The one that became an unexpected smash.

The 1970s were a period of great change within the walls of Walt Disney Productions. After the upheaval of losing both Walt and Roy Disney in the space of five years, the studio seemed to be moving further and further away from crafting great works of animation artistry. Instead, the new regime of executives were steadfastly determined to produce animated feature films as inexpensively as possible and appeal purely to children by way of simplistic narratives and slapstick humour.

It didn’t help Walt’s “Nine Old Men” were finally living up to their once-ironic moniker and approaching the twilight years of their respective careers. In a bid to further develop the skills of the next generation of animators, Disney concluded it would now alternate between large-scale “A-pictures,” crafted by the studio’s experienced veteran animators, and smaller “B-picture” projects to be used as a training ground for new animators. As fate would have it, an upcoming B-project was about to become the biggest Disney hit in years.

The initial idea of adapting Margery Sharp’s hugely popular children’s book series The Rescuers into a Disney animated feature film began way back in 1962. After securing the film rights, Walt and his story team began crafting an initial treatment, with Walt eying the project for a possible release in the mid-1960s. However, the source material was heavy with political and social undertones and Walt started to feel unsure the property fit with the studio’s family-friendly image. As such, The Rescuers project was soon shelved indefinitely.

In the early 1970s, the senior members of Disney’s animation department were on the hunt for a project their young animators could cut their teeth on. After the women’s liberation movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, the idea of a Disney animated feature starring a female international secret agent suddenly became far more appealing. As such, The Rescuers project was revived and handed over to the “B-team” to work their magic.

That young team would feature several animators who would go on to become legends of Disney animation in their own right and play a key role in the studio’s renaissance of the late 1980s and early 1990s. They included Ron Clements and John Musker, who would go on to co-direct several Disney animated films including The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and Moana; Glen Keane, who would create numerous iconic Disney characters including Ariel, Beast, Aladdin, and Pocahontas; and Andy Gaskill, who was the future art director of films including The Lion King, Hercules, and Treasure Planet.

The team of young animators was led by Don Bluth, who began at the Disney studio in 1955 as an assistant to legendary artist John Lounsbery, the man responsible for creating numerous iconic animal characters including Dumbo, Cheshire Cat, Lady, Tramp, and Pongo. Bluth left the studio just two years later to travel and study before returning in 1971 to work on projects including Robin Hood and Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too. The Rescuers would mark the first film Bluth worked on as a directing animator. After growing frustrated with the direction of the studio, Bluth would leave Disney permanently in 1979 with 11 of his fellow Disney animators to form his own rival animation studio, Don Bluth Productions, which we’ll cover in a future piece.

At the same time as the B-team were beginning pre-production on The Rescuers, the A-team had just wrapped up Robin Hood and began working on an adaptation of Paul Gallico’s novel Scruffy, under the leadership of Ken Anderson. The novel centred on a group of Gibraltarian monkeys who faced capture by the Nazi Party during World War II. When the time came to for studio executives to greenlight one project to move forward into full production, the B-team project stunned their veteran colleagues and won, forcing Scruffy to be shelved indefinitely, never to be completed.

The veteran team of Milt Kahl, Ollie Johnston, and Frank Thomas, all members of Walt’s Nine Old Men, were shifted to oversee The Rescuers as it moved through story and animation development. Initially, Bluth and director Wolfgang Reitherman wanted the film to focus on Sharp’s most recent novel, Miss Bianca in the Antarctic, where the titular mouse ventured to Antarctica to rescue an imprisoned polar bear. But veteran Disney writer Fred Lucky felt the icy-white landscapes of the Antarctic were too stark for background animation.

Instead, The Rescuers became an adaptation of Sharp’s first book of the same name and its sequel, Miss Bianca. Its story focused on the rescue of Penny, a young orphan girl who is held prisoner in the Louisiana swampland by the villainous treasure huntress Madame Medusa, who was based on the Diamond Duchess from Miss Bianca. Initially, the story team considered casting the hugely popular villainess Cruella de Vil from One Hundred and One Dalmatians as the film’s antagonist, but ultimately felt it was too cheap a move to simply recycle an existing character.

