The film is based on a series of books by Margery Sharp, most notably books The Rescuers and Miss Bianca. While the success was not a match for Disney's earlier works, the film was both critically and financially successful enough to warrant a sequel entitled The Rescuers Down Under, which was released in 1990. It was one of the more critically acclaimed and financially successful films that came out during this time period.
The film begins in an abandoned river boat in Devil's Bayou, where an orphan girl, Penny, drops a message in a bottle containing a plea for help into the river. The bottle is carried out to sea and washes up in New York City and arrives at the pier where the mice discover it.
That following morning, at the United Nations Headquarters, the message is delivered to the Rescue Aid Society. The Hungarian representative, Miss Bianca, volunteers to accept the case and chooses the janitor, Bernard, as her co-agent. That night, it starts to rain as Bernard and Miss Bianca get off the bus and walk on the sidewalk to hide in the post box. After locating where they need to go that was written on Penny's message, they attempt a shortcut through the zoo, only for Bernard to be scared off by the lions and suggests taking the long way as he originally intended. The two visit Morningside Orphanage, where Penny lived, and meet an old cat named Rufus. He tells them about a wicked woman named Madame Medusa who once tried to lure Penny into her car and may have abducted Penny this time.
The mice travel to Medusa's pawn shop, where they discover that she and her partner Mr. Snoops are on a quest to find the world's largest diamond, the Devil's Eye. After failing to ride with Medusa as she headed for the airport to catch the next flight to Devil's Bayou, Bernard and Bianca head to the Pan Am Tower, with the intent being to fly Albatross Air Service to Devil's Bayou. With the help of an albatross named Orville, and a dragonfly named Evinrude, the mice follow Medusa and Mr. Snoops to the bayou. There, they learn that Penny was captured and made to enter a hole that leads down into the pirates' cave where the Devil's Eye is located.
Thanks to Miss Bianca's perfume, the mice attract the attention of Medusa's pet crocodiles, Brutus and Nero. Bernard and Miss Bianca escape and find Penny. The following morning, Medusa and Mr. Snoops send Penny down into the cave to find the gem, unaware that Miss Bianca and Bernard are hiding in her skirt pocket. The three soon find the stone within a pirate skull; as Penny pries the mouth open with a sword, the mice push it out from within, but soon the oceanic tide rises and floods the cave. Miss Bianca, Penny, and Bernard barely manage to retrieve the diamond and escape.
The greedy Medusa steals the diamond for herself and hides it in Penny's teddy bear. When she trips over a cable set by Bernard and Bianca while she's holding Penny and Snoops at gunpoint, Medusa loses the bear to Penny, who runs away with it. Medusa retaliates with gunfire, causing the mice to flee until they are met by Brutus and Nero, her crocodiles. Bernard and Miss Bianca trick them into entering a cage-like elevator, trapping them.
Two of the swamp critters that Bernard and Bianca befriended set off Snoops' fireworks, making the boat sink and freeing Brutus and Nero. Penny and the gang commandeer Medusa's "swamp mobile". Medusa pursues them on Brutus and Nero, viciously whipping the two crocodiles as she does so, but crashes and is left clinging to the boat's smoke stacks with the angered Brutus and Nero attacking below.
Back in New York, the Rescue Aid Society watch TV to hear that the Devil's Eye is given to the Smithsonian Institution and Penny is adopted by a new father and mother while it is implied that Medusa and Snoops have been arrested and imprisoned for kidnapping Penny. Bernard and Miss Bianca remain partners in the Rescue Aid Society's missions and soon after departing on Orville, accompanied by Evinrude, to a new rescue mission.
The film was four years in the making with the combined talents of 250 people, including 40 animators who produced approximately 330,000 drawings; there were 14 sequences with 1,039 separate scenes and 750 backgrounds.
It was the first Disney film that combined the talents of Walt Disney's original crew of story writers and animators (including Walt Disney's "Nine Old Men") with a newer, less experienced crew that Walt Disney Productions had recruited in the mid-1970s.
