Tuesday, August 21, 2012

THE RESCUERS/RESCUERS DOWN UNDER: Blu-ray (Disney 1977, 1990) Disney Home Entertainment

In retrospect, Disney’s The Rescuers (1977) is an important film, particularly following, as it did, on the heels of the disastrous public response to Pete’s Dragon. As early as the mid-1960s Disney’s once assured supremacy as the purveyors of quality family entertainment had dramatically tapered, especially after Haley Mills departed the back lot. By 1970, the company’s profits were in a very bad way, with feature production down to one or two big budgeted gambles produced per annum. Yet these rarely paid off and occasionally even lost money on their initial run.
Unfortunately, feature animation – the company’s main staple – had not had a flourish of financial success since The Jungle Book (1967). Worse, the original ‘nine old men’ were all reaching the age of retirement. The quiet buzz outside the studio was that the new breed following in their footsteps had very large shoes to fill, but had yet to live up to the Disney legacy. As a result, The Rescuers became something of a watershed feature for the company; a transitional movie in which the creative reigns, pencils as well as paint brushes, were very distinctly being passed on to this next generation of craftsmen.
Based on Margery Sharp’s children’s series, the screenplay patched together by Larry Clemmon, Frank Thomas and Ken Anderson (all Disney alumni) begins on an evocatively foreboding note. A young girl emerges in half shadow from a dilapidated Louisiana riverboat moored in Devil’s Bayou and tosses a bottle from its balcony into the muddy waters below with a hand written plea for help tucked inside.
From here the film moves into its moody main title sequence. The camera pans and zooms in and/or across a series of still backgrounds beneath the plain type credits, sumptuously sketched in very stormy hues of deep navy and dark, murky green. The decision to use still images rather than animate this sequence full out was probably a cost cutting measure. But the integrity of the film’s contemporary setting, the setup of danger and adventure, are not diminished. At the end of the titles, an animated tugboat sails past a hazy backdrop of New York City and we see a few bar harbour mice discovering the bottle that has run aground beneath a dock.
The next day is clear and bright, and as delegates from the United Nations gather for their daily assembly another, very different, congregation is taking place in the building’s basement. Mice delegates of the Rescue Aid Society have been alerted to the bottled message. After the chairman (Bernard Fox) calls upon volunteers, the Hungarian representative, Miss Bianca (Eva Gabor) offers to get to the bottom of things. She also chooses the R.A.S’s janitor, Mr. Bernard (Bob Newhart) to partake in her fact-finding expedition.
After some trepidation, a sense of chivalry overcomes the rather timid Bernard and he and Miss Bianca set out to learn the origins of the letter. Their investigation leads first to the Morningside Orphanage where housecat, Rufus (John McIntire) explains that one of their wards, Penny (Michelle Stacy) has run away after being repeatedly disillusioned about the prospect of ever being adopted by a loving family. In reality however, Penny has been abducted by the unscrupulous Madame Medusa (Geraldine Page); owner of a seedy pawn shop with her bumbling cohort, Mr. Snoops (Joe Flynn).
It seems that Penny has the perfect proportions to fit down a tiny crack inside a dilapidated mine shaft to search for The Devil’s Eye – a fabulous jewel hidden by pirates long ago that Medusa hopes to possess for her own. Bernard and Bianca hire Orville (Jim Jordan) the albatross to fly them from New York to the bayou. They are befriended by swamp rat, Ellie Mae (Jeanette Nolan) and her moonshine drinking husband, Luke (Pat Buttram) who loan Bernard and Bianca the use of Evinrude (James McDonald); a dragonfly using a leaf to ferry them across the waters to Medusa’s derelict riverboat.
Unfortunately, after several failed escape attempts, Penny is forced down into the mine. Bernard and Bianca stowaway in her pocket and together this threesome narrowly managed to escape drowning while prying loose The Devil’s Eye from its skull rock resting place. Medusa double-crosses Snoops, holding Penny and him at gunpoint. But Ellie Mae has rounded up the neighbours; rip-roaring Cajun folk who have been waiting a lifetime to inflict their playful revenge on the old gargoyle. In the ensuing chase, Medusa forfeits the Devil’s Eye and is left stranded on a stump in the swamp to watch as her riverboat sinks into its muddy waters. A short while later, Bernard and Bianca tune into a local TV broadcast and learn that Penny has been adopted by a loving family. The Devil’s Eye is now in the Smithsonian.
