shows started with static shots of a family, and panned across them at a dramatic diagonal. Was that “Growing Pains,” or “Family Ties”? [Ed. according to youtube, not really any of these, but we know what you mean] … And then the “zoom in fade to a zoom out”… And what was the instrument that they used in the rainbow song?

BROOM A flugelhorn, I think.

ADAM It sounded like the “Mary Tyler Moore” theme.

BROOM Let’s talk about the plot.

ADAM The first half was just killing time.

BETH That scene in the park really was nothing.

BROOM Yeah, something seemed actually wrong with that scene.

BETH Do you think they originally meant to show the lion?

BROOM What purpose would it have served anyway? As characterization for him as a scaredy-cat? To get them closer somehow? She already has a crush on him from the very beginning for no apparent reason. She didn’t learn anything new about him from that scene.

BETH I thought it was just to have some kind of New York setpiece.

BROOM But so little happened, it really seemed like something must have been pared away. We could have skipped directly over the whole thing to them visiting the orphanage and the movie would be exactly the same.

ADAM Maybe they were padding out the runtime.

BROOM The movie is very short.

ADAM It didn’t really come alive until they got to the bayou. Though the scene at the U.N. is adorable.

BROOM It was cute that at the very very beginning of the script they immediately launch into this really dippy song for two whole verses.

BETH I thought that was cute, but when I was watching it I was thinking, “if I were a kid, this movie would have lost me already.”

BROOM The only stuff I specifically remembered was that there were crocodiles and a girl was held hostage on a riverboat, and then was lowered into a hole in a bucket and there was a skull in the cave.

ADAM I remembered that the diamond was sewn inside the teddy bear; but from my Golden Book, I seem to remember that it was there all along, and only after they escape do they notice and say “what’s this heavy thing in Teddy’s belly?”

BROOM That’s a more effective way to play it.

ADAM There’s a critical scene in Stephen Carter’s novel The Emperor of Ocean Park in which the MacGuffin is hidden inside the teddy bear’s stomach. I wonder if he was motivated by this.

BROOM It’s in so many stories, isn’t it? It’s just standard fare.

BETH It’s in Wait Until Dark.

BROOM It’s in every episode of Duck Tales.

ADAM It’s the same as “if you don’t find it in your own backyard, you never really lost it to begin with.”

BROOM I don’t know about that.

ADAM It’s the same idea. The greatest mystery is hidden in the most domestic of objects.

BROOM Well, I feel like there is a whole subset of children’s literature — at least of our era — where a kid is being used by adults to find some treasure that only a kid can find. Either because only kids can fit there or because only kids will go unsuspected, or just because only kids are curious and unpredictable enough to find things that nobody else can find. Like in Over Sea, Under Stone, it’s the kids who find the long-lost treasure map in the house, because that’s how kids are. And in fact they end up going down in a hole in a cliff by the ocean, just like in this movie. Did that sort of thing start in this era, or did that exist prior to this?

BETH No Deposit, No Return is like that too. The kids get kidnapped by bad guys who try to use them to steal for them because they’re small and can fit in little places.

BROOM Isn’t Candleshoe sort of about how Jodie Foster needs to find the hidden thing in the house because she, as the little girl, is the most likely to find it?

BETH Yeah. It was popular. [ed. Also released in 1977.]

BROOM And it’s always in these decrepit environs.

ADAM The plot made no sense. No element of the plot made sense at all. From the beginning, when they adopted a little girl from a New York orphanage to put her inside a cave in a bayou…

BROOM They didn’t adopt her; they kidnapped her.

BETH She apparently got in a car with them. That’s what the cat said.

ADAM Oh. Well, that still doesn’t make any sense. And the fact that they know the treasure is in this cave, even though they have no other way to get in there…

BROOM Wait a minute. It makes perfect sense! They know that the treasure is down the hole…

BETH How do they know that?

BROOM She had a treasure map with an X on it! Didn’t you see?

BETH Oh. But… why doesn’t anyone else know about it? How did she get that map?

BROOM She owns a pawn shop! Think about it! Somehow this treasure map ends up in her store. She goes down to check it out and realizes that only a very tiny person can fit down the hole. She lives down the street from an orphanage and since nobody cares about orphans, she decides she’ll just steal one and have it retrieve the treasure for her. It makes perfect sense!

ADAM All right. That wasn’t really spelled out.