The film marked the last joint effort by veterans Milt Kahl, Ollie Johnston, and Frank Thomas, and the first Disney film worked on by Don Bluth as an animator, instead of an assistant animator. Other animators who stepped up during production were Glen Keane, Ron Clements, and Andy Gaskill, who would all play an important role in the Disney Renaissance of the 1980s and '90s.
The Rescuers was also the company's first major animated success since The Jungle Book and the last until The Little Mermaid. The film marked the end of the silver age of Disney animation that had begun in 1950 with Cinderella. This also marked the first successful animated film that Walt Disney himself had not worked on.
During the 1960s and early 70s Disney films took on the trend of comedy, rather than story, heart, and drama. The Rescuers marked the return of the animated drama films the studio had previously been known for, such as Bambi and Dumbo. Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston stated on their website that The Rescuers had been their return to a film with "heart" and also considered it their best film without Walt Disney. Also, unique to the animation was the opening credits: this film marked the first time that practiced camera movements over still photographs were used to make the opening credits. Prior to this, the studio had used the cels with the credits motionless over different still backgrounds, sometimes over one single background, as was done in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
The film marked the end of the studio's so-called "sketchy" animation period of the 1960s and 70s. The new xerographic process restored a softer outline that previously was not possible with the technology, which so far only had been able to produce black outlines. This allowed the use of a medium-gray tone and even a purple tone for outlines, such as that used for Miss Bianca.
An audio clip from Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree in which a bee buzzes the "Charge!" theme, was reused for when Evinrude buzzes out the same tune to signal the Swamp Folk to attack. The growling noises made by Brutus and Nero, would then be reused in The Fox and the Hound as the growling made by the villainous black grizzly bear.
- Bob Newhart as Bernard, the male protagonist. He is the Rescue Aid Society's timid janitor and a male grey mouse, who reluctantly tags along with Miss Bianca on her journey to the Devil's Bayou to rescue Penny. It is after then that he is no longer the janitor, but a fellow delegate. He is highly superstitious and dislikes flying.
- Eva Gabor as Miss Bianca, the female protagonist. She is a female white mouse and representative of the Rescue Aid Society from Hungary. She is sophisticated and adventurous, and fond of Bernard, choosing him as her co-agent as she sets out to rescue Penny. Her Hungarian nationality was derived from that of her voice actress, Eva Gabor.
- Geraldine Page as Madame Medusa, a greedy, redheaded, wicked pawnshop owner and the main antagonist of the film. Upon discovering the Devil's Eye diamond hidden in a blowhole, she kidnaps the small orphan, Penny, to retrieve it for her, as Penny is the only one small enough to fit in it. In the end, she is thwarted and presumably eaten by her two alligators, Brutus and Nero.
- Michelle Stacy as Penny, a lonely orphan girl, residing at Morningside Orphanage in New York City. Serving as the deuteragonist, she is kidnapped by Medusa in an attempt to retrieve the world's largest diamond, the Devil's Eye.
- Joe Flynn as Mr. Snoops, Medusa's clumsy business partner, who obeys his boss's orders to share the Devil's Eye. He serves as the tertiary antagonist. Upon being betrayed by Medusa, however, he turns on her and flees by raft. This was Flynn's final role before his death in 1974.
- Jim Jordan as Orville, an albatross who gives Bernard and Bianca a ride to Devil's Bayou. The role was the last for Jordan, who retired after the film's release.
- John McIntire as Rufus, the elderly cat who resides at Morningside Orphanage and comforts Penny when she is sad. Although his time onscreen is rather brief, he provides the film's most important theme, faith. He was designed by animator Ollie Johnston, who retired after this film following a 40-year career with Disney.
- Jeanette Nolan as Ellie Mae and Pat Buttram as Luke, two muskrats who reside in a southern-style home on a patch of land in Devil's Bayou. Luke is particularly known for drinking homemade liquor, which really packs a punch.
- Jimmy MacDonald as Evinrude, a dragonfly who mans a leaf boat across Devil's Bayou, giving Bernard and Miss Bianca a ride across the swamp waters. His name is derived from the Evinrude Outboard Motors company.