The Rescuers is a highly enjoyable film and one I fondly recall watching for the first time from the backseat of my parent’s car at the drive-in. More than that, it proved to be the sure-fire smashing success that the Disney organization desperately needed. Viewed today, it must be pointed out that the animation in The Rescuers is decidedly second rate. The drawing style is more akin to Saturday morning cartoon fodder of the day than comparable to the enduring masterworks from the golden – or even the silver – age of Disney animation. Yet, there is great heart infused throughout the piece and this intangible, affecting quality more than compensates for any artistic shortcomings.
Produced on a very tight budget, The Rescuers is briskly packaged with not a lot of room for the sort of exposition and musical niceties we’ve come to expect from the traditional Disney animated feature. That said, the film moves like gangbusters with a lilt and charm all its own. Though lagging in the musical tradition, two songs ‘The Journey’ and ‘Someone’s Waiting For You’, both written by Sammy Fain, Carol Connors and Ayn Robbins and sung with a faraway winsome loneliness by Shelby Flint, are well placed and evoke the distinct melancholy, yet tender hopefulness of our heroine.
For years afterward, audiences hoped for a sequel to The Rescuers. Indeed, in the intervening decade Disney was once again to lapse into an artistic fallow period, mercilessly brought to a close by the unbelievable and long overdue success of The Little Mermaid (1989). So, in 1990 Disney debuted The Rescuers Down Under. The story is set mostly in the Australian outback, a vastness as great as the imagination of Cody (Adam Ryen) the young adventurer of our story. Co-directed by Hendel Butoy and Mike Gabriel, the narrative is almost as ambitious as the visuals; though in retrospect neither manages to eclipse our enduring collective fondness for the original film.
Cody discovers a rare golden eagle, Marahute brutally tied down to a towering stone buttress in the wilderness. Marahute does not speak as other Disney animals frequently do, but is nevertheless sympathetic to Cody’s inquisitive mind and fascination to explore the outback. After Cody frees the bird, she takes him on an exhilarating roller coaster ride through the air, swooping down into the wilds before returning to her nest of eggs high atop a stone cave.
After spending several hours together, Marahute returns Cody to ground level where he promptly falls into one of the animal traps set by vial poacher, Percival C. McLeach (George C. Scott) after freeing a baited mouse from one of McLeach’s hooks. McLeach is a wanted man who employs the ravenous iguana, Joanna (Frank Welker) to do his hunting for him. After spying a single golden feather in Cody’s backpack, McLeach is convinced the boy can lead him to the whereabouts of the great bird.
The freed mouse escapes McCleach’s clutches and through a complicated series of telegraph signals manages to contact Bernard and Bianca in New York. Bernard is nervous about proposing marriage to Bianca, and his feeble attempts are put on hold when the pair is recalled to the Rescue Aid Society to go in search of Cody.  Travelling an all too familiar path from the first movie, Bernard and Bianca employ Orville’s cousin, Wilbur (John Candy) to fly them to the outback. He does and promptly throws his back out, forcing his premature recuperation in hospital.
Bianca and Bernard are taken on safari by Jake (Tristan Rogers), a kangaroo mouse who has eyes for Bianca much to Bernard’s chagrin.  Meanwhile, Cody is introduced to McLeach’s menagerie of captured animals. McLeach tricks Cody into believing that someone else has already killed Marahute and Cody flees the cabin to return to the nest and save Marahute’s eggs with McLeach sneakily following close behind. Thankfully, Bernard has found the nest first and replaced the eggs with stones that not even Joanna can swallow.
A reinvigorated Wilbur arrives at the nest and Bernard convinces him to sit on the real eggs while he goes off to save Cody. McLeach binds and dangles the boy over a river infested with crocodiles, threatening to dunk him. Bernard arrives and tricks Joanna into smashing into McLeach, the two toppling into the raging surf below. McLeach wards off the crocs but is unable to stop himself from tumbling to his death over a great waterfall. The cord of rope suspending Cody breaks, dropping him into the raging rapids and Bernard valiantly dives in to save them both from going over the same falls. In the final moments Bernard proposes to Bianca, who ecstatically accepts his engagement ring.
The Rescuers Down Under is at once a breathtakingly beautiful, yet tragically flawed counterpart to the original film. Visually, it is on very solid ground. Using CAPS – a then new computerized process, the animation cells and backgrounds are digitally coloured, rather than hand painted. This certainly adds a layer of polish to the traditional, and still hand drawn, animation. The film is undeniably imbued with some utterly spectacular sequences. Cody’s initial discover of Marahute and their journey through the clouds showcases some truly complex and innovative motion effects not possible before. The footage is remarkably lifelike and suspenseful. Throughout, The Rescuers Down Under departs from its narrative to provide a showcase of such visual prowess.