BROOM All the pieces were there. How did she come to live on an abandoned riverboat? She probably just found it there. The crocodiles? She didn’t just find them, they were clearly her longtime pets.

BETH But who was Snoops?

ADAM Her accountant.


ADAM I’m just making that up.

BETH No, I like that.

BROOM He’s just some guy who works for her at the shop.

ADAM He’s Mr. DeVil.

BROOM You know how Lex Luthor has Ned Beatty working for him in the movies? This is the same guy. Bad guys with totally ineffectual henchman are standard operating procedure. Have we seen it already in these movies?

ADAM Yeah. He was very jovially drawn. I enjoyed that.

BROOM They both had a 70s sort of sleaze to them.

BETH Their bodies felt more real than the other bodies.

BROOM They were exaggerated, but it was an exaggerated dumpiness.

BETH That’s what I mean.

BROOM She felt like a Jules Feiffer character. I remembered the image of her pulling off her false eyelashes. You got the clear sense that she was a labor of love for some animator.

ADAM Would we want our children to learn the lessons implicit in this movie? Come to think of it, we were the children being taught these lessons. What did this tell us?

BROOM I don’t really know. The stuff about faith — “faith is a bluebird” — seemed pretty tacked-on, and I wasn’t sure what it was meant to teach us anyway. Religion was more present in this than I expected.

ADAM Isn’t that just “the sun will come out tomorrow”?

BROOM Well, yes. Essentially, this was Annie.

BETH That’s true about religion. She prayed.

BROOM And there was that star representing her faith.

BETH And also the fact that she wasn’t cute, and had a poor self-image…

ADAM Like Jesus!

BETH … but got adopted anyway… I guess that was what she had faith in.

ADAM Despite the fact that she was so ugly, she got to have her own diamond…

BROOM Were we actually supposed to think she was ugly? I thought that was just what cruel people would say to her.

BETH Well, she had a gap in her teeth.

ADAM This was perfectly fine, but it will be outclassed thoroughly in about a decade.

BETH It wasn’t “classy” in any way.

BROOM Wait a minute. I don’t think we should say this was perfectly fine.

BETH I loved it; I thought it was so much fun; BUT

ADAM It was blatantly inferior to the product of the 30s, 40s and 50s. But it was fine.

BROOM Would you say that it was inferior to Robin Hood or The Jungle Book? On par? Superior?

ADAM It was more slapdash.

BETH In what sense? I thought the story was actually better than those. I, as a grown-up, was pretty involved in this stupid plot. I didn’t get bored — except at the beginning — but after they got out of New York, I wasn’t bored, and usually with these movies I am.

ADAM I feel like we’re erecting castles on a continuously sinking platform.

BROOM I know! I just want to make sure we keep talking about that. While we were watching, we would laugh whenever they’d bring in a song, or when the tone would change abruptly…

ADAM We didn’t mention the “rescue” music that played when Evinrude was pushing the leaf.

BROOM The Hawaii Five-O sort of thing. Yeah. There were so many choices that were — not exactly “jarring”… but tasteless. I guess there were hints of that in Robin Hood too, where there was zany guitar chase music — and then this had that hillbilly hootenanny chase music at the end.

ADAM This was deeply offensive. But wasn’t that also in Robin Hood?

BROOM More or less. This group of “southerners” was nearly equivalent to the villagers in Robin Hood.

ADAM I remember back in the 30s and 40s, we were talking about the stock Irishmen. But not anymore; poor whites are the readily mockable group now.

BETH They even used the word “trashy.”

BROOM Referring to Medusa.

ADAM She’s not a southerner.

BROOM What I was going to say: I felt like I was seeing the rudiments of the post-Little Mermaid style, the slick 90s product. But they hadn’t been fit together yet. The idea of integrating many different varieties of crowd-pleasing stuff in a contemporary, fast-paced way — that’s what the Disney product would become in the Beauty and the Beast era. Maybe this was the 1977 equivalent of that, but it felt to me a little like they hadn’t worked it out.

BETH It wasn’t slick.

ADAM It’s also not conceptually there, though. Even if this had had a budget like they had in the 90s, it still wasn’t well thought out. Maybe we’ll get to The Little Mermaid or Beauty and the Beast and find that they’re just as dated, which would be disappointing, but I feel like those plots are more memorable. Though I guess the plot here was just “rescue the lost girl.”