- Bernard Fox as Mr. Chairman, a Chairmouse
- George Lindsey as Deadeye, a fisher rabbit
- Larry Clemmons as Gramps, a turtle
- Dub Taylor as Digger, a mole
- John Fiedler as Deacon Owl, an owl
- Bill McMillian as T.V. Announcer
Bernard was inspired by the character of the same name in Margery Sharp's The Rescuers series and much of his personality and character were kept. In the novel Miss Bianca, however, Bernard plays a very minor role.
Penny was inspired by Patience, the orphan in the novel. Mr. Snoops is a version of Mandrake, a character of the book. His appearance is a caricature of animation historian John Culhane. Culhane claims he was practically tricked into posing for various reactions, and his movements were imitated on Mr. Snoops' model sheet. However, he stated, "Becoming a Disney character was beyond my wildest dreams of glory." Brutus and Nero are based on the two bloodhounds, Tyrant and Torment in the novels.
A pigeon was originally proposed to be the transportation for Bernard and Bianca, until animator Frank Thomas remembered a True Life Adventures film of albatrosses and their clumsy take-offs and landings, and suggested the ungainly bird instead.
Originally, Cruella De Vil from One Hundred and One Dalmatians was to have been cast as the villain in The Rescuers, but this idea was dropped since the studio was not interested in producing a sequel to an otherwise unrelated film. She was replaced by Madame Medusa, a retouched version of the Diamond Duchess in Miss Bianca. The two characters share surprisingly few similarities, other than perhaps the tendency to drive recklessly. The motive to steal a diamond originated in Margery Sharp's 1959 novel, Miss Bianca. Her appearance was based on animator Milt Kahl's ex-wife, whom he didn't particularly like. This was Kahl's last film for the studio, and he wanted his final character to be his best; he was so insistent on perfecting Medusa that he ended up doing almost all the animation for the character himself.
Script to novels comparison
The Rescuers is based on novels by Margery Sharp and there are a number of differences between the film and the original work:
- In Miss Bianca (1962), the counterpart of Penny is a different orphan girl named Patience. She is held prisoner and slaved by the Diamond Duchess at the Diamond Palace.
- The setting of Devil's Bayou, a swamp in a fictional uncharted island in the Atlantic Ocean is original to Disney. In The Rescuers (1959), the heroes rescue a Norwegian poet from the sinister and dangerous Black Castle; in Miss Bianca, the action takes place within the Diamond Palace, a seemingly marvelous and majestic structure admired by outsiders. The many diamonds that make up the Diamond Palace possibly inspired the sub-plot of the Devil's Eye, the world's largest diamond, in the film.
- At the palace, Patience is not forced into treasure-seeking. Instead, she is forced to polish the palace's diamonds and clean and maintain the Duchess' wig.
- In Miss Bianca, the Diamond Duchess has a servant named Mandrake, similar to Mr. Snoops. He is cruel to Patience while she is under his care, but in later novels, he is repentant of his behavior with the girl.
- Two vicious bloodhounds named Tyrant and Torment take the place of Brutus and Nero, the crocodiles, in Miss Bianca; they are owned by the Diamond Duchess, but are taken care of by the Chief Ranger.
- The Prisoners' Aid Society was changed to the Rescue Aid Society in the film. In the novels, beginning with The Rescuers, the Prisoners' Aid Society was dedicated to the amusement and entertainment of despairing prisoners, not their rescue. It is Miss Bianca who proposes the actual attempt of rescuing prisoners instead of just entertaining them. In the film, this history is non-existent, for this reason, the society of mice was renamed as the Rescue Aid Society.
- The character of Mr. Chairman does not exist in the novels, instead, there is a Madame Chairwoman.
- Though there are hints of romance between the two protagonists, Miss Bianca and Bernard, in the novels, the former states repeatedly that there could never be anything between them, partly due to their very different social status. In the Disney film, this field was left to interpretation; the characters show a great affection towards each other in the final moments of the film, but the conclusion does not fully imply a romantic bond between the two.
The Rescuers was originally released in theaters on June 22nd, 1977 followed by a release on December 16, 1983, along with a new Mickey Mouse featurette, Mickey's Christmas Carol, Mickey's first theatrical appearance after a 30-year absence. In anticipation of its upcoming theatrically released sequel in 1990, The Rescuers saw another successful theatrical run on March 17, 1989.