The character design for Medusa was based on the physical appearance and mannerisms of Kahl’s then-wife, Phyllis Bounds, who was also the niece of Lillian Disney. At the time, the couple were reaching the end of their marriage, with Kahl genuinely detesting his wife, hence Medusa’s rather hideous appearance. As this was to be Kahl’s final film for Disney, he wanted the character to be his best creation to date, working relentlessly on her design and refusing to allow anyone else to animate her.

For the film’s co-leads, Bernard and Miss Bianca, the studio hired popular television actors Bob Newhart and Eva Gabor to bring the characters to life. Once again, the animators echoed the voice actors in the character designs of the tiny mice, particularly Gabor, whose famed glamour, grace, and elegance offered heavy inspiration for the final designs of Bianca. Initially, the writers crafted Bernard and Bianca as a married couple, but wisely decided to write the characters beginning the film as strangers so their romance could bloom throughout the narrative.

Since the birth of the Xerox photocopying technique in 1961, the animators had become more comfortable with the new technology, with the team finally making a new breakthrough with their latest project. After years of harsh thick black outlines dominating every scene, The Rescuers would mark the first time the animators were able to craft drawings with medium-grey toner to create softer lines for the film’s characters. It would represent the most detailed Disney animated film in years, echoing back to the classic aesthetic of earlier films.

In another major departure for the studio, The Rescuers was Disney’s first genuine foray into crafting an action-based animated adventure. While numerous films had featured chaotic and thrilling action sequences, these moments were generally reserved for the film’s climactic finale, such as the dragon battle in Sleeping Beauty, the car chase in One Hundred and One Dalmatians, or the dwarfs giving chase to the Evil Queen in Snow White and the Seven DwarfsThe Rescuers was rooted in action throughout its entire narrative, playing almost like an animated version of James Bond.

The film’s music further echoed the comparisons to the Bond franchise, with songwriting duo Carol Connors and Ayn Robbins enlisted to craft several sweepingly sentimental songs for the film’s soundtrack. For the first time since Bambi, the songs weren’t performed by the film’s characters, playing instead in the background to form part of the narrative. Connors and Robbins collaborated with perennial Disney composer Sammy Fain on the syrupy sweet track “Someone’s Waiting for You,” which was nominated for at the 50th Academy Awards for Best Original Song.

The Rescuers was released on June 22, 1977, packaged as a double feature with Disney’s live-action nature documentary, A Tale of Two Critters. The film received overwhelmingly positive praise from critics, with the Los Angeles Times calling it “the best feature-length animated film from Disney in a decade or more,” while The New York Times found the film to be “a reminder of a kind of slickly cheerful, animated entertainment that has become all but extinct.”

The response from audiences was truly astonishing, taking everyone at the Disney studio by surprise. The Rescuers would gross over $48 million worldwide, making it the most successful Disney animated film to that date. In France, the film out-grossed Star Wars (yes, Star Wars) to end the year as the country’s highest-grossing film, taking ticket sales of 7.2 million. In West Germany, it was the highest-grossing film of all time at that point, with ticket admissions of 9.7 million. With a budget of just $7.5 million, The Rescuers still stands as one of the most profitable films in Disney’s history.

It’s rather wild to ponder the unprecedented success of The Rescuers, given it’s a film we rarely hear discussed in the 21st century. Unlike other films of Disney’s early years, its popularity has considerably waned over the decades. For all its success at the time, the film has not aged particularly well, namely due to its woefully dated score and songs. For all its exciting action, it’s a fairly shallow narrative, offering little of the heart or humour we’d come to expect from Disney animation.

It’s not that The Rescuers is a particularly bad film. It’s certainly one of the best examples of animation of Disney’s chequered 1970s period. It’s just all rather forgettable. However, the film’s success completely revitalised the animation department, injecting plenty of much-needed cash into a studio struggling to compete. As with many films of this era, it served its purpose by way of box office success, and that has to be applauded.

By offering its young animators the chance to learn and flourish with a project no one gave much credence to, The Rescuers genuinely paved the way for their future work which would not only completely revolutionise the Disney studio but the entire animation industry in general. It was the birth of the next generation of Disney animators, and their best was still yet to come.

Is The Rescuers a Disney Classic? While it was undoubtedly successful in 1977, The Rescuers has mostly faded into obscurity by unfortunate comparison to its Disney animated counterparts. The film kept the animation department alive, but that’s far from enough to call this a genuine Disney Classic.

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