BROOM How many rescue plots have we seen? I think 101 Dalmatians was the first one.

ADAM Sleeping Beauty is sort of a rescue plot.

BROOM No, I mean, like, quest-cue plots. This and 101 Dalmatians are both about people who have been stolen away and need to be rescued. It’s a very convenient format for these movies because the journey creates an episodic scheme. First we meet the inhabitants of one location, then the next, then the next… We didn’t meet Evinrude the mosquito until they got to the bayou.

ADAM It’s a picaresque in some sense.

BROOM Finding Nemo irritated me for depending so blatantly on this formula. 101 Dalmatians was mostly the same formula, and Aristocats was the same formula but badly executed.

BETH This was better than Aristocats.

BROOM Oh, definitely. Better use of Eva Gabor, too. I thought her character had a charm here that was lacking in the identical character in Aristocats.

ADAM She was kind of pretty.

BROOM So: Madame Medusa. How do we see her as fitting into the pantheon of maniacal, desperate females?

ADAM Perfectly! She continues the trend of monstrous female vanity into a new era. She had sort of a flapper vanity.

BROOM That’s right. We were confused about the setting of the movie, in fact, because she had intentionally surrounded herself with all this 20s and 30s stuff.

ADAM But she’s motivated by the same impulse as the Snow White queen, in some sense: “who’s the fairest of them all?” Whenever we saw her she was either getting dressed, or putting on makeup, or taking off makeup.

BETH But she didn’t actually care about her attractiveness. I mean, she did, but it was for no one other than herself.

ADAM Well, when she answered the phone she tried make her voice sound appealing: “Madame Medusa’s Pawn Shop Bou-tique!” You can sort of imagine her leading a vixen-ish life in the city.

BROOM She imagines that, but she clearly doesn’t lead that life.

ADAM Well, who is Ursula from The Little Mermaid all vamped up for? It’s just femininity curdled upon itself.

BROOM Exactly. So why is that in Disney movies? Why do we keep seeing this woman who has gone to seed?

BETH Because it’s the opposite of a princess. The princess is beautiful inside and out…

BROOM This is like a desperate clutching at beauty.

BETH Yes, because they don’t understand that it actually springs from the inside.

ADAM This figure is frequently opposed by a bibbidi-bobbidi sort of motherly crone, who is not beautiful but is good. The Sleeping Beauty fairies, Cinderella’s fairy godmother.

BROOM And how does Eva Gabor fit into this?

ADAM Well, she’s sort of a new type. You don’t ever really see leggy dames in these movies.

BROOM There was Lady, but she was sort of a different type because she was infantilized at the same time.

ADAM Lady and the Tramp wasn’t really a fairy-tale plot, the way this was. Although even there, you had… what’s her name?

BROOM Goldie Hawn.

ADAM Basically, there are a lot of weird images of women, which Disney is going to try desperately to atone for in the 90s.

BROOM Do you think they were really trying to atone? Or were they just trying to codify it and turn it into something with thought behind it, rather than just letting it happen?

ADAM I think Disney feels special pressure to be feminist now because of their miserable heritage.

BROOM You think of this as a miserable heritage? I assume they ended up with this stuff in their movies because they were thinking in terms of making “memorable characters,” and this is all just what would occur to them.

ADAM That’s right; it just occurs to them from deep in the recesses of some cultural standards.

BROOM Yes, I know, they’re a reflection of real prejudices. But I don’t know what this particular set of stuff says about their society. I can’t even think of a phony thesis about what it means about the culture that guys trying to make movies would keep thinking that maybe the villain should be a crazed woman with a lot of makeup on.

ADAM Or that there should be this duality between evil artifice-using women, and pretty unlined princesses. And also wise crones. It’s weird.

BETH It’s partly to communicate instantly to kids who to root for and who to root against.

ADAM But the males are all so bland by comparison. No male ever has to stand for any particular type of maleness.

BROOM What about the Tramp?

ADAM Fine; but again, Lady and the Tramp works differently. Think about all the heroes in these movies. They all blend together, because all they stand for is: “boy.” Prince Charming, and Cinderella’s prince…

BROOM Well, the princes, sure, and I guess Robin Hood is just “a Robin Hood” — but Baloo has a particular slacker attitude that he represents.