The Rescuers premiered on VHS and Laserdisc on September 18, 1992, as part of the Walt Disney Classics series. It was released on VHS as part of the Walt Disney Masterpiece Collection on March 23, 1999. The Rescuers was released on DVD on May 20, 2003, as a stand-alone release; a 35th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray/DVD release with The Rescuers Down Under was released in the summer of 2012.
To tie in with the film's 25th Anniversary, The Rescuers debuted in the Walt Disney Classics Collection (WDCC) line in 2002 (not to be confused with the Walt Disney Classics video series) with three different figures featuring three of the film's biggest stars, as well as the opening title scroll. The three figures were sculpted by Dusty Horner and they were: Brave Bianca, featuring Miss Bianca the heroine and priced at $75, Bold Bernard, featuring hero Bernard, priced also at $75 and Evinrude Base, featuring Evinrude the dragonfly and priced at $85. The title scroll featuring the film's name, The Rescuers and from the opening song sequence "The Journey," was priced at $30. All figures were retired in March 2005, except for the opening title scroll which is still widely available.
The Rescuers was the inspiration for another Walt Disney Classics Collection figure in 2003. Ken Melton was the sculptor of Teddy Goes With Me, My Dear, a limited edition, 8-inch sculpture featuring the evil Madame Medusa, the orphan girl Penny, her teddy bear "Teddy" and the Devil's Eye diamond. 1,977 of these sculptures were made, in reference to the film's release year, 1977. The sculpture was priced at $299 and instantly declared retired in 2003.
In November 2008, a sixth sculpture inspired by the film was released. Made of pewter and resin, Cleared For Take Off introduced the character of Orville into the collection and featured Bernard and Bianca a second time. The piece, inspired by Orville's take-off scene in the film, was sculpted by Ruben Procopio. 750 copies of this sculpture were be produced and priced at a retail price of $399.00.
The Rescuers was highly successful upon its original theatrical release earning $48 million at the box office and becoming Disney's most successful film to that date. According to a Variety Magazine article from 2003, the film made over $169,000,000 at the box office. The film broke a record for the largest financial amount made for an animated film on opening weekend, a record it kept until 1986, when An American Tail, directed by Rescuers animator Don Bluth, broke the record. The Rescuers was Disney's first significant success since The Jungle Book and one of the last successes until The Little Mermaid. However, it should be noted that during that period, Disney films were still financially successful at the box office with the exception of The Black Cauldron.
The film was received with praise from critics and was also well received by audiences. The Rescuers was said to be Disney's greatest film since Mary Poppins in 1964 and that it seemed to signal a new golden age for Disney animation. The film was ranked 20th out of the 48 canon Disney animated features in a 2009 countdown at Rotten Tomatoes, where it currently holds a "fresh" 83% rating.
In his book, The Disney Films, film historian Leonard Maltin refers to The Rescuers as "a breath of fresh air for everyone who had been concerned about the future of animation at Walt Disney's," praises its "humor and imagination and [it is] expertly woven into a solid story structure [...] with a delightful cast of characters." Finally, he declares the film "the most satisfying animated feature to come from the studio since 101 Dalmatians." He also briefly mentions the ease with which the film surpassed other animated films of its time.
Jack Shaheen, in his study of Hollywood portrayals and stereotypes of Arabs, noted the inclusion of delegates from Arab countries in the Rescue Aid Society.
The film received an Academy Award nomination for the song "Someone's Waiting for You", which was nominated in 1978 at the 50th Academy Awards. The song lost to "You Light Up My Life" from the film of the same name.
The songs were written by Sammy Fain, Carol Connors, and Ayn Robbins, and performed by Shelby Flint. For the first time since Bambi, all the most significant songs were sung as part of a narrative, as opposed to by the film's characters as in most Disney animated features.
- "The Journey" (a.k.a. "Who Will Rescue Me?") – Sung during the film's opening credits, the song follows Penny's bottle as it floats out of the Devil's Bayou and into the Atlantic Ocean. The song's repeated line "Who will rescue me?" has led many to believe that the song is being sung from Penny's perspective, but the line, "I'm lost at sea without a friend" confirms that it is actually the bottle singing. For this reason, Shelby Flint is credited as the bottle's "voice".
