Actually, this one, I’ve read the book. Or several of them, anyway; there are nine books by Margery Sharp about these characters. They bear limited resemblance to the finished movie, honestly, but I like them well enough as separate entities. That’s the case for several Disney works of my experience, to be honest. This one is fairly distant, but I know about four or five Disney movies that float in the “well, they’ve got vague outlines in common” spectrum, and sometimes, it doesn’t bother me much.
Miss Bianca (Eva Gabor) is a representative to the Rescue Aid Society. Bernard (Bob Newhart) is the janitor. One day, a bottle is brought in to a Rescue Aid Society meeting. There is a message in it from a little girl named Penny (Michelle Stacy). Until recently, she lived in a New York orphanage; she has now been kidnapped and is held by Madame Medusa (Geraldine Page) and her assistant, Mr. Snoops (Joe Flynn), in a derelict river boat in Devil’s Bayou, Somewhere South. Medusa wants Penny because she’s small enough to go down into a grim, dark hole and carry out the pirate’s treasure, which Medusa believes to include the enormous diamond known as the Devil’s Eye.
This movie falls in the middle of Disney’s more fallow years after the death of Walt. It suffers from some of that era’s failings, including a few real problems with the art. In those days, the studio heavily emphasized xerography, which is responsible for the heavy lines and sketch marks on finished pieces. (And sequences borrowed back and forth from various movies, but that’s not as prominent here as in certain other films.) It was doubtless cheaper and faster, but the finished product suffers.
On the other hand, the credits sequence of this film is really worth noting. A song known as both “The Journey” and “Who Will Rescue Me?” is probably a matter of personal preference, though I’m fond of it. However, we first see Penny slipping out to drop her bottle into the water, then, in a series of rough watercolours, see the path of the bottle as it drifts toward New York and is retrieved by mice. It is not really abstract, but it is less fully narrative than the rest of the movie. It is a collection of impressions, moments in the path of the bottle. What they also do very well in this sequence is provide watercolour backgrounds for Penny’s initial defiance; I honestly think the movie might have been well served if we’d kept those.
Penny ranks very high on the Pathetic Disney Orphan Scale. We know nothing of her parents. However, we see her lamenting in flashback to orphanage cat Rufus (John McEntire) that some people had been looking at her to possibly adopt and decided on another little girl—a prettier one. Penny begs Medusa to take her back to the orphanage, because if she doesn’t go back, she’ll never ge adopted—she doesn’t consider Medusa to have adopted her, and who can blame her? And Medusa’s response is probably the cruelest insult in the entire Disney canon: “Adopted? What makes you think anyone would want a homely little girl like you?”
And yet for all that, Penny is a remarkably resilient little girl. She’s kind and loving to Rufus. She tries, repeatedly, to run away from the boat despite the prowling presence of two large crocodiles, Nero and Brutus (both Candy Candido). When running away doesn’t work, she’s willing to try the message-in-a-bottle route. And when Bernard and Bianca show up, once she establishes that they haven’t brought “anyone bigger” with them, she pitches in to help with her own rescue. She’s a feisty little thing!
However, I’ve always preferred Bernard to Miss Bianca. He’s stuffy and afraid, but she’s always felt to me like another reinforcement of the idea that being strong and independent is fine, provided you are also traditionally feminine. All the male mice fawn over her, pulling out her chair and sniffing her perfume. Okay, Bernard does, too, but he still manages to work hard and be sensible, and those are both qualities I admire even when I’m not great at them myself.
And I don’t care what anyone says; “Someone’s Waiting For You” is better and less saccharine than “You Light Up My Life,” the song that beat it for Best Original Song. Yes, the music from this movie falls into a very specific ’70s aesthetic that isn’t for everyone (along with co-nominee “Candle on the Water” from Pete’s Dragon) that arguably is also where “You Light Up My Life” fits in. I grant you. And goodness knows how the music would have been different had Louis Prima not died during the early stages of this movie, since he was originally slated to work on it. But I like the music fine!
No, this isn’t as obscure as some of the movies on the list, I grant you. However, there’s a certain lonesome feel to it that always strikes me as autumnal. Even though I don’t think there is really fall in the sense I’m imagining in the bayou, that’s still just how it feels to me. Maybe it’s how lonely the movie feels in places; even though I like fall quite a lot, it’s still a wistful season. Homely Penny may or may not be, but wistful? At times, yes, and who can blame her?