ADAM Yeah, but he doesn’t represent maleness exactly. He represents a character trait. Whereas it’s femininity itself that’s stands out as the “not X” state. It’s like when I staged weddings between my stuffed animals, I would make dresses for the brides with Kleenex, but I never thought to make an outfit for the male animals, because that was the normal state. They needed some kind of identifying characteristic to make them female.

BROOM I hear that. I hear what you’re saying, so this is kind of a devil’s advocate point, but: I don’t think that anyone who worked on this movie or on the character of Madame Medusa would say that they were trying to project the concept of “female-ness.” Or would agree with your assessment that that’s what they had done. The way I would phrase this point is that men in these movies never have psychologies, they just have characteristics. Whereas Madame Medusa has a psychology. She’s insane. I can’t think of any men who “have issues.” Bernard the mouse here is “afraid” or “superstitious” or whatever, but it’s a characteristic dropped on him; you don’t need that knowledge to explain anything else.

ADAM The “thirteen” phobia stuff was stupid, especially since nothing ever happened because of it.

BROOM That’s exactly what I hated about Finding Nemo, The dad was “afraid.” That movie was actually exactly like this one. Also, those two crocodiles are going to reappear as the two eels in The Little Mermaid. But back to the point: have there been any men who had personalities?

ADAM As opposed to traits?


BETH Merlin in The Sword in the Stone.

ADAM Sort of. Let’s look through the canon.

[We do.]

BROOM Ichabod Crane was one, and he felt very pointedly like a bizarre exception. He was a characterized weirdo, and that’s not something that they do very much. … Oh, well, Captain Hook. I guess he was basically the male equivalent of this.

ADAM And he’s very prissy. We’ll see it again with Jafar, and again with Scar. These vamping, effeminate males.

BROOM I think a redeeming way of looking at this is that the essentially villainous trait is not femininity, it’s vanity.

ADAM But rendered in a highly effeminate way. Gaston in Beauty and the Beast is a laudable attempt to show vanity in a non-effeminate way. I think of that as characteristic of the “striving” phase of Disney.

BROOM But Gaston was essentially already in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow as Brom Bones. Again, that one was sort of an exception in terms of characterization.

ADAM I don’t want to overdraw the thesis here. But I think it’s fair to say that there’s something odd afoot.

BETH Most of the animators are male, of course.

ADAM What sort of dude was an animator in the 50s?

BROOM Art school guys. Draftsmen. You can see these guys on interviews on all these DVDs. They all seem like Snoopses. That character type, who’s not quite a milquetoast, he’s sort of just a nerd, or a loser… I don’t know exactly what that is either. But he was fun to watch.

ADAM Yeah, they’re all sort of like R. Crumb gazing at the big super-breasted woman.

BROOM And Bob Newhart was basically nothing.

ADAM Bob Newhart was in this?

BROOM Yeah, as the main mouse.

ADAM Really? Oh. He sucked.

BROOM I thought it was funny that they tried to character-ize a mosquito. You can’t even draw a face on a mosquito.

ADAM They just drew eyebrows.

BROOM And they gave him a scarf.

BETH There were lots of underwear shots, oddly.

ADAM There was an uncomfortable Coppertone ad quality when Penny shows the holes in her underwear.

BETH And when the crocodile is carrying her by the underpants.

BROOM And Madame Medusa’s underwear shows gratuitously. I got the impression that whoever was drawing Madame Medusa might have been a little attracted to her despite her ugliness.

BETH Really? I don’t want to think about that.

ADAM Well, she was a force.

[We proceed to look at pictures of the infamous obscene image that wasn’t found and removed until 1999, and then read the New York Times review.]

ADAM This period of the late 70s feels like the conceited nadir of children’s entertainment. It feels like a bleak time for children’s culture in America. And we were in it!

BROOM Say more. What do you mean?

ADAM I don’t know, I feel like I’ve encountered this idea elsewhere, that the late 70s and early 80s stand in marked contrast to the 50s, and later the 90s, which were relatively friendly times for children in popular culture.

BETH Yeah, there was a sense that parents didn’t really care what children were seeing or doing.

ADAM This is like the world of The Ice Storm. Not to be overdramatic.

BROOM I mean, yes, this was a movie about a girl who was abandoned, but I felt like the movie itself was attentive to childhood considerations. It was basically inoffensive, right?


[Adam asks us to look up box office numbers for various Disney movies but this proves frustrating and things devolve.]