- "Rescue Aid Society" - Sung by the Chairman (Bernard Fox), Bernard (Bob Newhart) and Miss Bianca (Robie Lester, filling in for Eva Gabor), as well as the various international mouse delegates (the Disney Studio Chorus) during the R.A.S. meeting. A reprise of the plays when Bernard and Bianca begin to lose their faith, and are reminded of the song and its meaning.
- "Faith Is a Bluebird" - Although not an actual song, it is a poem recited by Rufus and partially by Penny in a flashback the old cat has to when he last saw the small orphan girl, and comforted her through the poem, about having faith. The titular bluebird that appears in this sequence originally appeared in Alice in Wonderland.
- "The U.S. Air Force" - Serves as the leitmotif for Orville.
- "Tomorrow Is Another Day" - Sung as Bernard and Bianca travel to Devil's Bayou upon Orville's back. The heartwarming song plays again at the film's closure, as Bernard and Bianca, assisted by Evinrude and Orville, set out on a new rescue mission, thus concluding the film with the lines: "Tomorrow is another day", a very loose homage to Gone with the Wind, which features exactly the same final line.
- "Someone's Waiting for You" - Sung as Penny begins to lose her faith after Medusa cruelly speaks to her. During this segment, the star of faith, that Rufus mentioned earlier lights up the night sky. Bambi and his mother appear during this segment. Various artists, such as Lea Salonga, have covered it.
- "For Penny's a Jolly Good Fellow" - Sung by the orphan kids at the end of the film, a variation of the song "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow".
On January 5, 1999, three days after the film's second release on home video, The Walt Disney Company announced a recall of about 3.4 million copies of the videotapes because there was an objectionable image in one of the film's background cels.
The image in question is a blurry image of a topless woman that appears in two out of the film's more than 110,000 frames. The image appears twice in nonconsecutive frames during the scene in which Miss Bianca and Bernard are flying on Orville's back through New York City. The two images could not be seen in ordinary viewing because the film runs too fast - at 29.97 frames per second on video.
In 1999, two days after the recall was announced, the London press site, The Independent reported:
"A Disney spokeswoman said that the images in The Rescuers were placed in the film during production, but she declined to say what they were or who placed them...The company said the aim of the recall was to keep its promise to families that they can trust and rely on the Disney brand to provide the best in family entertainment."
The Rescuers video was reissued March 23, 1999, with the offending image edited out.
- This is the final film to be directed by Wolfgang Reitherman, as well as the last Walt Disney Classic to be animated by members of Walt Disney's "nine old men". Starting with the following film, Pete's Dragon, the nine people would no longer be involved.
- The New York Metro Station and Times Square is seen during the scenes with Bianca and Bernard.
- This is the first Disney film to feature pop music as opposed to orchestral music.
- This was the first Walt Disney animated feature to inspire a sequel.
- This was Joe Flynn's last film. He recorded his lines as Mr. Snoops only a few weeks before his untimely death on July 19, 1974. The film was released three years later.
- Stock footage of Bambi and his mother grazing in a field can be seen during "Someone's Waiting for You". Some of the birds seen in that film make an appearance as well.
- This is the first time since 1942 where two Disney animated feature films were released the same year (e.g.: The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977) which came out three months before The Rescuers).
- In a scene where Penny was about to make her escape at night, the foliage and trees in front from The Jungle Book is reused.
The sequel takes place in the Australian Outback and involves Bernard and Bianca trying to rescue a boy named Cody and a giant golden eagle from a greedy poacher named McLeach. Both Bob Newhart and Eva Gabor reprised their lead roles. Since Jim Jordan, who had voiced Orville, had since died, a new character, Wilbur (Orville's brother, another albatross) was created and voiced by John Candy.
The film Oliver & Company was also originally supposed to be a sequel to The Rescuers, featuring Penny now living with her adoptive parents and Rufus the cat. However, due to concerns that the story would not have been convincing, Penny was replaced by a similar girl, named Jenny.