But visuals alone do not a good story make, and The Rescuers Down Under is a movie with an utterly flawed narrative. For one thing, the script by Jim Cox, Karey Kirkpatrick, Byron Simpson and Joe Ranft takes much too long to get off the ground. It is a full sixteen minutes before we even see Bernard or Bianca, arguably the stars of our show. Yet, after a few fleeting sequences the two are once again jettisoned in favour of refocusing the story on Cody’s confrontations with McLeach.
Once the pair makes it to the Australian outback more unnecessary complications ensue; Jake’s romantic intensions toward Bianca, Wilbur’s frenzied desire to escape the hospital, Joanna’s frequent mucking up of McLeach’s dark plan. In and of themselves, none of these threads is awful or even sloppily executed. However, none of them ever comes together to drive the plot forward. They are merely vignettes, charming but disjointed nevertheless.
It’s difficult to root for Bernard and Bianca as a couple in this sequel because they are rarely given those private, tender moments to cherish alone. In the original film the pair was represented as two unlikely drifters against the world. They were infrequently separated on the screen and always united in their purpose to rescue Penny. In The Rescuers Down Under Bernard has an almost secondary role in the plot while Bianca is often misplaced in the extreme background. The film also commits one of the great sins any Disney animated feature can – eschewing any sort of musical program in favour of a straight forward action/adventure yarn. In the original film, the two songs greatly set the mood and tone of the story. In place of these, the sequel frequently soars into grandiose orchestral pieces by Bruce Broughton, more at home a la John Williams’ work in the Indiana Jones franchise and completely robbing the narrative of that intimacy desperately needed to make Bernard and Bianca’s world real to us.
Finally, the film unbalances the Disney heritage of having a female antagonist as the villain of the piece. For some reason, male villains rarely measure up and Percival McLeach is no exception. Though George C. Scott amply sneers and grits his teeth, the character is more thuggish than terrifying, somehow less of a villain and much more of a bully. It doesn’t work, because the pint size Cody never entirely fears McLeach as a threat to his own life and therefore, as the audience, neither do we.
In the final analysis, The Rescuers Down Under fails to recapture the magic of the original movie, not because it lacks any genuine qualities of its own, but because it fails to grasp which qualities are best suited for its pint sized characters. The film evokes the stark landscape of the outback, but never quite makes it a fascinating, or even believable place where we might find and willingly accept two mice on a knight’s errand to save a young boy’s life.
Disney Entertainment has squeezed both films onto a single Blu-ray – hardly stretching the storage capacity of the hi-def format. But the results aren’t entirely satisfying either. The Rescuers looks the better of the two with vibrant colours, a sumptuous amount of fine detail evident in background drawing and solidly rendered contrast. Unfortunately, we also get hints of edge enhancement cropping up infrequently throughout this presentation. The same was true for the DVD minting.
There is little to suggest that the studio has meticulously gone back into its own archives to remaster the film from the ground up with newly created elements. They have even left the old reissue ‘Walt Disney’ graphic design ‘castle’ credit on its blue background, not part of the original release but definitely part of reissues and seen on both DVD incarnations from some years back. This logo is still attached at the start of the Blu-ray presentation. But the graphic castle design has long since been replaced by the more regal, computerized representation of Walt Disney World’s Cinderella castle with its digital moat and lake spreading across the foreground.
By direct comparison, The Rescuers Down Under looks less vibrant than the original film; its computer painted landscape appearing washed out and slightly faded. Colours just don’t pop and fine detail frequently seems more video based than film-like. Again, I suspect older video elements were used in the creation of this new 1080p rendering and that’s unfortunate, given the many ample advancements in technology since that might have improved upon this presentation.
Both films have had their audio upgraded to 5.1 DTS, and while this remastering has greatly benefited The Rescuers orchestral and SFX tracks, the Shelby Flint songs still seem to lack in clarity, occasionally experiencing a distracting reverb. Not surprisingly, the sequel’s newer recordings provide more spatial separation.
Extras are also a bit of a disappointment. Virtually everything that’s here was part of the original DVD releases. We get no commentaries, no picture-in-picture feature and only the briefest of self-congratulatory making of featurettes for the sequel; nothing for the original movie. Disney Inc. has padded out the extras with a few vintage short subjects from their True Life Adventures and Silly Symphony cartoons. Overall, there’s nothing to write home about.
One minor complaint related to disc navigation:  the main menu retains exclusive access to the original film only. To access the sequel one must go to the scene menu, after which clicking it brings up a listing for either The Rescuers or The Rescuers Down Under.  Bottom line: recommended – though slightly below par for Disney’s usual commitment to its vintage classics.          
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
The Rescuers 4
The Rescuers Down Under 3

The Rescuers 4
The Rescuers Down Under 3.5


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