The studio takes a bit of a darker turn with its next few films. Based on a series of books by Margery Sharp, The Rescuers centres on mice Bernard and Miss Bianca, members of the international Rescue Aid Society and voiced by legends Bob Newhart and Eva Gabor, and their mission to rescue orphan Penny from the evil, diamond-hungry Madame Medusa. The tale is a return to the heartstring-pulling dramas, like Bambi and Dumbo, that gave the studio its reputation.
With The Rescuers, we see Don Bluth’s biggest contribution to Disney during his time at the studio. The film is Bluth’s only as directing animator, and he was working along such legends as Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston for the last time. While a great blend of old and new talent, a real passing-of-the-torch moment, Bluth’s artistic influence on this film is undeniable. One need only follow up this film with one of Bluth’s famous solo efforts, like The Secret of NIMH or An American Tail to see the similarities. Medusa’s Devil’s Bayou riverboat even bears resemblance to Charlie’s casino in All Dogs Go To Heaven.
Bluth, who spent his childhood tracing and drawing classic Disney characters, worked for the studio off and on while he attended Brigham Young University, absorbing as much as he could from the famed Nine Old Men and working on classics like Sleeping Beauty. After he graduated with a degree in English Literature and spent some years as a Mormon missionary and working in musical theatre with his brother, he returned to a studio much changed. “It had become an empty shell, with the exception of these master animators. Animating stories that couldn’t hold a candle to the films they had contributed to thirty years before,” he told CartoonBrew.com. Bluth couldn’t wait around for the quality and creativity to improve; he left the company in 1979 with two of the studio’s other up-and-coming talents to start his own animation company. While a significant loss for the studio at the time, Bluth’s rival company sparked a healthy competition between the two companies that propelled the excellence of the now-famous Disney Renaissance.
Originally, The Rescuers’ villain was intended to be Cruella de Vil from One Hundred and One Dalmatians. However, the studio was adamantly against anything resembling a sequel. There are definitely similarities between the two wicked women’s character and mannerisms, although apparently Medusa shares more similarities with animator Milt Kahl’s despised ex-wife — his inspiration for the character. Ironically, despite vetoing anything sequel-like for this film, The Rescuers would become the first Disney animated film to get the sequel treatment with The Rescuers Down Under in 1990.
Again, with tiny doses of progressivism, the film’s opening meeting of the Rescue Aid Society features a murine delegate from dozens of countries around the world. An Arab mouse is among those shown arriving at the United Nations and several mice from Middle Eastern countries are visible when Miss Bianca (herself from Hungary) makes her entrance.
The Rescuers was the first successful film for the studio since Walt’s death. It is also the only successful film between The Jungle Book and 1989’s The Little Mermaid, which kicked off the Renaissance. Audiences had waited four years for the next Disney feature and they eagerly ate it up upon its release. On a budget of around $7-million, the film grossed almost $30-million domestically in its first run and has raked in over $71-million in its lifetime. The film also broke the record for opening weekend box office revenue for an animated feature. It held the record until Bluth’s An American Tail in 1986.
Critics were overwhelmingly positive about the film. The New York Times said that while the film doesn’t stack up to the greats like Bambi or Snow White, The Rescuers is “a reminder of a kind of slickly cheerful, animated entertainment that has become all but extinct.” It would seem hope was re-emerging at the studio once more. Little did anyone know, things would still get much worse before they would get better.