Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: With Raya And The Last Dragon, the new SpongeBob movie, and the half-cartoon Tom And Jerry all available this week, we’re looking back on some of the most underappreciated family-friendly animation.
The Rescuers is frequently cited as one of Disney’s darkest animated movies. At the very least, it has the darkest color palette. The last film to be produced with the thick, scratchy-line style introduced in One Hundred And One Dalmatians (the result of a cost-saving process that involved photocopying pencil drawings directly on the animation cells), it is notably short on the sort of bucolic, exotic bedtime-story scenery that has long been a Disney staple. The tones are muted and rainy; the larger part of the movie takes place in a swamp.
The plot—which, atypically, takes precedence over individual sequences—is no grimmer than that of the studio’s fairy tale adaptations. It does, however, lack the spells, sorcerers, and towers that make such stories of abduction or forced captivity palatable. Two little mice, the glamorous Miss Bianca (Eva Gabor) and the stammering, triskaidekaphobic Bernard (Bob Newhart), set off to rescue an orphan girl. She’s been kidnapped by the evil, treasure-seeking pawn shop owner Madame Medusa (Geraldine Page), who is somewhat like Cruella de Vil if she really let herself go. (In fact, in early development, the film was going to feature the One Hundred And One Dalmatians villain.)
For its opening stretch, The Rescuers almost plays like a mystery, as Bernard and Miss Bianca (who work for an international rodent organization called the Rescue Aid Society) seek Penny’s whereabouts. This eventually leads to the Devil’s Bayou, where the girl is being kept on a dilapidated river boat, guarded by Madame Medusa’s trained crocodiles. As in any Disney animated film, there are kooky side characters, most notably an albatross who operates a one-bird airline. Yet the film never oversugars or bounds into its sweetness—this is in fact what sets it apart.
The Rescuers has been regarded as a severely overlooked work ever since the Disney studio’s renaissance period, so it’s worth mentioning that it was actually a huge hit, outgrossing Star Wars in many parts of the world. Unquestionably, it looks to modern eyes like a different Disney—absent of soaring big dreams or songs espousing carefree values, touching and eerie in its finest moments, and as compelling as a story about a small child in a dark, scary place and the efforts of even smaller creatures to rescue her can be. Anyone on whom it left an impression at the right age probably couldn’t phrase it at the time, but a grown-up can say it: It’s the only classic Disney animated film in which the main characters get involved in the story simply because they care.